Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Twelve teams, twelve questions

Right, I'm sure you're all fed up with me focussing on Caley Thistle's troubles, so let's go back to the Scottish Premiership.  It's still early stages in the summer, but while some clubs have done a fair bit of business others have been relatively quiet.  For each of the twelve clubs I pose a pressing question that needs answered in the weeks ahead...

Aberdeen - what will Derek McInnes do with his big transfer budget?
The Aberdeen manager's decision to turn down Sunderland was an enormous boost to the Dons, though one suspects it may just be a case of delaying the inevitable.  The worry is that last season's second place finish and twin cup final appearances will turn out to be their zenith, especially with Jonny Hayes, Ryan Jack, Niall McGinn and Ash Taylor having departed.  The return on loan of Ryan Christie for another year is a boost, but at the very least they need wingers and another centre-back.  With £1.3million from Celtic for Hayes, plus significant investment in the club from shareholder Dave Cormack, McInnes has a fair bit of cash to play with.  If Aberdeen are to remain the second best team in the country, he'll have to spend it.

Celtic - how far are they from being Champions League-ready?
The Champions have been relatively quiet in the market so far, with only Jonny Hayes coming in; the Irishman is surely seen as a backup rather than a starter though.  Given how far Celtic have come in a single year under Brendan Rodgers, it is possible that the manager believes the players he has have improved sufficiently that they will make a far bigger impact on the European stage this time around.  But it remains uncertain if his centre-backs are good enough to deal with the continent's elite, and a replacement for Patrick Roberts would be nice.  Rodgers has a large budget to spend if he can find the players he wants.  If unrefusable offers come in for Moussa Dembele and/or Kieran Tierney, the loss of either would be a huge blow.

Dundee - can Neil McCann build a top six squad?
The former Sky Sports pundit (eventually) decided to stay at Dens Park permanently, so we'll find out whether all that time on the telly plus three years as a coach at Dunfermline were enough of a grounding for him.  The arrival on loan of Scott Allan seems like a statement of intent, and fellow midfielder Roarie Deacon was apparently quite highly-rated.  But whilst they look strong in the middle of the pitch they still need a partner for Darren O'Dea in defence and a more reliable goalscorer than Faissal El Bakhtaoui or Marcus Haber if they are to get into the top half of the league.

Hamilton - will they be relegation favourites again?
Every season, Accies are favourites for the drop, and every season they prove their doubters (including me) wrong.  But 2016/17 was the closest they've come to returning to the Championship, and they aren't in a position of strength right now.  The defence has been weakened by the exit of keeper Remi Matthews and full-back Giannis Skondras and a long-term injury to captain Michael Devlin  Up front Alex D'Acol has left as well whilst Eamonn Brophy is dithering over a new deal.  At least there are no suitors for Ali Crawford - though that tells you something about the way his form dipped in 2017.  Martin Canning really won't want to rely too much on Massimo Donati (36) and Dougie Imrie (35 in August).  Either he has a lot of signings to make, or he will have to hope the next generation of Academy players are really special.

Hearts - will the summer be enough to get Cathroball working?
Last season's team seemed to find it really difficult to grasp Ian Cathro's ideas...or maybe the players weren't suited to them...or just maybe Cathro's ideas are wrong.  A full preseason of work will tell us once and for all whether the young manager really is a visionary or not.  He hasn't his problems to seek though, with both Arnaud Djoum and Jamie Walker agitating to leave.  With Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson gone already, the Jambos are already in need of reinforcements.  Whilst the return of Christophe Berra is a massive boost to the defence, it'll count for nothing unless the players in front of him can weave the pretty patterns that their boss wants them to.

Hibs - Where do they stand in comparison with other Premiership sides?
Neil Lennon's claims in April that Hibernian were the second-best team in Scotland really should have provoked more derision than they did.  That said, they will be expected to make the top six at the very least, though that will be harder now that Jason Cummings has gone.  Lennon has to revamp the whole forward line given that Grant Holt and Jason Keatings are away too; new signing Simon Murray will work hard but won't score enough goals.  The backline will be better for having Efe Ambrose as a permanent part of it, though a permanent deal for keeper Ofir Marciano is a priority.  And in midfield they'll be fine if Danny Swanson plays like he did for St Johnstone and John McGinn steps up.

Kilmarnock - how good a recruiter is Lee McCulloch?
At the time of writing, Kilmarnock have only seven players aged over 21 under contract; whilst their current crop of youngsters looked increasingly impressive at the end of last season, the club need to make lots of signings simply to make up the numbers.  Lee Clark was widely mocked last summer for signing eleven players on the same day, but it may come to something similar for his replacement.  We shouldn't read anything into the delay in appointing McCulloch as permanent manager - it was simply because he was on holiday - but the lack of activity so far is concerning given the number of players the club have let go in the last few months.  And did his distinguished (until the last few years!) playing career allow him to build up enough contacts to find players...and give him an eye for a good 'un?  We'll find out in the next few weeks.

Motherwell - can they cope without Scott McDonald?
Stephen Robinson has been the busiest of the Premiership managers so far, bringing in six senior players along with youngster Liam Brown as he looks to pull the Steelmen away from the bottom end of the table.  Gael Bigirimana, once signed for seven figures by Newcastle United, is a particularly intriguing signing.  The spree has been triggered by a huge clearout of the squad, but one player the club didn't want to lose was Scott McDonald; the veteran striker looks likely to return to his native Australia.  His partnership with Louis Moult was the best thing about Motherwell in the last two years and he will be terribly difficult to replace.  New boy Alex Fisher finished last season well at Inverness but is a completely different sort of player.  The loss of McDonald's guile may necessitate a big change in tactics.

Partick Thistle - have they peaked?
I'd cheekily predicted Thistle to make the top six in my season previews, and was surprised to be proven right.  Their impressive season was based on an outstanding defensive record, with goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, centre-back Liam Lindsay and defensive midfielder Adam Barton really standing out.  However Lindsay's departure seems inevitable, leaving a big hole to fill.  Whilst no-one else from last year's team is likely to leave, there have been few arrivals - aside from young keeper Jamie Sneddon - one for the future - and erratic winger Blair Spittal it's been quiet at Firhill so far.  Keeping the Jags in the top half will be difficult without further signings, particularly in defence.

Rangers - can they mould all their new signings into a team?
Well, Pedro Caixinha can't claim he isn't being backed.  Rangers have brought in six players already with two more arriving imminently; in total they'll cost around £7million in transfer fees.  Only one, Ryan Jack, is Scottish though.  The others have zero experience in British football.  Whilst asking "could they handle the Scottish winter?" is a bit cliched, it's not entirely unreasonable.  A more pressing matter is whether Caixinha can mould them together into the team he wants, and quickly enough that they can keep pace with Celtic in the early months of the season.  Meanwhile, the squad is now incredibly bloated, and they'll be looking for at least half a dozen of last year's squad will follow Joe Garner out of the door.

Ross County - do they show faith in their youngsters?
Another summer, another star player sold to Burton Albion.  This time it's Liam Boyce who left the Highlands.  The Ulsterman's goals will be missed, but so will his skill and creativity; ultimately last season he was the best creator of chances at the club as well as the best at scoring them.  Irreplaceable?  Maybe.  But the £500,000 transfer fee might help.  It's become standard for benefactor Roy McGregor to fund the signing of a dozen or so journeymen every summer, but County won the Development League last year and their under-20s are well thought of.  Will Jim McIntyre gamble on promoting several of them to his lineup, or will he once again fill the squad with loanees from England and random Dutchmen?

St. Johnstone - business as usual in Perth?
Eventually, St. Johnstone will have a poor season.  Eventually.  Probably.  But they've overachieved for so long that we've ceased to be surprised anymore, and in fact expect it.  So the loss of Danny Swanson won't have fazed anyone at McDiarmid Park, especially after the club signed Stefan Scougall.  Otherwise they are in decent shape again.  The big fear these days is not the loss of a star player, but the loss of manager Tommy Wright; the fact that the Aberdeen job didn't become available will have come as a relief to the Perth Saints.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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