Monday, November 13, 2017

Dundee: stand by your man, or can McCann?

If there was one obvious lesson to be learned from Inverness Caledonian Thistle's relegation from the Premiership last summer, it was this: showing too much faith in a struggling manager is laudable, but it also often leads to complete disaster.

The ability of the manager/head coach/caretaker kept on as the cheap option because of all the money wasted on a Portuguese bloke (delete as applicable depending on the management structure of the club in question) is of course important at any club, but the smaller the club and their playing budget, the bigger the difference that the quality of the coach makes.

Whether through astute tactical acumen or just having an eye for (and contacts to find) a decent player, it can be - to use Caley Thistle as an example again - the difference between being the third best side in the country to being in the division below.  Richie Foran had neither quality.  His predecessor John Hughes couldn't tell the difference between the next Lionel Messi and the next Lionel Blair, but was outstanding at improving the players he inherited, which is why ICT won the cup.  Before that, Terry Butcher displayed little tactical nous beyond "let's get into 'em" but managed to find and attract several gems to the Highlands and create one of the best half-dozen squads in the country.

Of course, Foran had no experience as a manager and precious little as a coach, and within six months it was clear he was out of his depth.  Neil McCann has been at Dundee for a similar period.  Last weekend's defeat at Hibernian was his eighteenth league game since taking over in May, so that's nearly half a season as a sample.  The stats: four wins, two draws, twelve defeats, eighteen goals scored and thirty-four against, fourteen points out of a possible fifty-four.

Now it must be pointed out that McCann was appointed because the Dark Blues were already spiralling hopelessly out of control.  Paul Hartley's last seven matches in charge were all defeats, which means that rotten league record can be extrapolated to fourteen points from twenty-five games, a figure which would normally be acceptable only if the club had picked up one of its once-a-decade points penalties for administration.  So there was certainly something very wrong to begin with.  But can McCann put it right?

Already this season four Premiership clubs have pulled the trigger and changed manager.  Rangers obviously don't belong in a conversation about sides at the bottom, but Kilmarnock and Ross County certainly do, and Hearts were so bad under Ian Cathro (league record: 5 wins, 4 draws, 13 defeats) that they were heading in that direction sharpish.  Both they and Killie, with Lee McCulloch (league record: 4 wins, 9 draws, 11 defeats), had appointed managerial rookies, and they were correctly dismissed because it had become clear that they were out of their depth.

Circumstances at Ross County were rather different; to uninformed outsiders - and there were depressingly many occupying sportsdesks in the central belt - sacking Jim McIntyre just a year and a half after winning the League Cup was scandalous.  Yet County had been honking last season and heavily reliant on Liam Boyce, and despite significant backing McIntyre had brought in lots of players who didn't even remotely look like replacing him.  Much like when they punted Derek Adams a few years earlier, a change had to be made to preserve their Premiership status.

In came Steve Clarke at Rugby Park, and Owen Coyle at the Global Energy Stadium, two coaches with rather excellent pedigree compared to the ones who usually pitch up in the bottom half of the Scottish Premiership.  Both have made very decent first impressions, and have both started getting points on the board.

Dundee had the chance to move for a coach with that experience and calibre at the end of last season, because of course McCann initially declined the opportunity to stay on after seeing the team to survival - which he managed by winning his first two games before the players downed tools for the last two matches, embarrassing defeats to Inverness and Hamilton.  The club made overtures towards St. Mirren's highly-rated Jack Ross that were not welcomed, before McCann had a change of heart and chose not to return to the Sky Sports studio after all.  That initial lack of enthusiasm seemed to bode ill even then.

Still, its not as if he isn't trying.  The dramatic change in playing style shows that.  Last year the plan A was to punt the ball up to Marcus Haber - one could imagine Paul Hartley on the touchline yelling "HIT MARCUS!", Graham Taylor-style - and plan B was, erm, to punt it up to Marcus Haber.  Now there is a conscious effort to build from the back with the goalkeeper rolling it out to the centre-backs when possible.  That goalkeeper, incidentally, is currently Elliot Parish, as longstanding number one and former Scotland squad member Scott Bain has been dropped after a bust-up with the boss.

Falling out with arguably your best player isn't an ideal strategy when confidence is rock bottom.  Neither is passing the ball around at the back.  Inevitably there are blunders which result in cheap goals being given away and heads dropping further.  There is also an element of bad luck.  Dundee's xG conceded from open play is 17.4, well below the real total of 22 goals let in...but that xG is still the worst in the Premiership (thanks to The SPFL Radar for those stats).

At the other end, Haber's recent return to the lineup shows that at least a little pragmatism has been allowed for, as Sofien Moussa, Faissal El Bakhtaoui and AJ Leitch-Smith have all completely failed to be a consistent goalscorer.

There's certainly an overall lack of quality, which is rather concerning given that quantity is not an issue.  No-one, not even Celtic or Rangers, has as many players aged over 21 on their books as Dundee - enough for two starting XIs plus a couple spare, and that's not counting youngsters such as Kerr Waddell, Lewis Spence and Jesse Curran who are very much in the first team picture.  The club's American owners have backed McCann just as they backed Paul Hartley, and not unreasonably they expect at least a top six finish for their bucks.  They missed out on that in each of the last two seasons and will surely do so this time round as well.

Even at this relatively early stage, the name of the game is survival.  There has been surprisingly little chat about the possibility of Dundee being relegated, which is not dissimilar to how things played out at Inverness last year; on paper they seem far too good to go down, but that of course is not how football works.  McCann has also largely dodged criticism so far - possibly protected by his own links within the media?

But they need wins and points pronto.  Sadly for McCann, the upcoming fixture list is not reassuring - a resurgent Kilmarnock at home, then Rangers at home, then Ross County away and Aberdeen at home.  It wouldn't surprise anyone if they didn't win any of those four games...and a failure to do so would surely force the issue on the manager's future.  McCann may be left hoping that they're just keeping his seat warm for him in the Sky Sports studio.

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

No comments: