Monday, October 22, 2018

Thoughts from the Championship - 22/10/18

Falkirk at least have an excuse to change goalkeeper
Sending out new signing Prince Buaben with his name spelt 'BURBAN' on the back of his shirt really doesn't help dispel the general feeling of incompetence surrounding Falkirk at the moment. But in the hostile Cappielow atmosphere, stoked by Morton's feelings of betrayal towards Ray McKinnon, the Bairns gave as good as they got in the first half; whilst Gary Oliver hit the post for the hosts, Zak Rudden - who looks like a real prospect - should have scored for Falkirk.

Sadly it all went wrong in the second period. Too often this season Leo Fasan has cost his team goals (not that he's the only one) but the keeper had a terrible moment of madness as Michael Tidser raced through on goal. Had he charged out he might have got to the ball first, but instead he hesitated and then found himself outwith his penalty area as Tidser got control of the ball. The seasoned midfielder did the clever thing by taking it round the goalie, who brought him down and earned an inevitable red card. It was curious that McKinnon claimed afterwards that experienced ref John Beaton had called it a handball - it clearly was a foul, but not a handball, and Fasan certainly didn't help himself by looking as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo. After that it was a siege until Bob McHugh finally nicked a deserved winner for the home side.

Fasan's upcoming suspension should mean that David Mitchell, who made some decent saves in relief, should finally get his chance to stake a claim. It will be interesting to see if there is a sharp drop in the number of cheap goals conceded as a result.

Billy Mckay is firing on all cylinders
Josh Mullin justifiably got the plaudits for a terrific - and ultimately decisive - solo goal in Dingwall. It was Mullin's sixth goal since moving north in the summer and if the wideman has any regrets about leaving high-flying Livingston it isn't showing.

Mullin's exploits did somewhat overshadow those of County's other goalscorer. Billy Mckay's opener was a lovely snapshot half-volley into the top corner, the instinctive finish of an on-form striker. And that is what Mckay is. He has scored five in his last three games now and looks increasingly like the forward who used to score for fun in Inverness...and his teammates now seem capable of creating chances for him to feast on. If the Northern Irishman is indeed back to his best, he will score a hatful this season and get his team promoted in the process.

You can't miss Lyndon Dykes
It's hard to miss Lyndon Dykes at the best of times now that the Australian has turned himself into a peroxide blonde, but the Queen of the South man drew attention for plenty of other reasons at East End Park. Best known as a forward, Dykes has increasingly been used in central midfield this season and the combination of size, strength and speed that he offers in that area is quite scary - even more so as he gets more familiar with the position.

On a day where the Doonhamers sat in and frustrated the Pars for long periods, Dykes did a great job breaking up more so than to set up the visitors' smash-and-grab winner for Josh Todd by winning the ball back with a shoulder-barge on Malaury Martin which was simply filthy. It would be easy to be overshadowed by Stephen Dobbie but in both looks and actions Dykes is very hard to miss.

Partick Thistle need to find goals from somewhere
The figure in the dugout may have changed, but it was the same old story for Partick Thistle on their travels - a fifth consecutive league defeat away from Firhill that leaves them third from bottom and just two points better off than their conquerors Alloa. Thistle have scored three times in those games - but all were consolation goals in defeats at Dundee United and Inverness. In fact it's one win in seven in all competitions and the lack of confidence was plain to see at the Recreation Ground.

A goal threat would help a bit. Thistle's forwards have a total of one league goal between them this season and Miles Storey, who has started all ten of their league games, remains barren. The introduction at last of Souleymane Coulibaly, who made his debut on Saturday as a sub, brings some hope; admittedly, the Ivorian looked really rusty but with Storey looking like a lost cause and Kris Doolan possibly a fading force Thistle need him to get up to speed quickly if they are to salvage their season.

Laszlo might actually have left Dundee United in decent shape
Csaba Laszlo will not be mourned in the slightest by supporters of Dundee United, but his legacy may prove a bit less toxic than expected. The Hungarian probably wouldn't have got the best out of them, but his last two signings have made a real difference to the Terrors at both ends of the pitch. Rachid Bouhenna has looked solid at centre-back and will only improve with more game time, while Pavol Safranko has impressed up front, keeping Nicky Clark and Craig Curran out of the team. His aerial prowess showed up again with a bullet header to score against Caley Thistle and he did a great job of leading the line alone again - which in turn allows United to play a bunch of creative midfielders who can provide him with ammunition.

The Slovakian may be the best thing Laszlo ever did for United, though it will be Robbie Neilson who reaps the benefits.

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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The stats suggest the Premiership title is up for grabs

For those of us bored to tears by Celtic's seven consecutive and pretty much unchallenged titles, and who grew up during the era of Rangers' nineties nine in a row, the current Scottish Premiership table makes for good reading.

League Table

Scottish Premiership

8St Johnstone8-118
11St Mirren8-134

Hearts lost at Ibrox last time out but they're still top, and with Hibernian just behind them. The SPFL are going to have a real headache after the split this season, as they work out when to schedule the Edinburgh derby title decider.

I jest, I jest. There are thirty league games left. That's plenty of time for a return to the status quo. It's just a blip.

Or is it?

Steve Clarke celebrated a year as Kilmarnock manager this week. Remembering they were bottom of the league when he took over in October 2017 - and had won their first league game of the season only two days before,  under caretaker management - I went and looked at his stats for those 12 months in charge.

You've got to say that's pretty impressive. For comparison, his three predecessors (Lee McCulloch, Lee Clark and Gary Locke) won 21 league games between them...out of 99. Clarke is the first Kilmarnock manager with a win percentage above 45% since Willie Waddell, who led them to their only title in 1964-65.

Then for interest, I thought I would compare Clarke's record between October 2017 and now with other clubs.

That's over a 37 game period, so not quite a full league season's worth. But that is quite a big sample size. And in that sample, Killie have more points than everyone except Celtic...and, er, Hibs.

Hibs? Yeah.

Because it turns out Hibs have been terrific too. For a whole year - in 2018 they have lost only three league games, away at Celtic, Hearts and Livingston. Despite losing John McGinn in August they've kept going and their 6-0 annihilation of Hamilton Accies was frighteningly good.

A league table for the whole of 2018 so far would look like this:

Hibernian 49
Kilmarnock 49 (played 1 game extra)
Celtic 47
Rangers 44
Aberdeen 42
Hearts 38

Heck, Hibs have scored fifty league goals than anyone else - only Rangers (fifty-two) have more - and have the joint best goal difference (with Celtic, +25).

That isn't a blip, not at all. That's sustained success.

And you know, it's actually Hearts who are top of the league.

Of course, as I stated earlier, there's plenty of time for things to reset to the default. Celtic have such an advantage both in quality and depth and over a whole season that tends to shine through. And in resource terms, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock aren't even fighting at the same weight as Rangers, let alone their neighbours.

But the conditions for a diddy team title challenge have not been this favourable for a long, long time. Both Celtic and Rangers have to battle on multiple fronts because of their Europa League progress. Aside from international weeks, neither have a free midweek until just before Christmas. With Rangers still a bit short on numbers and Brendan Rodgers seeming to lack trust in his backup players, there's a real chance of fatigue setting in.

And whilst their wage bills are dwarved by those at the other end of the M8, both Edinburgh clubs have put together teams that are far closer in quality to Celtic's for a long, long time. Sure, part of that is down to Celtic stagnating a bit, but most of it is due to the excellent work down by Hearts and Hibs.

So whilst it is understandable that Celtic are still massive odds-on favourites - 1/4 with most bookies - to win the title, since when has there even been a 20% chance that they wouldn't do so?

Miracles do happen. And, even better, perhaps a miracle is no longer needed for there to be a proper title battle in Scotland.

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.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Israel embarrassment leaves Eck in shoogly peg territory

The natural instinct of the football fan is of course knee-jerk reactivity. A big win? Everyone's a genius. An embarrassing defeat? Sack the manager, drop everyone and play the youth team.

So when my gut feeling after a result is as black and white as that, I try to repress it. Resist the urge to put out a Twitter call for heads on a plate, I tell myself. Sleep on it, then re-evaluate the situation the next day.

But after a performance like Scotland's in Tel Aviv, the lust for bloodshed has barely weakened after a good night's kip.

One hopes that Alex McLeish gave Allan McGregor a big hug after the game, because the Rangers goalkeeper made a string of saves to keep the score down. That was the sort of awful performance that can get a manager sacked, but luckily for McLeish the 2-1 result doesn't look dreadful on paper. Make no mistake, there are plenty of parallel universes out there where Israel scored five or six and he got his jotters before boarding the plane home. It's safe to say there are none in which Scotland kept a clean sheet and returned with three points.

Scotland were an absolute shambles in every area of the pitch, but nowhere more so than in defence. McLeish has hung his hat on playing a back three, sticking with it through friendly defeat after friendly defeat, but it is clear that practice has not made perfect. In fact he is committing the cardinal sin of management - making the team far less than the sum of their parts. Out of the back five that started (and Scott McKenna who came on at half-time), only John Souttar has much experience playing in a back three and even he doesn't do so every week.

If it is all about shoehorning both Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the team (I'm not convinced it is, as I think Tierney certainly has the tools to play centre-back) then as Robertson himself stated post-match they are both being played out of position and struggling because of that. Robertson and fellow full-back Stephen O'Donnell both look completely uncertain of their positioning, with both constantly caught too high up the pitch or sitting far too deep, unable to find a happy medium.

At least Robertson's pace and ability often got him out of trouble; O'Donnell had the sort of night that could lead to him being taken somewhere safe where he can be researched by 'top men'. (This may be the first and last time I try to make a Raiders Of The Lost Ark joke in a blog)

Further up the pitch there is plenty of reason for concern too. The 3-5-2 system pretty much makes it impossible to fit two of the country's most on-form players, Ryan Fraser and James Forrest, into the lineup as there is no obvious place for a wide forward. It is also far from the best way to utilize the country's best striker by miles, Leigh Griffiths.

Talking of Griffiths, his decision to pull out of the squad was on the face of it quite troubling, and I bet I wasn't the only person who had a few cynical thoughts when Fraser, hung out to dry as a left wing-back in the friendly against Belgium last month, withdrew too. Given that James MacArthur and Robert Snodgrass have made the curious decision to step back from international football, one worries this is a sign of players railing against the manager.

For all his faults, Gordon Strachan was remarkably good at keeping the players onside even when they weren't playing. The number of call-offs at the moment feels reminiscent of the Burley and Levein eras. Those really, really weren't good eras.

The big factor in Big Eck's favour right now is that Scotland are actually still top of their Nations League group, and will surely win it with a win and a draw from the final two games. And given that those games are next month there is no way the plug will be pulled on him right now.

The flipside is that failure in those matches really does put him in an untenable position. With Scotland certain to be seeded third or lower for the European Championship qualifiers, there is a decent chance they might be drawn in a group where second place would be extremely difficult to achieve. Therefore they need the option of qualifying via the Nations League. Besides, whilst Albania and Israel are no mugs, failing to finish top of a group with those two, with the squad currently available to him, would be catastrophic.

Moreover, McLeish has no capital at all with the Tartan Army. They have long memories and remember all to well how he used the Scotland job the first time round to rebuild his reputation and then jumped ship for Birmingham City at the first opportunity. And of course he wasn't the first choice to replace Strachan, only getting the post after Stewart Regan botched the pursuit of Michael O'Neill; McLeish's appointment stank of panic back then and time has only reinforced that view.

Of course, he wasn't appointed under the watch of current Chief Executive Ian Maxwell, who could well use that as his pretext to make a change in the winter if next month proves as farcical as last night. If McLeish isn't in 'shoogly peg' territory already, then he should be.

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.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Takeaways from the Championship - 30/9/18

Life after Laszlo begins now
Dundee United fans had predicted a day like this for a long time. Recent results may have been acceptable, but sooner or later a half-decent opponent would rip up the facade and show them for what they really were. Whilst Ross County were far better than 'half-decent', in truth they only needed to be two things - professional and ruthless - to annihilate United on their own patch. Whether bad attitude or low confidence (or both) were to blame, this was the sort of result and performance that gets managers the sack...and so it proved.

Chairman Michael Martin might have pulled the trigger early enough to save their season, what with twenty-nine league games still to play. However by waiting till the end of September, and backing Csaba Laszlo until then with whatever funds he requested, his successor faces the tricky task of moulding a coherent team out of the bloated squad Laszlo has left behind. Given 14 players were signed in the last transfer window and further funds will have been used up to 'mutually consent' the Hungarian, there's surely not much cash left lying around.

And with the failure of both Laszlo and Ray McKinnon to get this side looking like anywhere near the sum of their parts, Arabs will fear that whomever sits in the dugout is somewhat irrelevant, and United are simply a broken club that needs overwhelming change in every facet.

Injuries limit Johansson's impact at Morton
Talking of managers inheriting someone else's squad, we come on to Jonatan Johansson at Morton, whose second game in charge, and first at Cappielow, ended in a catastrophic 5-1 defeat to Ayr United. And yet in plenty of parallel universes - ones where Michael Tidser either scored the penalty at 1-1 to give Morton the lead or handed responsibility over as he was clearly injured at that point - Morton would have won the game.

Johansson actually has a decent nucleus to work with; the trouble is that there isn't much else. The loss of Tidser and veteran midfielder Chris Millar to injury in the second half led to an almighty collapse in which Ayr scored four times in the last 15 minutes. It's the side-effect of the time taken to install Ray McKinnon in the summer, which led to many senior players walking rather than waiting to see if they would get new deals. McKinnon did a remarkable job to build as good a squad as he did, but inevitably there is a lack of depth.

And with Tidser and Millar joining striker Denny Johnstone on the treatment table, Johansson's focus now has to be on just getting a team out there rather than introducing his own ideas. It looks like the next little while could be quite a maangerial baptism for the Finn.

Aidan Connelly's last chance to shine?
One wonders what Aidan Connolly thinks of Andrew Robertson's career progression. The winger, a year younger than Robertson, played with him at Queen's Park and joined Dundee United at exactly the same time. Robertson of course has gone on to play in a Champions League final and become Scotland captain. Connolly drifted out of the United team after Jackie McNamara left and ended up at Raith Rovers, York City and now Dunfermline. His current career high point is scoring the winner in the FA Trophy final.

Since returning to Scotland in the summer, Connolly had mostly been utilized only as an impact sub even as the team struggled for form and flair. But he has started the last two games and most crucially popped up with the winner against Partick Thistle on gaelic telly on Friday night. That result could kickstart Dunfermline's season; both they and Connolly, still only 23, will be hoping it can kickstart his too.

Queen of the South find success by keeping it Semple
Highlights were few and far between at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, aside from a fine array of tricks and flicks from elder statesmen Stephen Dobbie and Gary Harkins (the latter's humiliation of Sean Welsh in the second half, where he nutmegged the ICT midfielder but allowed him to catch up with him 20 yards further up the field so he could skin him and leave him on his backside, will live in the memory). Queen of the South set themselves up to defend deep and stifle the home side with Kyle Jacobs man-marking Liam Polworth for long periods, largely eliminating the duo from the game.

Despite this, Caley Thistle would still have expected to offer more in attack but their linkup play was utterly ineffective. The main reason for this was an outstanding showing from central defender Callum Sample, on loan from Sheffield United for the season. Only 20 last month and far from fully developed physically, Semple was expected to struggle against the bigger, stronger and more wily Jordan White, but blanketed the target man completely and in the process prevented Inverness from being able to utilize White to hold up and lay off the ball. His positional sense was also on show with a crucial late clearance from his own six yard box.

Whilst Dobbie justifiably is hogging the headlines, there are signs that the Doonhamers are quietly developing a very useful young defender.

Alloa need to find goals from somewhere
Jim Goodwin was not in a magnanimous mood on Saturday evening, to say the least; he derided Falkirk for "embarrassing" time-wasting and was also furious that Falkirk's second goal had been given. There was certainly grounds for anger about the latter, as referee Steven Kirkland was well positioned to see Zak Rudden knock the ball over the line with his left arm and yet somehow didn't see it (the Falkirk TV footage, almost mockingly, shows the GoPro footage of the indiscretion).

That said, Falkirk were deserved winners as Alloa offered very little again in an attacking sense. They now have three league goals this season - a fortunate deflection and a penalty at Inverness, and a direct free kick against Dundee United - which is a pretty dire record. They may still be above Falkirk on goal difference, but it feels like only a matter of time until that changes and the Wasps end up in bottom spot.

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.