Hamilton’s 1-0 defeat at Pittodrie on Tuesday coupled St Mirren’s 1-0 victory away to Motherwell last night means that the Lanarkshire club now sit eight points adrift at the bottom of the league, albeit with an extra game to play.
Even though their run of results have been nothing short of dire during the current SPL campaign - two league wins all season (none of them at home) and only eight points from their last twenty-two matches - on recent performances they appear not to be far away from beginning to pick up points and put some pressure on their closest relegation rivals.
With Hibernian’s recent form of three victories in their last three matches, the relegation fight looks set to be battled out between Hamilton and second bottom St Mirren, who will face each other twice before the season is out. As mentioned, St Mirren managed a victory at Fir Park on Wednesday night, however, their form has also been poor and the only goal of that game came courtesy of a terrible playing surface which caused the ball to take an unnatural bounce, giving Motherwell goalkeeper Danny Randolph no chance.
Despite Hamilton’s poor season, they have actually been one of the most interesting teams tactically in recent weeks. Billy Reid has persisted with three central defenders for most of the season but has recently moved away from a back five towards a 3-1-3-3 formation whilst in possession, 3-1-5-1 without it, similar to that used by Greece during their Euro 2004 success. This is how Hamilton lined up against Motherwell on Saturday:
The formation means that they always have at least one spare man at the back and are never overrun (in terms of numbers anyway) in midfield. The tactics are working defensively: they aren’t conceding too many goals, haven’t conceded from open play during their last two matches and have only come undone by two contentious penalty decisions.
As mentioned, they are now playing with one player in front of the back four, Gavin Skelton, with five across the midfield just in front of him. When they regain possession the two widest players – against Motherwell it was Jim McAllister and Flavio Paixao, whereas against Aberdeen it was Flavio Paixao and Dougie Imrie – race forward to join Mickael Antoine-Curier in attack and form a front three. On their day these players, especially Imrie, can create and score goals and Antoine-Curier has also shown that he can put the ball in the net if given the service.
It is scoring goals as opposed to conceding them that is Hamilton’s downfall at the moment and if Reid could just get a bit more out of his front three then they would start picking up points and getting closer to St Mirren. The problem for Hamilton as I see it is that they play with three central midfielders, a sitting player behind them and wingers. Against Motherwell, Hamilton started with a central midfield three of James Chambers, Mark Carrington and Jon Routledge and each one of them held their position throughout the match, apart from covering the flanks when their side conceded possession high up the pitch.
One way of possibly resolving this would be to play one of the three in a more advanced role, linking play between defence and attack, or else fielding a more attacking player instead of one of them. With Skelton just behind the midfield, Hamilton would still either match up man for man in central midfield against, say, the 4-2-3-1 of Hearts or else have a man advantage when lined up against a 4-4-2, such as that of Aberdeen. When defending against Motherwell they had their back three to contend with John Sutton and Francis Jeffers, Skelton man marking Jamie Murphy and this still left the five across the middle to deal with Keith Lasley, Steve Jennings, Ross Forbes and the advancing full-backs. With Jennings sitting so deep in the Motherwell midfield, Billy Reid could have afforded to field a more attacking player in the central midfield area and not leave himself overmanned there.
Hamilton have lost some top quality players since last season with James McArthur and James McCarthy moving to Wigan and Brian Easton returning to Burnley after his loan spell and Billy Reid has had neither the cash to replace them nor the same quality coming through the youth ranks. In spite of this, Hamilton are still within touching distance of St Mirren and should not be written off just yet.
Hamilton were in trouble towards the end of last season, granted not as desperate a situation, yet ended up finishing as one of the form sides of the SPL. Those feats will most likely not be repeated but with the way they are currently playing, two matches against St Mirren still to come and slightly easier fixtures to come post-split, they may just surprise a few people and make this relegation battle all the more interesting.