The teams served up a decent ninety minutes with no of lack chances and some pretty entertaining football despite the poor pitch, swirling wind and periodical downpours. Stuart McCall gave a first start to Steve Jones on the left side of midfield meaning that Jamie Murphy returned to a more advanced position just off Esteban Casagolda, who was also handed his first opportunity to impress from the start. Tom Hateley and John Sutton missed out after the defeat to Rangers in the League Cup semi-final.
Kilmarnock lost Conor Sammon to Wigan on transfer deadline day but had the talismanic Alexi Eremenko back from suspension. Jamie Hamill missed out due to his red card in the draw against Hamilton at the weekend, so AC Milan youth academy product Willy Aubameyang made his full debut in a lope-sided 4-2-3-1 formation with Rui Miguel the lone-striker. Eremenko was deployed as a trequartista, Aubameyang to the right and Mehdi Taouil to the left, although he often drifted inside and over towards the right touchline.
Motherwell’s shape began as 4-4-2 but with wingers Jones and Chris Humphrey being pushed on and Murphy dropping deep (and often wide) it regularly looked like a 4-2-3-1. Keith Lasley and Steve Jennings sat as deep-lying midfielders allowing the Motherwell wingers to play high up the pitch and take on the Kilmarnock full-backs.
On paper, Kilmarnock should have dominated their 3v2 battle in the central midfield area, however, it was Lasley who dictated play in the first half, linking up well with others around him and allowing Motherwell to effectively carry out their strategy of getting the ball out to their wingers and running at the Kilmarnock full-backs. Murphy also linked play well as Motherwell looked to take the game to their opponents.
Kilmarnock were happy to sit back knowing they had the technical ability to cut Motherwell open on the counter attack. Eremenko displayed just how deadly his final ball can be when he directed a tremendous pass through the centre of the Motherwell defence that found Tim Clancy. His effort was saved and the rebound tapped in by Rui Miguel, however, the flag had already been raised for offside.
The home side also had their chances in the opening stages. A tame effort from Humphrey, who was looking lively, was saved easily by Cammy Bell in the Kilmarnock goal and Casagolda swung at thin air after he found himself in space at the edge of the box following a well-worked move.
After twenty minutes Paatelainen changed his shape to a 4-3-2-1, also known as the Christmas tree, a formation used to great effect by Delio Rossi at Palermo this season. Aubameyang was moved deeper to sit alongside Manuel Pascali and Liam Kelly in a midfield three with Eremenko and Taouil as playmakers – both were given licence to roam across both sides of the pitch. This allowed Kilmarnock to double up on the Motherwell wingers, who had looked dangerous and were occasionally supported by Steven Hammell and Steve Saunders from full-back.
Motherwell dominated possession and created the better chances in the first half, the closest of which came direct from a Humphrey corner. His in-swinger was doubtlessly aided by the forceful wind and Bell was required to stay alert to palm the ball to safety.
A last ditch tackle from Manuel Pascali ensured the match remained goalless at half time. Jones drove past three men, reached the touchline and cut the ball back towards Casagolda, who was beaten to the ball by Pascali. The versatile Italian had moved into central defence after Frazer Wright had been stretchered off with concussion following an unintentional collision with Saunders.
Both teams began the second half with similar shapes and strategies that they ended the first with, yet Motherwell began to dominate more and more. Murphy was now drifting towards the left wing and found himself through on the keeper, albeit from a tight angle, after Momo Sissoko had missed the ball. Bell was quick off his line to block the shot although the better option was to cut the ball back.
Murphy had earlier forced a save from the impressive Bell, who has yet again been called into the Scotland squad, as did a combination of Saunders and Clancy at the near post following a Motherwell corner. A further superb one-on-one save from Jennings kept Kilmarnock level.
Humphrey and Saunders on another occasion were also close to giving the home side the lead in a half they increasingly dominated. Kilmarnock’s defensive and midfield lines were becoming progressively deeper, a factor evidenced in Rui Miguel’s rare touch just outside the Motherwell penalty area which saw him closed down by five opposition players.
Nevertheless, Paatelainen’s strategy from the off was to soak up pressure and hit his opponents on the counter, a tactic which eventually paid off. Motherwell were now more or less 4-2-4 in possession with Hammell and Saunders pushing on more often than they had in the first forty-five.
Kilmarnock pieced together a swift counter attacking move after Hammell had lost possession deep inside the Kilmarnock half. Taouil and Rui Miguel linked up well to send Clancy down the right and his cross was nodded into an open goal by David Silva, who had replaced Aubameyang less than ten minutes previous.
It was a well-worked move by Kilmarnock but Stuart McCall will be seething at the series of errors from his own side in the lead up to the winner. Craigen had been pulled ridiculously out of position by Rui Miguel and even though Hammell managed to recover his position, he failed to get close to Clancy and attempt to block the cross. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph’s positioning was also at fault as he allowed the ball to simply drift over his outstretched arm.
This is not to mention the fact that Silva was completely unmarked and that Kelly would have finished the chance had he not. The game ended with Motherwell exerting even more pressure but they failed to trouble Bell.
With a few minutes remaining, Garry Hay was red carded for a cynical trip on Humphrey in a wide position, a terrible decision that Kilmarnock will surely appeal.
Overall, both teams knocked the ball around well on a poor pitch and in terrible conditions. Motherwell will feel aggrieved that they took nothing from a game in which they dominated, both in terms of possession and chances. Kilmarnock have Cammy Bell to thank for their clean sheet, allowing them to nick the win towards the end, but ultimately it was Mixu’s tactics that reaped the rewards. This strategy, in order to be effective, requires the side to ride their luck at times and a combination of poor finishing and an outstanding goalkeeping performance gave them the platform to head back to Ayrshire with all three points.
Star man: Cammy Bell