A poor match on a poor surface at Fir Park was decided by a contentious penalty decision. Motherwell dominated for large parts but were poor in front of goal. Hamilton failed to trouble Darren Randolph in the Motherwell goal despite enjoying some spells of possession.
Motherwell kept the same personnel and shape that brought back three points from Pittodrie in midweek. This meant a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Francis Jeffers and John Sutton in attack. Keith Lasley and Ross Forbes were deployed as carilleros, with Steven Jennings the holding midfielder and Jamie Murphy in the hole behind the strikers.
Hamilton stuck with a back three in a 3-1-5-1 which became 3-1-3-3 when attacking. Gavin Skelton sat in front of the back three and was tasked with man marking Murphy, a job he successfully carried out as Murphy failed to make an impact until later on in the match when he was pushed up front and Skelton moved to left-back. Flavio Paixao and Jim McAlister started deep on either side of midfield but were quick to support Mickael Antoine-Curier and form a three-pronged attack when in possession.
Hamilton’s tactics were to get ten men behind the ball when Motherwell had possession and to hit on the break. McAlister and Paixao were the obvious outlets but were let down by Antoine-Curier who failed to hold the ball up effectively. They started reasonably well with most of their play focused down the left and with Paixao making diagonal runs to join in on that side. However, they failed to create any clear cut chances and their early pressure was short lived.
With a diamond midfield inevitably being narrow, Gavin Gunning and Tom Hateley were expected to get forward and provide width for the home side. Young central defender Shaun Hutchinson was comfortable coming out of the defence with the ball to start off attacks and had an excellent game defensively.
On twelve minutes Motherwell came close to opening the scoring. Forbes cut inside Paixao on the wing and his excellent low cross across the face of goal was narrowly missed by Sutton. Motherwell then began to dominate and managed to pass the ball around well, something manager Stuart McCall has instilled since taking charge, despite the poor surface.
Another chance on half an hour, this time a Jeffers header from a Forbes free-kick, was saved well by Tomas Cerny and it wasn’t long until Motherwell broke the deadlock.
Sutton let a Lasley cross run across him and, in a way that his brother would have been proud of, fell to the ground all too easily. Martin Canning, who has a bad habit of conceding penalties, seemed fairly innocent on this occasion. He did have his hands on Sutton without actually holding him and it was surprising to see Crawford Allan point to the spot. The same player stepped up to send Cerny the wrong way.
A Forbes free-kick from the edge of the box was saved well by the Czech goalkeeper as the first half drew to a close.
Hamilton began the second half in much the same way as they did the first, applying pressure on the Motherwell defence. They should have equalised when Jon Routledge crossed for an unmarked McAlister who headed over the bar.
The game then entered a rather disjointed period in which Motherwell seemed happy to soak up pressure and hit on the counter attack. Billy Reid then made three changes to his side in the space of ten minutes. Gary McDonald and Ali Crawford were straight swaps for the ineffectual midfield pair of James Chambers and Mark Carrington and Nigel Hasselbaink replaced an increasingly frustrated Flavio Paixao, joining Antoine-Curier in attack in a 3-1-4-2 formation.
Two of the substitutes combined almost instantly when Crawford fed Hasselbaink but his shot was well above the target.
Motherwell then made two changes of their own, moving to more of an orthodox 4-4-2, with Forbes and Jeffers leaving the field to be replaced by Steven Hammell and Chris Humphrey. The reason for this was largely defensive for two reasons. Firstly, to neutralise the potential threat of McAlister who had now moved to the right hand side. Having Hammell and Gunning on the pitch meant that they could double up on him whenever he ventured forward. Secondly, because Motherwell now had some natural width in midfield their full-backs were not required to move up the pitch as often.
This forced Hamilton to change their own shape although their actual formation was difficult to pin down for the rest of the match. At first it seemed that they had maintained their back three with Skelton and McAlister as wing-backs, however, Canning would often cover the right back area and allow McAlister to attack. They continued to switch between four and five at the back for the remainder of the match. Skelton was most likely intended to be more attacking yet was unable to due to the threat of Humphrey.
The change in shape from Motherwell brought about all it was intended to apart from the goal that would have ended the match as a contest. In the final twenty minutes they reduced Hamilton to one chance from a set-piece, which Mark McLaughlin blasted high and wide, and created four decent chances of their own. Each one came through Humphrey, whose pace was causing Skelton all sorts of problems, and each one should probably have ended up in the back of the net. The Motherwell winger crossed for Sutton who headed straight at the keeper and Murphy did no better from his two chances. Humphrey then decided to do it all himself after being sent down the line by Hutchinson but his own effort was too high.
Overall this was not the most interesting match tactically. Hamilton can feel slightly aggrieved with the manner in which they conceded. Motherwell deserved the win on chances created, most of which came about after their tactical switch, but were awful in front of goal. Hamilton defended well until they were chasing the game when they inevitably left themselves exposed defensively but will be disappointed at not working Randolph in the Motherwell goal. If Billy Reid can take anything from this match then it is that this formation could potentially be effective in future matches.