Despite each side having at least five fixtures still to play, the SPFA Player of the Year nominees were announced earlier this week. The shortlist consist of Kilmarnock’s Alexi Eremenko, Steven Naismith of Rangers and Celtic pair Gary Hooper and Emilio Izaguirre. All these players are worthy of their nomination, however, since they will be written about extensively elsewhere, I thought it’d be a good idea to look at a few players who have either been unlucky to miss out or else are players I've enjoyed watching this season.
Along with Beram Kayal, Marian Kello is probably the player who is unlucky not to have found himself among the candidates for this year’s award. Goalkeepers, and defenders for that matter, are less likely to win such awards since a lot of their good work often goes unnoticed. Attacking players, that is creators and scorers, are more likely to find themselves nominated for such awards. Of the four nominees, one happens to be a defender, however, Izaguirre is the most effective attacking full-back in the country.
That defensive players are less likely to win may be partly down to the cliché that ‘goals win games’ but Hearts supporters would argue that Kello has undoubtedly contributed to several wins this season. Kello has faced up to three penalties this season and saved them all. The one in the 93rd minute from David Goodwillie earned his side a crucial 2-1 win over Dundee United, who now sit only eight points behind the Gorgie side.
Kello was also part of the Hearts side that racked up seven clean sheets in nine matches between November and January. Added to this, are outstanding performances against Rangers in a 1-0 win at Tynecastle in which he made four quality saves to keep the score at 0-0 and another in Aberdeen that earned his side a point in a 0-0 draw.
Granted, Danny Swanson has only made around twenty appearances this season, more than half of them from the bench, but despite this he has been one of the most exciting players to watch. After an indifferent first half to the season in which Dundee united seemed to draw every week, it is no coincidence that their run of form over the last few months has been accompanied by the return from injury by Swanson and fellow winger Craig Conway.
A change in system from Peter Houston ensued. Whereas the majority of the first half of the current campaign saw United line up 4-4-2 with David Goodwillie and Jon Daly in attack, the return of the two wingers meant that Houston was able to field an extra central midfielder and go with Conway and Swanson flanking Goodwillie in attack in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation. Dundee United then embarked on a run of seven wins in a row and now find themselves with an outside chance of finishing third should Hearts’ poor form continue.
Whereas Conway sticks rigidly to a left wing role, hugging the touchline until receiving the ball and then cutting inside on to his stronger foot, Swanson seems to take up more of a free role. The former Berwick Rangers winger is quick, intelligent with his feet and if he had been fully fit for the entire season, he would surely find himself among the actual nominees for SPFA Player of the Year. Moreover, Dundee United would likely be sitting a lot closer to, if not above Hearts in the table. Swanson’s stand out performance this season was during the 3-1 victory over Aberdeen last month in which he capped a man of the match display with an outstanding goal.
I have a soft spot for Keith Lasley. From what I’ve seen of him this season, he is one of the most intelligent central midfielders in Scotland and when on form, he dictates matches as well as most in the SPL. In the 2-0 victory over Celtic in February, he formed a midfield three with Steve Jennings and Ross Forbes and they completely overran their direct opponents that day. Whereas Jennings sits deepest of the three, Forbes has licence to drift left and is more inclined to join the attack than the other two. Lasley’s role is then to sit somewhere between these two and orchestrate attacks.
As well as this, Lasley is a tenacious player and not afraid to do the dirty work. In the 1-0 defeat to Kilmarnock earlier in the season he almost single-handedly dominated the midfield area as one of two deep-lying central midfield players, allowing Motherwell’s two wingers to play high up the pitch and cause problems for the Kilmarnock defence.
Lasley was deployed as one of two carilleros in a midfield diamond in the most recent Lanarkshire derby. For the first half of this match, even though taking up a role not entirely suited to him, he still performed well, covering a lot of ground and finding himself involved in the few times Motherwell got the ball down and passed it around.
One possible reason as to why his form has ebbed and flowed this season - as well as Motherwell’s form as a whole - is that since Stuart McCall has taken over, he has still not settled on his favoured formation or starting eleven. This is permissible due to the fact that McCall is not long in the job and should be excused for one or two poor performances for the purposes of experimentation, but further to this, his preparations for some matches have been hampered by injuries. None more so than in the more recent defeat to Kilmarnock in which McCall lost Steven Hammell to injury during the warm up and then Steven Saunders only nine minutes into the match.