Dunfermline marked their return to the SPL with a 0-0 draw at home to St. Mirren. Jim McIntyre lined up his side in a 4-4-2 formation with David Graham and Joe Cardle flanking Martin Hardie and Gary Mason in midfield. Jason Thomson made his debut at right-back after a loan move from Hearts and John Potter and Paul Gallacher both made their second debuts for the club against their most recent previous employers. Steven McDougall was preferred to Andy Barrowman in attack.
Danny Lennon gave debuts to Steven Thompson, Gary Teale, Jeroen Tesselaar and Nigel Hasselbaink. Their formation was somewhere between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 depending on the position of Paul McGowan. Teale and Hasselbaink began on the wings and switched regularly throughout the match. Jim Goodwin patrolled the area in front of the back four, allowing the St. Mirren full-backs the licence to push on.
St. Mirren dominate
St. Mirren completely dominated the first half, doing everything right except find the net. In an interview before the match, Lennon expressed his willingness to instil a passing approach, pointing out that he had signed players who are comfortable in possession. This approach was evident throughout the match as St. Mirren routinely passed it out form the back and kept possession well. Hasselbaink, McGowan and Teale were all finding space between the lines and the away side really should have done better with a few early opportunities, especially given how shaky Gallacher was looking in the Dunfermline goal.
To add to their frustration, Thompson passed up the opportunity to open his account with his new club when Gallacher denied him from the spot but despite their inability to score, St. Mirren can be pleased with their overall performance. David van Zanten and Tesselaar got forward to support attacks and the movement of the front four was superb: Thompson would often pull deep and wide, Hasselbaink would cut in from whatever wing he found himself on, Teale would look to drop deep to collect the ball and McGowan was given something of a free role.
St. Mirren not only dominated possession, they worked so hard off the ball that they stopped Dunfermline from building any momentum. Hasselbaink and Teale were quick to close down the Dunfermline full-backs, who were rushed into direct passes down the channels, almost all of which were inaccurate. Other than this, the home side’s only strategy was for the goalkeeper to hit Hardie with long balls.
It was perhaps surprising that Dunfermline manager Jim McIntyre decided to set up in a 4-4-2 formation. He too articulated his intention to retain a passing approach in an interview during the close season. However, the fact that he chose to go with two banks of four and two strikers, therefore conceding the midfield battle, suggests that his strategy, initially at least, was to soak up pressure and hopefully catch their opponents on the break.
Their set up in opposition to St. Mirren’s meant that they were met with the classic problem of the 4-4-2 versus a three men central midfield: a man disadvantage in the centre of the pitch. The fact that neither of Dunfermline’s strikers looked to drop deep and help out only perpetuated the problem. Further, the presence of Hasselbaink and Teale pushed high up the pitch meant that the Dunfermline full-backs could not advance and help out the midfield as much as they’d like to.
As the half progressed Dunfermline became deeper and deeper as a unit and whenever they regained possession they struggled to find any sort of out-ball. This, again, was partly due to how hard St. Mirren worked off the ball.
Dunfermline’s second half changes
The second half continued in much the same vein as the first, St. Mirren dominating possession but struggling to find the net. They came close through efforts from Teale and Thomson early in the second half but struggled to create anything clear-cut after that.
As the half wore on it seemed that St. Mirren were beginning to run out of steam and McIntyre responded by making a few substitutions. The first change was to bring on Barrowman for the ineffective McDougall, a straight swap which did little to change their set-up.
With around twenty-five minutes remaining, McIntyre then introduced Paul Burns for Graham, which at first seemed like it may have been another straight swap but in actual fact, Burns positioned himself closer to the centre circle than Graham had, and with Jason Thomson now pushing on from right-back, this meant Dunfermline were now effectively matching up 3v3 in the centre of midfield.
McIntyre now sensed that his side could potentially snatch the victory and made his final change, withdrawing Andy Kirk in favour of Ryan Thomson, another holding midfielder. This meant that Dunfermline were now lined up 4-2-3-1 and this coupled with St. Mirren’s growing lethargy (it was surprising that Lennon made no substitutions at all) meant that Dunfermline enjoyed their best spell of the match.
Dunfermline were completely outplayed in this match until McIntyre switched their formation and matched St. Mirren man-for-man in the centre of the pitch. It is surprising that this wasn’t noticed and responded to earlier but, as alluded to earlier, perhaps the strategy was to hold a deep defensive line, remain compact and then go for the victory late on.
If so then it is a very risky strategy to say the least. St. Mirren carved out many opportunities and should have had the lead through Thompson’s penalty kick.
St. Mirren were very unlucky not to win and if last night’s performance is anything to go by then they will likely achieve their highest finish since their return to the SPL. Lennon has brought some exciting attacking talent to the club. Thompson looks an excellent signing despite his penalty miss and his height, strength and first touch looks like it will be complimented nicely by the pace (with the exception of Teale) and trickery of the three just behind him. The real test for St. Mirren will be how their defence and goalkeeper cope against better opposition.