The upcoming SPL campaign will see Dunfermline Athletic make their return after a four year absence. The Pars deservedly won promotion after spending the vast majority of the season in the top two positions of the First Division, before hitting a rich vein of form in the closing months. In the end they finished ten points clear, only lost one home match all season and accumulated more points away from home than anyone else.
As we have seen in the most recent SPL campaign, the promoted side can often catch the other teams unaware and string together an impressive run of results, which, given that there is only one relegation spot, can all but ensure SPL survival going into the second half of the season, even when the side inevitably hits a poor run of form.
The team referred to are of course Inverness Caledonian Thistle who, under Terry Butcher, continued their impressive unbeaten away record, stretching it over an entire calendar year which included coming from two goals behind to draw at Celtic Park. When this type of scenario unfolds, it is usually down to the side carrying on the form and confidence, harbouring that winning mentality, that got them promoted in the first place. If Dunfermline can maintain their form from the tail end of last season and carry it into the new season in the same way Inverness managed to, they will be certain to avoid the drop.
Relatedly, something may also be said for sticking to the same system and strategy that brought about promotion. In recent English Premier League seasons, newly-promoted Burnley, and latterly Blackpool, have shown that sticking to the same enterprising football that earned promotion, as opposed to reverting to a more solid, defensive strategy, can reap rewards. Both sides were eventually relegated in their maiden season in the Premiership, however, both enjoyed a terrific first half to their respective seasons and did not learn their fate until the final day. Furthermore, even though both were relegated it should be noted that they had three relegation spots to avoid to the SPL’s one.
The converse, also apparent in recent SPL campaigns, is for a side to struggle initially but then slowly find their feet, hit a decent run of form at a certain point in the season and avoid relegation relatively comfortably. Despite winning three of their first five matches on their return to the SPL, a run of only one win in thirteen saw Hamilton rooted to the bottom of the table by the end of November in the 2008/09 season. The Lanarkshire side then embarked on a string of results which saw them win six of their next eight matches which ultimately saved them from the drop. A similar example can be found with Derek McIness’s St. Johnstone who, in the 2009/10 season, managed only one win in their first nine before hitting a run which saw them lose only three matches between December and March.
Not since Gretna in the 2007/08 season have a side won promotion and then instantly been relegated again. Since then Hamilton, St. Johnstone and Inverness have all survived their first year in Scotland’s top flight.
So it remains to be seen whether Dunfermline will be able to carry their momentum from last season or whether they will struggle initially, heaping on the pressure to start finding results from somewhere. One thing is for sure, they already have a huge amount of SPL experience amongst their ranks. Of last season’s contingent, Andy Kirk, Chris Smith, Austin McCann, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Calum Woods, David Graham and Martin Hardie have all had spells in the top flight, while summer recruits Paul Gallacher and John Potter have a wealth of SPL experience between them.
I would love to be able explain theformations and strategies employed by Dunfermline manager Jim McIntyre last season but unfortunately I didn’t get to see them play. Instead I will extrapolate what I can from the reports from John Maxwell’s wonderful Ross County Tactics website.
Dunfermline 3 Ross County 2 16.10.10
In this match, Dunfermline lined up 4-4-2 with one winger, Willy Gibson - who has since been sold to Crawley Town – higher up the pitch that the other, Joe Cardle. The home side were allowed to build from the back but lacked anyone from midfield to drop deep and aid the transitions to attack. This was due to the two central midfield players, Steven Bell and Gary Mason, pushing on simultaneously which meant that, when out of possession, Ross County’s Michael Gardyne was able to exploit the space left between the lines.
Dunfermline will not get away with this in the SPL. All the top sides, and most of the others, have players that play in this area and capitalise on any space found there. You only have to look at the scoring records of the likes of Steven Naismith, Kris Commons and Rudi Skacel over the past season, as well as the performances of Alexi Eremenko and Danny Swanson for this to become apparent.
Another interesting feature of this match was Andy Kirk’s tendency to drift left during counter attacks, to receive the ball and cross towards the back post, which brought about two goals. Dunfermline will likely play on the counter attack when away from home, something Inverness Caley Thistle managed to great effect last season, and clever off-the-ball movement will be key to capitalising on these.
Ross County 0 Dunfermline 0 22.02.11
Here, Dunfermline did switch to a central-midfield-three with two wingers pushed high against the Ross
County full-backs, making them rush their passes while in possession. This approach is certainly effective when executed well although carries major risks. If the team fails to remain compact, that is, if there is too much of a distance between the defence and attack then this will inevitably leave space, either between defence and midfield or midfield and attack, that can be taken advantage of by the opponents. However, even if a side is to remain compact, meaning they now are holding a high defensive line, then they will become vulnerable to the pace of some SPL attacks. Throughout these three reports, John Maxwell refers to the Dunfermline defence as “immobile”. If this is the case, then they will without doubt be punished by the more pacey attacks in the SPL.
Mason was, for the most part, the spare man in midfield and was afforded time on the ball and allowed to dictate the play. He and his teammates would form triangles around the County midfield, which allowed the Pars to bypass the home side’s midfield easily. Gardyne found himself higher up the pitch than the last meeting between the sides, which is strange since playing in his usual central attacking midfield role would have meant he could have kept tabs on Mason and thus negate Dunfermline’s man advantage in the centre of the pitch.
Most sides in the SPL now play with at least three central midfielders, usually in the form of one central attacking midfielder along with two holders, meaning that Mason will likely not be afforded this amount of time on the ball, or else will have his own direct opponent to track.
Ross County 0 Dunfermline 1 29.03.11
For the final meeting between the sides last season, McIntyre again changed his formation, this time to a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders that allowed the attacking four of Liam Buchanan, Martin Hardie, Joe Cardle and Steven McDougall licence to attack.
Of the two holders, one was always spare which was likely due to the presence of Hardie just off Buchanan in attack. Yet again, the positioning of the two wingers high up the pitch pinned the Ross County full-backs back and caused them to rush when in possession.
Towards the end of the match, with the score still 0-0, McIntyre decided to move to a 4-2-4 and was eventually rewarded when Hardie nodded in the winner in the last minute. A similar attacking move was made towards the end of the 0-0 draw between the sides earlier in the season, only this time it failed as it negated their man advantage in midfield and, as a result, they struggled to create any more chances. Make of that what you will: Is McIntyre brave or tactically naïve?
This is obviously a very small sample but it allows us to draw at least some provisional conclusions. Firstly, of the three matches reported, Dunfermline have employed a different system each time even though Ross County have stuck with more-or-less the same 4-4-1-1 formation in each of the matches. This suggests tactical flexibility and a willingness to chop and change things. It is also notable that of the three matches mentioned above, Dunfermline drew once and were victorious in the other two, meaning that, overall, the changes were effective.
One of the few constants that can be identified is that McIntyre likes to play with a winger on each side. As well as this, the Dunfermline manager admitted that “Passing the ball is the one thing Dunfermline have been renowned for”, adding that “we’ll always try to pass the ball, we don’t bang it long…that won’t change.” Even if a passing approach is retained, it will be interesting to see whether they stick to having two out-and-out wingers in their side.
It would also appear that the apparent weakness from these matches is the lack of pace at the back. Maxwell refers to the Dunfermline defence as “immobile” on a few occasions which, coupled with the willingness to press opponents high up the pitch, means that they may face the dilemma of pressing high and being vulnerable to attacks with pace, or else keep a deeper defensive line and leave space between the lines.
All this depends on what approach McIntyre decides to adopt. He has stressed his willingness to retain a passing approach but this does not necessarily imply an attacking approach. A deeper defensive line and a counter attacking strategy could potentially serve them well. Whatever initial approach the SPL new boys adopt, their manager has shown a tactical flexibility that could serve him well in his inaugural season as an SPL manager.