When Craig Brown took over as Aberdeen manager in December of last year, he inherited an almighty mess left behind by his predecessor Mark McGhee. After some initial progress in the second half of the previous campaign, the current Aberdeen manager has now accumulated fewer points than McGhee had at the same stage last season.
This, firstly, raises the question as to why there has been significantly less criticism levelled at Craig Brown, but also why do Aberdeen remain so poor with a supposedly superior manager at the helm?
In most analyses of Aberdeen, it seems it is the players who take most of the blame. Aberdeen's most recent opponents Hibernian sit one point below the north-east club, yet Colin Calderwood faces criticism from supporters and pundits on almost a daily basis.
After the recent draw away to Hibernian, Brown was questioned about his side’s poor start to the season. His response was to reference the fact that two of his seven matches – which include a solitary win and two draws – have come against the Old Firm. Granted, anything taken from these matches can be envisaged as a bonus for most sides in the SPL, however, in the other five matches Aberdeen have played far this season, they have managed a measly two goals, both of which came against fellow strugglers Inverness in their only victory of the SPL campaign so far.
Brown also pointed to “a lack of cohesion, combination-play and fluency” which, he claims, will come once they manage a few favourable results. This seems to be putting the cart before the horse, however. Surely attaining the cohesion, combination-play and fluency the former-Scotland manager craves is exactly what is needed to bring about these much needed results?
These are not the only bizarre comments Brown has uttered following a match this season. In every post-match interview so far, minus the defeat in Paisley, Brown has claimed that Aberdeen have dominated all or part of the ninety minutes, or else have deserved something from the game.
In fairness, his side were unlucky not to take anything from the match at Ibrox a few weeks ago, but to claim that his side were “totally dominant” at Tynecastle for thirty minutes, and that the scoreline was a distortion, is to embellish their performance that day.
Furthermore, his assertion that Aberdeen had done enough to take a point from their match versus Celtic at Pittodrie is, frankly, delusional. Not only did they concede 62% possession, they allowed Neil Lennon’s side twenty-five attempts at goal (thirteen on target) to the home side’s six (three on target).
As mentioned earlier, Brown inherited a sorry state of affairs when he was appointed Aberdeen manager. This includes the personnel available to him as well as squad morale. What the squad possessed slightly more of then, that they sorely lack now, is width and creativity.
The likes of Sone Aluko and Chris Maguire, the latter of which is more suited to a central role but showed similar quality when used out wide, provided a link between midfield and attack and Brown used the January transfer window to add David McNamee and Steven Smith, both of whom provided impetus from full-back.
Aluko and Maguire have since moved on whereas McNamee and Smith were not retained for the new season. Their departures, along with the lack of replacements, have left Aberdeen sorely lacking in these departments.
Richard Foster has returned from his loan spell at Rangers and started the season as the first-choice left-back. Against Hibernian on Sunday he was pushed up into the left of midfield and was one of the better performers in a dull encounter.
This meant that Aberdeen lined up with four central defenders across their back line – McArdle, Mawene, Arnason, Considine. Part of Brown’s strategy here was no doubt to benefit from set-piece opportunities and in theory this should have worked, however, they failed to test the Hibernian rearguard from ten corner kick attempts.
In a few of the matches where Foster has been deployed at left-back, Brown has gone with four central midfielders in a narrow 4-4-2 formation - in the 3-0 defeat to Hearts for example - using two holding midfielders – Isaac Osbourne and Kari Arnason - and two more creative players - Robert Milsom and Fraser Fyvie – on either side.
This system failed to bring about many clear-cut chances, never mind goals, amplified by the lack of an overlap or any sort of width from the full-backs. Rory McArdle rarely gets forward from right-back and Foster, naturally a right-sided player, always looks to cut on to his stronger foot, rendering any overlap ineffective, or at best partially effective.
Moreover, Milsom displayed against Hibernian that he is more valuable when used in the centre and able to drop deep and collect the ball from the centre backs, while Fyvie is also more naturally a central midfielder.
In an attempt to address this issue, Fyvie has since been moved to just off Scott Vernon as a second striker, but a lot of hope seems to have been pinned on the eighteen-year-old this season, who recently recovered from a cruciate injury that sidelined him for around nine months.
The young midfielder put in an exciting performance in the season opener versus St. Johnstone but has failed to replicate this in subsequent matches. Since being moved into a more advanced position, his role now seems to involve getting on the end of knock-downs from Vernon, rather than getting on the ball and causing opposition defenders problems.
There are several other examples of players being used out-of-position. Striker Josh Magennis and central-midfielder Ryan Jack have been experimented with on the flanks, while the latter has also been used at right-back. Andrew Considine, naturally a central-defender, found himself positioned at left-back in the match versus Hibernian.
Chris Clark was the latest to be used in a wide-midfield role, also versus Hibernian. He is versatile enough to play anywhere across the midfield – he is also adept at left-back in the past – but doesn’t possess the attributes of a winger and, therefore, doesn’t seem to be the man to solve Aberdeen’s problem when used out wide.
The only natural winger in the first-team squad is Peter Pawlett but his performances haven’t quite been up to scratch and his manager seems reluctant to give him an extended run in the first team.
Craig Brown has now been in charge of the club during two transfer windows but seems to have failed in acquiring the necessary personnel to provide support for his striker(s). Scott Vernon showed last season that he can score goals, managing a total of fifteen in all competitions, but has only netted once so far this campaign.
There is no doubting the defensive instincts of Craig Brown - evidenced by four centre-backs being deployed across the defence, instructing his side to sit deep and hit the forwards with long balls, and the narrow nature of most of his line ups - but even given the players now at his disposal, is there a solution to the problems currently facing this impotent Aberdeen squad?
Perhaps moving back to the narrow 4-4-2 used at Tynecastle wouldn’t be such a bad idea now that Clark has returned from injury. Clark pushing on from left-back with Foster doing the same in his more natural right-back role would, in theory, provide the side with the necessary width required to allow Milsom and Fyvie to occupy central areas between the holding midfielders and strikers.
The use of two holders – say, Arnason and Osbourne – just ahead of the back four would offer adequate protection and cover for the meandering full-backs and would not leave the central defensive pair exposed.
The final benefit of such a system is that it would allow Brown to go with a strike partnership: It is questionable whether Vernon is able to play up front on his own and the pace of Magennis or Darren Mackie, despite their terrible recent scoring records, would surely benefit the English striker.
This is, of course, all theory and the application of this would no doubt raise its own problems. Nonetheless, Brown better find a solution quickly or else he will find attendances dwindle even further at Pittordrie and see his battling at the wrong end of the table once again.