Sunday, 23 October 2011

Hearts 0 Rangers 2

Rangers put in another excellent defensive display away from home and continued their remarkable run of six wins from six on the road, scoring fourteen and failing to concede in the process.  It was a rather drab performance from Hearts, although they could have levelled at 1-0 had the ball fallen to a more composed striker of the ball than Adrian Mrowiec midway through the second half.

Ally McCoist changed the shape of his side for this visit to Tynecastle, ditching his usual 4-4-2 in favour of a 4-4-1-1, which matched Hearts man-for-man in the centre of the pitch - something Neil Lennon failed to execute in Celtic’s recent defeat at the same ground.

Another notable feature of the Rangers formation saw two left-backs start on the left – Sasa Papac was deployed at left-midfield – and Maurice Edu moved out to the right of midfield.  Hearts have gained a fair amount of success from their advancing full-backs this season and the use of two defensive-minded players as their direct opponents, as well as a three-man central midfield, displayed McCoist’s willingness to prioritise stopping his opponents from playing.

There was little to note about the Hearts formation.  For the third successive match, Paulo Sergio fielded the same starting eleven in a 4-3-3 formation.

Scrappy first half

Hearts dominated the early stages of a first half more noteworthy for its stop-start nature and cynical fouls than any football on display.  Steven Whittaker picked up an early booking and was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch after a late foul on David Templeton.

This came after he had helped his side take the lead, however.  The former Hibernian full-back collected the ball from Edu around the halfway line and drove towards the Hearts penalty area.  He evaded the challenge, or lack thereof, from no fewer than four Hearts players before feeding Steven Naismith, who struck the ball through the legs of the advancing Marian Kello.

Naismith started the match just off Kyle Lafferty in attack and was a handful for the Hearts defence all afternoon through his movement and intelligent off-the-ball runs.  Eggert Jonsson was the man tasked with man-marking the Scotland international but, for the goal, allowed him to slip free when attempting to stop the run of Whittaker.  Naismith darted into space and finished for his eighth of the season, taking him to the top of the scoring charts.

Hearts then finished the half the stronger side, as they had started the match, but failed to trouble Alan McGregor in the Rangers goal, with the exception of a long-range Rudi Skacel effort.  Rangers, as they have done for many of their away matches this season, sat on their lead and attempted to hit their opponents on the counter attack.

Second half

Rangers’ focus was to get as many men behind the ball as possible for the vast majority of the second half, allowing Hearts plenty of possession.  Hearts managed to carve out two great opportunities – one at 1-0, another at 2-0 – but for all their possession they, for the most part, struggled to break Rangers down.

The main reason for this, mentioned earlier, was the set up of the Rangers side.  Hearts had little joy down the flanks due to the presence of Edu and Papac as auxiliary wide-midfielders.  The Hearts full-backs rarely threatened in advanced areas and both had poor matches, especially Danny Grainger.

Further to this, Hearts were denied space in the centre of the pitch and were rarely able to work the ball through central areas.  Sergio waited until almost eighty minutes had elapsed before making a substitution, sending on Mehdi Taouil for Jonsson.  Taouil is the type of player that can take the ball into feet and find a pass or take the ball past opponents when space is at a premium and it is a change the Hearts manager maybe should have considered making much earlier in the match.

A final reason for the poor performance was the decision-making of some of the Hearts players.  They often elected to play a long ball, a long diagonal pass or a switch of play when there was often a much simpler, shorter passing option available.  On several occasions a Hearts player would make themselves available for a pass in the centre of the pitch yet were ignored.  The Hearts full-backs were particularly guilty of this and Skacel was one player who became visibly frustrated with his teammates.

This is not to take anything away from the Rangers performance.   Knowing the recent form of Hearts at Tynecastle, McCoist intelligently set up his side to stop their opponents and made the right changes at the right time.

After a spell where Hearts greatly dominated possession, McCoist responded by sending on Nikica Jelavic and Gregg Wylde for Lafferty and Papac.  Not only did this produce a goal within three minutes – Carlos Bocanegra picking out Jelavic with a ball over the top of the Hearts defence – it gave Rangers two extra players to target in the final third that could keep the ball in advanced areas something Lafferty had failed to do in his seventy-odd minutes on the pitch.


Without doubt, McCoist won the tactical battle from start to finish.  Stopping the Hearts full-backs from influencing the game and matching the home side man-for-man in the centre of midfield meant Hearts were largely ineffective and, with players like Naismith in attack always likely to finish one of his side’s chances, it culminated in a very efficient performance from the champions.

Hearts shouldn’t be too discouraged from their performance.  Even though they didn’t create much and were woeful in front of goal when they did, they were simply defeated by a better side with a better strategy.  The one worrying thing from a Hearts point of view was their manager’s lack of a plan B and hesitancy in making changes earlier.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Is Levein's 4-1-4-1 formation working?

During his latest pre-match press conference, when it was suggested he sacrifice his holding midfielder in order to field two strikers in the up-coming Euro 2012 qualifier versus Liechtenstein, Craig Levein responded by questioning the logic behind working on a certain system for a year and consequently “throwing it out the window then starting again”.  Instead, the former-Hearts and Dundee United stuck with his favoured 4-1-4-1 formation which encompasses a fluid midfield four just ahead of one sitting player.

Many have criticised the reign of Levein thus far, even going as far as to claim that his record so far is worse than that of George Burley or Berti Vogts, but as pointed out by Greg Perkins on the Thierry Ennui website, this is to skew the facts somewhat.

The narrow win in Vaduz on Saturday saw Scotland dominate possession for the vast majority of the match, create many chances, yet fail to convert all but one of them.  The performance was remarkably similar to their previous qualifier versus Lithuania at Hampden, a match they also emerged from with a 1-0 victory.

Despite these narrow victories, Scotland have displayed an ability to retain possession and fashion quick attacking play through slick passing and good off-the-ball movement.  Those who incessantly call for our national side to “go with two up top and be positive” would do well to listen to Jonathan Wilson on the latest version of the European Football Show, in which he points out that, paradoxically, the 4-4-2 tends to be more defensive than most lone-striker systems.  No matter what the notation, it is the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the formation that gives it its attacking or defensive characteristics.

Levein’s 4-1-4-1 sees two wide players, usually inverted, cutting into the centre of the pitch, whether to aid transitions from midfield to attack or else to support the lone-striker, who himself is expected to work the channels, hold up the ball and bring midfield runners into play.  The inverted nature of the wide players also allows the full-backs to move into the space created and provide an overlap.  Barry Bannan and Steven Naismith were the two deployed in wide berths on Saturday evening, albeit with slightly differing roles.  Naismith was the main support to Craig Mackail-Smith, with Bannan more intent on dropping deeper to link up with the likes of Charlie Adam and James Morrison.

The other main feature of the system, up until Saturday at least, saw Charlie Adam as the ‘1’ behind the ban of four midfielders, pulling the strings with his range of passing.  Levein tweaked his formation for the trip to Vaduz, moving Adam forward one and dropping captain Darren Fletcher into the holding role.  The role of Adam didn’t change however, he was still expected to be the side’s main playmaker, it was merely his positioning that differed.

After watching the two most recent victories, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that, looking forward, goals will be a problem for Scotland under Levein.  The fact is that Scotland have now won six of their previous nine internationals - an encouraging statistic at international level regardless of the opposition – averaging 1.67 goals per game in the process.

Two goals in each game versus Czech Republic and Denmark – both considerably stronger opposition than Lithuania and Liechtenstein – coupled with two goals in the defeat to Spain almost exactly a year ago surely merits some sort of praise.  In fact, Scotland are the only side to have scored twice in the same match versus the world and European champions in their previous fourteen competitive matches.

Moreover, of the nine matches, Scotland have dominated possession in all but three of them, including the defeat to Republic of Ireland (59%).  The average possession across the matches is a promising 52.11% – which looks even better at 54.9% when the defeat to Brazil is excluded – and they have managed an average of 14.9 attempts on goal, a third of which have been on target.

These statistics should breed some sort of optimism amongst the Scotland faithful, despite the recently inability to kill off significantly poorer opposition.

Another noticeable element of the matches analysed is the mentality of the side.  You feel that Scotland sides of the past would not have, say, come from two goals behind to level with the current world and European champions or have regained the lead so soon after surrendering it to the Czechs.

This is not to criticise the likes of Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, who each managed a few spectacular results during their respective tenures, but their approach was based on setting up not to concede through solid defensive play and converting one of their few chances at the other end.  The point is that each system has its relative faults and merits, and that the manager, whoever it may be, must implement a strategy that suits the players at his disposal.

This brings us neatly back to Levein.  Most would concede that defence, especially the centre-back pairing, is the weakest part of this current Scotland team, where once it was the strongest, and that Scotland perhaps has more and better quality attacking options, especially in midfield, than it has for a number of years.

The final point is debateable.  What is certain, however, is that Scotland now have more players that are comfortable and confident in possession.  The aforementioned Adam, Fletcher and Morrison form an impressive midfield trio with the likes of Naismith and the emerging talents of Bannan and James Forrest available in wide positions.  It is little wonder, then, that Scotland are now set up to be a side that attempts to retain possession as opposed to clearing their lines.

It wasn’t always this way under the current manager.  He and his side have come a long way since the infamous night in Prague when Levein chose to line up his side without a striker.  Since then, we have seen Levein’s confidence in his squad and his own abilities grow and we are now seeing some progress in terms of results.

I have been a defender of Levein from the start, even after the trial of 4-6-0.  Like I pointed out then, we should take encouragement from his willingness to rip up previous blueprints that have failed in the past and start all over again.  This is always likely to involve some failed experiments and poor performances in the process, which the manager should be given the time to learn from.

It seems that Levein has learned from his early mistakes and has now instilled a more attacking approach combined with a mentality and team spirit that is beginning to bear fruit.

Granted, an attacking approach from the start will likely not be adopted ahead of the match in Alicante tomorrow night, but Scotland can at least take a little confidence from the fact that they breached the Spanish rear-guard twice before and are on an moderately impressive run of results.

Whether or not Scotland match or better the result of the Czech Republic tomorrow night and qualify for the play-off, it is clear to see that Scotland have come on leaps and bounds under the current manager and he seems to have settled upon a formation and strategy that is taking the nation in the right direction.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Should retrospective punishment of simulation carry a two-match suspension?

Earlier this week, the SFA offered Garry O’Connor a retrospective two-match ban after he allegedly dived to win a penalty in the victory over St. Johnstone little over a week ago.  Hibernian responded by rejecting the offer, forcing a tribunal, which will convene today to decide whether or not to uphold the ban.

The Hibernian decision to appeal cannot be based upon the innocence Garry O’Connor, even their Assistant Manager Billy Brown admitted his guilt on Sunday night’s Sportscene, rather their appeal will relate to the severity of the punishment.

Even though the new rules, introduced by the Scottish Football Association along with the new Fast-Track system, state that "No player shall cause a match official to make an incorrect decision and or support an error of judgment on the part of a match official by an act of simulation”, the on-pitch punishment for the same crime only carries a yellow card.

This poses the question: Is it just to retrospectively suspend a player for a bookable offence?

Steven Naismith, the first player to receive a retrospective ban since the introduction of the new system, was found guilty of elbowing Dunfermline’s Austin McCann almost two weeks ago and received a punishment identical to the penalty he would have incurred had referee Ian Brines noticed the incident when it occurred.

The same cannot be said for O’Connor, however.  Had referee Steve Conroy noticed the simulation by the former-Birmingham striker a yellow card would have been shown, a free-kick awarded and O’Connor would find himself available for selection for the Motherwell match at Easter Road on Saturday week.

As it stands, the ruling today could see the ban upheld, and even increased if the SFA deem that Hibernian are wasting the governing body’s time through appealing.

Intuition dictates that a retrospective two-match ban is a harsh punishment for a yellow card offence: We would surely find it difficult to accept a player receiving such a ban for, say, jumping into the crowd or ripping his shirt off whilst celebrating a goal.

A common retort in opposition to this line of argument is that the severity of the ban should be greater since the referee was actually conned and that the outcome of the incident had decisive bearing on the result.  That is, not only did O’Connor commit the bookable offence of simulation, his conning of the referee caused the referee to make an erroneous decision and the incident was central to the outcome of the match - the spot-kick allowed Hibernian to take a 3-1 lead in a match they eventually won 3-2.

Nevertheless, I have doubts as to the strength of this defence of the SFA’s decision.  For instance, what if the simulation had taken place in on the halfway line and Conroy had failed to spot it?  Would we still be having this discussion?

The defender of the SFA’s decision may interject here and claim that this is precisely why we are having this discussion, because it did take place somewhere that had a significant effect on the outcome of the match.

This, again, fails to stand up to scrutiny.  If we accept that dives inside the box, missed by the officials at the time, are worthy of a retrospective two-match ban, then surely we should also accept the same for free-kicks at the edge of the area.  These have a lower success rate in terms of goals scored but, nonetheless, are potent weapons in the armoury of certain sides.  Regardless, the point is that such a decision may have as much of a bearing on the full-time result as the O’Connor incident versus St. Johnstone.  Moreover, the referee was conned was still conned in our hypothetical example.

This then extends to free-kicks awarded, say, thirty-five yards from goal or around the halfway line.  The award of free-kicks in such areas when the player is guilty of simulation may still lead to a goal which decides the outcome of a match.  Soon we are on a slippery slope to the conclusion that each and every piece of simulation, for which the officials failed to take action, should be targeted by the authorities as worthy of a retrospective two-match suspension.

We can take this example to extremes and show that even a Steven Pressley-esque dive in a players own penalty area may lead to a long up-field punt, be flicked-on and then stuck into the net, leading to a 1-0 victory.  I find it difficult to accept that should this type of scenario come to pass that the authorities would act in the same manner as they have regarding O’Connor.

Therefore, the SFA either has to punish each and every act of simulation it catches on camera, or else we are left with some arbitrary cut-off point which, at the moment, seems to be whether or not the act took place inside the box, with the extra qualification that it had a bearing on the eventual outcome of the match.

Failing this, until simulation is deemed a red card offence, offering a retrospective two-match suspension, a punishment akin to that of a red card offence, is untenable.  Instead, we should stick to punishing the offence for what it is, a yellow card offence.

Amending the laws of the game so that simulation is worthy of a red card would, of course, bring about its own issues.  But until the authorities deem it so, when simulation occurs, we are left to draw an arbitrary line between what areas of the field are appropriate for retrospective punishment and which are not.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Kilmarnock 1 St. Johnstone 2

For the second match in a row, Kenny Shiels lined up his side with a three man defence flanked by two wing-backs.  James Fowler and Gary Fisher were deployed as holding midfielders with Dean Shiels and James Dayton just behind Paul Heffernan in attack.  Shiels made two changes to the defeat at Ibrox.  Liam Kelly was out and replaced by Alex Pursehouse, while Gary Harkins was dropped to the bench in favour of Dayton.

St. Johnstone kept their familiar 4-4-2 shape and also made two changes from their previous fixture.  David McCracken was missing so Callum Davidson came in at left back.  This meant that Alan Maybury was moved to right-back and Dave Mackay to the centre.  The other change saw David Robertson preferred to Chris Millar in midfield.

The first twenty minutes were largely uneventful as the two formations cancelled each other out.  A look at the formations from the image above shows that each side had a spare man at the back – Kilmarnock enjoyed a 3v2, St. Johnstone a 4v3 – and a band of four across the middle.  In a 3-5-2, the main advantage of playing three central defenders, assuming the opposition are playing 4-4-2, is to provide a man advantage in the centre of midfield.

Unfortunately for Kilmarnock, the advanced nature of Dayton and Shiels in the 3-4-3 meant that they lined up man-for-man in the centre of the pitch and enjoyed no such advantage.

St. Johnstone’s solid rearguard

St. Johnstone’s defending was another factor of Kilmarnock’s shortage of chances in the opening stages.  Heffernan has shown himself to be a real goal-threat this season but struggled to find much space in this match – apart from one occasion where he worked the space himself by a quick turn on the ball, taking two defenders out of the play.  The St. Johnstone back four defended very narrow, meaning that the two centre-backs were able to stay close together and deny Heffernan space.

Moreover, if Dayton or Shiels collected the ball in the final third, one of the St. Johnstone defenders would come to meet them, allowing the other three to hold the defensive line and not be overmanned.  As well as this, Liam Craig and David Robertson would track the forward runs of the Kilmarnock wing-backs.  It was a very assured defensive display from Derek McInnes’s men.

Both sides attempted to patiently build from the back where possible but it was St. Johnstone who were more comfortable in doing this.  On several occasions, the Kilmarnock defenders were put under pressure after a stray pass, but their manager insisted post-match that his side will persist with this strategy regardless.

Another notable feature of the match was the lack of pressing in midfield.  Both sides’ central midfielders stood off their direct opponents and it was this lack of pressing that led to the opening goal.
Jody Morris and Robertson were allowed to easily work the ball through midfield before Robertson turned and fed Francisco Sandaza.  Manuel Pascali dived in, missing the ball and allowing Sandaza a clear run at goal, and the Spaniard again showed his potency in front of goal, scoring his sixth goal of the season.

St. Johnstone’s strategy once taking the lead is usually to keep things tight but as the half wore on they began to commit more men forward than they had at 0-0.  One of these attacks led to a scrappy counter-attack which resulted in a Kilmarnock corner from which they equalised.

By this point the momentum had swung the way of the home side, but despite this, St. Johnstone were unlucky to see the ball ricochet off their own player and into the back of the net.  

Second half

The second half continued in a similar vein to how the first half had ended with Kilmarnock on the ascendency.  Heffernan continued to struggle to find space on the shoulder of the last defender and began to drop off the St. Johnstone back-line and link with the midfield.  Kilmarnock enjoyed a spell where they worked some intricate passing moves around the edge of the box, while Heffernan saw his deflected effort saved well by Peter Enckelman.

Derek McInnes responded by withdrawing Kevin Moon for Chris Millar, a like-for-like swap which improved his side’s ball-retention in the middle of the park.

St. Johnstone were ahead again when Cillian Sheridan rounded Cammy Bell in the Kilmarnock goal to net the winner.  In almost a carbon copy of their second at home to Hearts last week, a long punt from Enckelman was pounced upon by Sandaza after some defensive hesitancy, and he reacted quickly to send Sheridan through on goal.

It was another well created and taken goal from the St. Johnstone front two but a poor one to lose from a Kilmarnock perspective.  Mohamed Sissoko’s poor attempt at controlling the ball, as opposed to a safety-first approach, allowed the pace of Sheridan to once again exploit a high defensive line and it proved to be decisive.

Kenny Shiels introduced Danny Racchi, and latterly William Gros, to the play, moving into a 4-4-2/4-2-4 formation but, with St. Johnstone now sitting very deep – Sheridan and Sandaza were even coming into their own half to close down – they struggled to work the ball into an area where they could pass or cross the ball into the box, let alone create chances.


For the second match in-a-row, Kenny Shiels lined his side up in a 3-4-3 formation.  On both occasions they have been up against a 4-4-2 and on both occasions they have lost.  Their failing, seems not to be in their shape but the ease at which they concede possession.

Derek McInnes’s side are not overly-defensive or negative, they are just one of the better sides in the league at defending.  They held firm but for an own-goal conceded from a set-piece.  Their impressive defence was evident last season; they have now added clinicalness in front of goal to it.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Hearts 2 Celtic 0

After an inept performance versus St. Johnstone last week, Hearts were always likely to make changes.  Mehdi Taouil, David Obua and Stephen Elliott dropped out with Rudi Skacel, Eggert Jonsson and David Templeton starting.  Paulo Sergio stuck to his usual 4-3-3 formation but moved Ryan Stevenson into a lone-striking position.  The other significant difference was to move Adrian Mrowiec slightly further forward, using Jonsson as the deepest of the midfield three, but more on that below.

With Joe Ledley, Bream Kayal and Scott Brown unavailable, Neil Lennon was forced into a 4-4-2 with two out-and-out wingers.  Kris Commons returned to the starting line up and Badr El-Kaddouri came in at left-back.  Fraser Forster replaced Lukas Zaluska in goals.

The pros and cons of Lennon’s 4-4-2

Whether out of design or necessity, Lennon’s decision to field Commons and James Forrest brought about a degree of tactical success.  Danny Grainger and Jamie Hamill have thus far been effective at getting forward and putting dangerous balls into the box and, given Celtic’s vulnerability from crosses, their being pinned back negated that threat to a certain extent.

The knock-on effect was a shortfall in the centre of midfield.  Sergio decided to go with three defensive-minded midfielders and instructed Ian Black and Mrowiec to press the Celtic central midfield.  This left Jonsson as a spare man to sweep up in front of the defence, which was effective for the most part.

Victor Wanyama had a very good first half, both with and without possession, but the Hearts tactics stopped his partner Ki Sung-Yeung from getting on the ball and dictating play.  A further consequence was the supply to Gary Hooper was cut.  Hooper thrives on through balls and linking up with his strike partner but he grew increasingly frustrated with his lack of time on the ball.
The first half was pretty even, with both sides creating a few chances, the best of which fell to Mohamed Bangura.  Forrest collected the ball after a poor defensive header from Grainger and sent in a delightful cross but the Sierra Leone striker’s header was pushed around the post by Jamie MacDonald.

Hearts’ strategy

Much has been made about Paulo Sergio’s change in style since he took over as manager, but any attempt to patiently build from the back was, at least temporarily, abandoned as Hearts looked to move the ball quickly to Skacel and Templeton.

John Sutton was again left out, however, Stevenson was deployed as the lone-striker, perhaps a sign of the new manager conceding that a physical presence is required in attack.  The Hearts back line and goalkeeper was not as averse to hitting long, direct passes up towards him.

Hearts’ play was less laboured, less predictable and, most significantly, more effective.  Their decision to vary their play more meant that they enjoyed more time in and around their opponent’s penalty area than last week. 

Second half

The second half began with a sustained period of pressure from the away side, forcing MacDonald into another couple of saves.  Then, against the run of play, Hearts took the lead on fifty-eight minutes.

Skacel was about to be substituted when he fired a low strike across Forster and into the net.  Celtic’s main weakness this season has been their inability to defend crosses and again they failed to deal with one here.

The cross in question hung in the air, giving the Celtic defence plenty of time to react, but Daniel Majstorovic again displayed his indecisiveness by failing to attack it.  Templeton cushioned the ball, laying it off in the same movement, for Skacel to finish.

Lennon reacted immediately by withdrawing Bangura for Antony Stokes, a switch he may have made regardless, but the Irish international was given little time to make an impact before his side were reduced to ten men.

His manager had revealed before the match that Commons may not last the ninety minutes but surely he didn’t mean it in this sense.  In stark contrast to last season, Commons has so far had a torrid campaign and there was only ever going to be one outcome after his reckless lunge on Mrowiec.

Celtic then moved to a 4-2-1-2 formation, with Forrest in behind Stokes and Hooper, and continued to enjoy the majority of the possession.  El-Kaddouri was then removed and replaced with Paddy McCourt as Celtic switched to a back three, but they failed to break Hearts down.

Sergio’s response to the red card was to move to a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1formation – Ian Black moved to right-midfield with Skacel just off Stevenson – and attempt to defend the lead.  A risky move considering the danger that Celtic still possessed.  It paid off, however, as Hearts grabbed a second goal on the counter.

A long ball from Grainger was chased down by Templeton and his clever back-heel was collected by Stevenson, who remained composed before finishing. 


There was much tactical interest and plenty of excitement in this encounter.  Neil Lennon may have been forced into a 4-4-2 with two wingers but it helped in nullifying the threat of the Hearts full-backs.

This led to a shortfall in the centre of park which worked to Hearts’ advantage.  Paulo Sergio decided to field three battlers in central midfield and this denied Ki time and space, which he finds and exploits in most matches, ultimately cutting the supply to the strikers.  Celtic’s failing, other than the red card, was again an inability to deal with crosses.

Sergio abandoned his patient pass-from-the-back approach in favour of a quicker, more direct strategy and it suited his side.  The interest, going forward, will lie in whether or not he continues with this approach in future matches, at least until he has the players to do otherwise.