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.
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.