Saturday, 27 December 2014

Rangers' Problems Amplified After McCoist Departure

With the events of the last week, within which Ally McCoist was placed on gardening leave, it is Kenny McDowall who is now tasked with guiding this Rangers side through the remainder of a turbulent season.

If the Rangers supporters thought that an uninspiring appointment, albeit temporary, they would be just as underwhelmed when they saw the caretaker boss’s first team selection. McDowall was given the opportunity to put his own stamp on the current side. He could have changed the shape and introduced some players that found appearances difficult to come by under McCoist. Instead he picked exactly the same personnel in exactly the same archaic formation as has become the norm at Rangers this season.

Nicky Clark partnered Kenny Miller in the attack of a 4-4-2, which saw the centre of their midfield drowned by the 4-3-1-2 of Hibernian. With Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings taking turns to drop deep, this meant even more of a mismatch in the centre of midfield and the problem was highlighted early in the match when both Nicky Law and Ian Black were caught out up the pitch as Hibs countered.

The shape of the Hibernian midfield and the advanced nature of their full-backs meant that they contained sufficient width when attacking – evidenced by the performances of David Gray and Lewis Stevenson – and enough cover when defending.

Much of the positivity on the progression of Stubbs’s side has been focused on the performances of Scott Allan and today was no different. Due to Hibs' numerical advantage, he was free to dictate play for most of the match and was involved in all four goals. For the opener, Allan burst forward off the ball and dragged Stevie Smith into the centre to pick him up. This created space for David Gray to collect the ball and fire Hibs ahead after 8 minutes.

For the second goal, Smith was in position when Allan collected the ball but failed to get close enough to stop the cross. Allan’s ball found Craig, who volleyed back for Cummings to tap into an open goal. Allan then capped off a majestic performance with two clever assists in the second half to give Hibernian a 4-0 victory.

It should not be surprising to see Hibs dominate this match as Alan Stubbs has won the tactical battle in many of the big matches this season. He was dominating McCoist – changing his formation at the correct time – before Danny Handling was sent off  in the Petrofac Training Cup at the start of the season and, much like this match, he blitzed Rangers in the first half of the previous league meeting between the sides.

Furthermore, he more than matched Hearts for large parts of the opening Edinburgh Derby of the season and, but for an injury-time wonder strike, was seconds away from victory in the second at Easter Road.

Rangers, by contrast, have been found wanting in most of the big matches in the Championship this season. Even in the matches they have edged the initial tactical battle – the recent performance at Tynecastle, for instance – they have still gone on to lose the match. In four Championship matches versus Hearts and Hibs this season, Rangers have lost all four.

And there is nothing in the pre- or post-match interviews of McDowall, nor from the performance of the team, to suggest that he is the man to inject some modernity into the Rangers tactics. It is rather telling by his comments after the match, in which he revealed that he is being “told to carry on”, that he is either unwilling or unable to take charge of this Rangers side.

McCoist liked his team to knock the ball into the channels and work it down the wings, always looking for the overlap from the full-backs and that is exactly what we got from McDowall in this match. If further confirmation was needed that working the ball wide and crossing the ball as often as possible hasn't worked, you only have to look at the full-time statistics: Rangers had 7 attempts with 1 on target - Hibernian had the same amount of efforts but hit the target 5 times - and had 8 corners to Hibernian’s 0.

One of the reasons most of the Rangers play was focused down the wings was to avoid the congested central areas in which they were outnumbered. It appeared that McDowall had identified this when Kyle Hutton was stripped and ready to come on after 34 minutes. Unfortunately for Rangers, he hadn't and Hutton was nothing more than a like-for-like replacement for Ian Black before the former Hearts man collected a second yellow card. The change may have improved the Rangers performance for a short period, but the same issues remained.

Even the half-time substitution made little sense. Kris Boyd was introduced for Fraser Aird but instead of changing the shape of the side, Clark was moved to the right of midfield in the same formation that Rangers have played for about 37 years now.

It is perplexing that a qualified football coach, despite his lack of experience as a football manager, failed to notice or rectify the major tactical issue his side faced in the match. Rangers had two strikers on the pitch for the whole of the match, yet their manager failed to notice that having two strikers is useless if you cannot win the ball when out of possession or else supply them when in possession.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Ian Baraclough Making the Right Noises

I already like the sound of Ian Baraclough. While he dropped a few clich├ęs, stock answers and blind optimism into his first interview as Motherwell manager, Baraclough spoke well about his preferred style of football, his thirst for developing youth, his previous successes and his desire to see that optimism spread throughout the club.

The former Sligo Rovers manager was unveiled around the same time the club announced some encouraging developments regarding the financial future of the club. A debt-free Motherwell on a sound financial footing and owned by the supporters – or, at least, on the road to community ownership – gives Baraclough every opportunity for his ambitions to be realised.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday, the new manager was treated to a match that perfectly displayed the strengths and weaknesses of the current playing side.

With the hosts trailing 1-0 following a poor first half, Lionel Ainsworth came off the bench to make an impact for the second week in-a-row, setting up John Sutton to score from close range, before his strike partner Henrik Ojamaa outpaced and cleverly ran across Ross County defender Steven Saunders before drilling the ball low into the net.

These goals turned the game on its head, however, it was another common aspect of the Fir Park side’s season that will be of concern to the new manager. With Motherwell defending in numbers late in the game, Tony Dingwall appeared unmarked in the box to slam the ball past Dan Twardzik for the equaliser. While there was no one slip or poor clearance that led to the goal, no fewer than eight Motherwell defenders are in the box at the time and not one of them gets within around ten yards of Dingwall.

Baraclough’s introduction to management was a short and unsuccessful spell at Scunthorpe United, initially taking over as caretaker but he was given the job full-time after some impressive results. Less than five months later he was relieved of his duties with the club in the relegation zone.

Around a year later he was appointed manager of Sligo Rovers where he admitted how tough it would be to further the progress of his predecessor Paul Cook. During his first interview as Motherwell manager – which you can see in full here - Baraclough made similar comments about following Stuart McCall.

“I am delighted and find myself in a privileged position. I’ve done some research into the history of the club and I know how well the football club has done, certainly over recent years,” he said. “It will be a hard task to take over from Stuart but one I’m very excited to take up.”

Despite the perceived enormity of the task, Baraclough went on to secure the League of Ireland Premier Division for Sligo, their first for 35 years, before leading the side to victory the FAI Cup and to their first ever triumph in the Setanta Sport Cup – a cross-border competition contested by clubs from both nations on the island.

While nobody in Scottish football will believe the 41-year-old’s claim that he can repeat that success at Motherwell, you have to at least admire the positivity coming from the man and  his comments make more sense given his more recent explanation.

Believing you are inferior to the competition is no way to prepare yourself, be it for a one-off match, a cup run or for an entire domestic season. His priority for now, though, is to improve the current players, add some of his own in January and steer the club clear of the relegation and play-off places.

Baraclough built a reputation for being shrewd in the transfer market at Sligo after losing his top players to financially superior opposition while working on a tight budget, something he must also become accustomed to at Motherwell. He claims his range of contacts within the game are “vast” and will need to exercise these effectively if he is to implement his preferred style of play successfully.

“I want players to be comfortable with the ball,” he told MFC TV. “I don’t want us to give up possession easily. I think the more possession you have of the football, the more chance you have of winning games.”

As well as his willingness to dominate possession, the new Motherwell manager is known for being tactically flexible, tailoring his strategy to nullify the strengths of and exploit the weaknesses of the opposition, which is something smaller clubs often require from their manager.

His preferred formation at Sligo was 4-4-2 in a league dominated by 4-2-3-1, a formation also popular in the Scottish Premiership at the moment . It should also be noted that McCall used the 4-4-2 effectively during his time at Motherwell. Though often dubbed ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘dead’, the 4-4-2 is alive and well and not just in the sense of two banks of four with a strike partnership. In fact, the 4-4-2 – as with any other formation - has many variations depending on who is positioned where and continues to be used throughout football, even if less so at the very top level of the game.

Whatever the formation and style of play, Baraclough will be required to strengthen the current Motherwell squad if he is to be nearly as successful as he is aiming to be. Defence must be a priority. They've lost 27 goals in 16 league matches this season. And it is not only the amount of goals, but the way in which they have conceded them, which has been the main issue for Motherwell.

Mark O’Brien, on loan from Derby County, is young and needs someone to guide him through matches. Stephen McManus, who is older and is club-captain, is expected to take on this role yet plays like someone who himself needs talked through games.

Cover, if not strengthening, at full-back is also required. Craig Reid and Steven Hammell are both currently injured and attempts to have Fraser Kerr and Zaine Francis-Angol deputise have been unsuccessful.

Further forward Motherwell possess some good attacking talent but may need to strengthen in the centre of the park if they are to play the possession game that Baraclough professes. Paul Lawson has failed to hit the heights expected of him and Keith Lasley is grinding slowly towards the end of his career.

Finally, if the new boss cannot turn John Sutton back into the twenty-goal striker he was last season, then the striking options will also need strengthening. Lee Erwin is raw and has shown much potential, but it would perhaps be too much to ask him to become the focal point of the attack of a struggling side.

In the short-term, the new Motherwell manager must improve the current squad by adding players and improving the ones already there. In the longer-term, he will be expected to challenge for European places, make some progress in the cup competitions and promote youth. There's no point in sounding like the right man if you're not going to back it up with substance.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

County Still Searching For Defensive Combination

When Jim McIntyre took over as manager in Dingwall, he inherited a side bottom of the table with zero points, level with St Mirren, and a goal difference of -11. Ten league matches later the side have amassed 8 points, the same as St Mirren, and have seen their goal difference dip to -19.

It must be noted that the Ross County squad under McIntyre’s predecessor had swelled to ridiculous proportions and he, therefore, cane be afforded time to sift through his options. Matters were made even worse when another 3 players were added on transfer deadline day, shortly before McIntyre's appointment - although he has frequently used all 3 – before he added a further 5 of his own.

Ross County were deficient at both ends of the park early in the season and these problems have continued under the reign of McIntyre. The goals from Yoann Arquin and Darren Maatsen in the defeat to Dundee United on Friday night were the 5th and 6th league goals - of their 15 this season - that has failed to alter the outcome of the match.

The Staggies have only taken the lead in just 4 of their league matches this season and have also failed to take the lead in three cup outings. More often than not, they have found themselves further behind before finding the net – if they do at all - rendering many of their goals meaningless in terms of points accumulated.

If your team has only managed 6 first half goals in the league so far – with 3 of those coming in a 3-0 victory - then ideally your defence should be resolute, allowing the few goals you can muster the chance of being converted into points.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Ross County have conceded the first goal in 11 of their league matches, have conceded a total of 34 goals – and average of 2.27 per game – and have only managed one clean sheet in 18 matches across all competitions.

This is partially down to a lack of quality in their squad - County have limited resources and can only afford a certain level of player - but is also partially a consequence of the many combinations they fielded in a perpetually unsettled back four. Paul Quinn - signed by McIntyre shortly after taking over – may have performed admirably so far in a backline devoid of confidence, but his pairing with Lewis Toshney on Friday night was the club’s 10th different central-defensive partnership this season† .

Before then Scott Boyd had partnered Timothy Dressen, Jordi Balk, Ben Frempah, Darren Barr and Paul Quinn, while Frempah had previously lined up alongside Dressen, Jackson Irvine, Paul Quinn and Darren Barr (albeit for 4 minutes towards the end of their match versus Aberdeen) before Toshney and Quinn were selected for the defeat to Dundee United.

And while we can blame Derek Adams more than McIntyre for County’s scattergun approach to recruitment this season, McIntyre has been responsible for testing 9 of these 10 partnerships in the centre of defence.

The situation at full-back has hardly been much better. Toshney, Barr, Balk, Richie Brittain and Jim Fenlon have all been used on the right this season, while Barr, Fenlon, Graham Carey, Uros Celcer and Jamie Reckord have been tried at left-back*.

Three of the defenders signed in the summer – Dressen, Balk and Celcer – have already agreed to cancel their contracts, suggesting that a more meticulous transfer policy in the summer no doubt would have benefited the club. Rather than having 14 defenders on the wage bill at one point this season, they surely could have veered more towards quality over quantity before it got to that stage.

A similar argument can be made about the goalkeepers. Last season Kilmarnock were guilty of spending part of their budget on two first-team goalkeepers and have now released one and gone with young Conor Brennan as back-up instead. This allows them to use much needed funds to recruit for other positons.

The man Kilmarnock released, Antonio Reguero, initially made his way to Victoria Park to provide competition for Mark Brown. After a short, uninspiring run in the side, Reguero was dropped and hasn’t appeared since. And while Brown has, in the past, been known as a steady pair of hands at Premiership level, he has looked increasingly bereft of confidence as the weeks have progressed, culminating in Friday’s performance.

Jim McIntyre may be some distance off the squad and starting line-up he desires, but he surely now has to work on establishing some continuity  with his first XI, especially in defence, and must only bring in players during the next transfer window that improve the starting line-up, rather than bulk up an already overweight squad.

† Ross County central-defensive partnerships this season:
Boyd-Dressen x3
Balk-Boyd x3
Frempah-Boyd x3
Barr-Frempah (for last 4 minutes of Aberdeen match)
Boyd-Quinn x5

*Defenders who have played for Ross County this season (appearances in brackets):
- Scott Boyd (13), Darren Barr (6 overall, 4 in defence), Ben Frempah (6), Jim Fenlon (4), Lewis Toshney (7), Paul Quinn (6), Jamie Reckord (3),  Graham Carey (13 overall, 5 in defence), Uros Celcer (5), Timothy Dressen (3), Jordi Balk (4), Richie Brittain (13 overall, 3 in defence) 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gomis Red Card Ruins Intriguing Cup Tie

After the meaty challenges of their match versus Rangers last week – both the one punished with a red card and the others that should have been – it was disappointing to see Hearts captain Morgaro Gomis dismissed for a two-footed lunge on Scott Brown with only seven minutes gone in Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie.

Even more disappointing given the vulnerability of Celtic immediately after European matches, with Ronny Deila’s side winning only one domestic match following a Champions League or Europa League night so far this season. Celtic looked far from impressive when they went down 3-1 at home to Red Bull Salzburg on Thursday night and, with Hearts still preserving a 100% record going into Sunday’s match, there was a feeling that they had the potential to not only vastly improve on the 7-0 between the two sides in exactly the same fixture one year ago, but that there was the potential to upset the champions and progress to the next round.

Hearts didn’t necessarily start the game on the front foot, but they looked assured in possession, particularly when passing the ball out from the back – with the exception of a terrible Alim Ozturk pass – and showed that they had talent in forward areas to at least concern the Celtic defence.

Even though you may be aware of my persuasion when it comes to Scottish football, I think I can speak for most supporters of the game in this country when I say that this match was set up as a cracker for the neutral. This fixture is invariably a fiery encounter with much history and promised to be a lot closer than it eventually turned out.

I had hoped to be posting something about two of the more tactically astute managers clashing for the second time this season, be it through describing the way one side as a whole dominated possession or even the way one individual’s movement settled a chess-like cup tie. Instead I’m writing about an idiotic challenge that ruined the match before it had started.

Thanks Morgaro Gomis.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Jonny Hayes: The SPFL's New Most Versitile Player

Dundee 2 Aberdeen 1

Another clever set-piece – one designed to catch the Aberdeen defence off-guard – and a customary strike from David Clarkson gave Dundee the victory at Dens Park in a pulsating Scottish Cup tie. It was, however, the man-of-the-match performance of Aberdeen’s Jonny Hayes that caught the eye.

Aberdeen seemed to confuse their opponents from the off. Hayes lined up at kick-off as if he was going to operate on the left but, as soon as the game started, drifted into one of the holding midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1. The Dons immediately created a chance from kick-off and were inches away from taking the lead. This is an unfamiliar role for the former Inverness star but he slotted in seamlessly, dropping deep to collect the ball from the Aberdeen defenders before launching attacks.

But this was by no means the full extent of Hayes’s contribution. In a tactic reminiscent of Guardolia’s Bayern Munich full backs arcing into the centre of the pitch to become holding midfielders when their side have possession, Hayes performed what was almost the inverse: bursting up towards the left wing when Niall McGinn drifted into central areas.

The Aberdeen equaliser came when Hayes collected the ball in the middle of the park and drove at the Dundee defence before teeing up McGinn and was also found covering at left-back when required. He even popped up on the right wing in the second half to go on a mazy run down the touchline and again set up a teammate, this time Adam Rooney.

With Aberdeen again chasing an equaliser, now into injury-time, Hayes found McGinn once more, this time with a cross-field pass but the Northern Irish international’s fierce strike forced an incredible save from Scott Bain in the Dundee goal.

Hayes was unfortunate to find himself on the losing team and will no doubt be happy with his individual performance. It will be interesting to see if his manager continues to deploy him as such in the continued absence of Willo Flood and Barry Robson.