Craig Cairns takes his latest tactical look at the SPFL, with the focus this week on Aberdeen, Celtic, Falkirk and Hibernian.
Dons continue to attack despite man disadvantage
For this pulsating tie, Derek McInnes opted for Scott Brown in goals – a man who managed eight consecutive clean sheets in the league last season. With Ryan Jack and Willo Flood absent, Craig Storie made his first start of the season in central midfield, while David Goodwillie joined Adam Rooney in attack. Goodwillie’s afternoon didn’t last long, however, as he found himself replaced after Mark Reynolds’ red card just 26 minutes into the match. From the resulting free-kick, Ross County took the lead.
Prior to this, the Dons had started with all the momentum. Right from the off they looked to play the ball out to Jonny Hayes and get him running at County’s defence. Coupled with this, Aberdeen’s full-backs played in very advanced positions, so much so that they often found themselves in the opposition penalty area.
The reduction to 10 men did not detract from this. Shay Logan returned to his best form from last season, advancing into the six-yard box either side of half-time to score twice, giving his side a comfortable lead. Those goals came after Adam Rooney had equalised with his seventh goal from the spot this season. Logan’s contribution owed much to two precise, low crosses from the left. One of those came from Hayes, who showed from the first few seconds that he was in the mood to terrorise the County defence.
The other cross came from fellow full-back Graeme Shinnie. Kenny McLean and Storie screened their central defenders, allowing Shinnie and Logan to support the front three. The fact that one crossed for the other to score, while their side were a man down, shows Aberdeen belief and determination in winning the match.
That said, even with 11 men on the pitch, Aberdeen have certainly defended better. After their initial spell of dominance, they allowed a direct County to send Alex Schalk though on a number of occasions and their captain Reynolds saw red when he was forced to bring the Dutchman down.
The safe, steady Brown performed his last line of defence duties well, making several important stops, while County spurned a number of opportunities they should have converted. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance from a side that refused to sit in despite their one-man disadvantage.
Familiar methods see Griffiths pass a half century of goals for Celtic
Despite a number of absentees, Mixu Paatelainen stuck with his 3-4-2-1 formation, bringing Ryan McGowan and Gavin Gunning into the back three and John Souttar into central midfield. New signing Riku Riski joined Scott Fraser just behind lone striker Simon Murray, brought in due to the absence of top scorer Billy McKay. Even though Murray got on the end of a Souttar through ball to score his second goal in just two starts, it was a night to forget for the Tannadice side.
Ronny Deila restored his preferred 4-2-3-1, dropped Callum McGregor into a holding role alongside Stefan Johansen and brought in Tom RogiÃ„â€¡ and Stuart Armstrong to play behind Leigh Griffiths and alongside Kris Commons. Armstrong looked desperate to get on the scoresheet against his former team, cutting inside to shoot at every opportunity in the first half, even when he should have picked out a team-mate. He did link well with Kieran Tierney, however, taking United defender McGowan inside with him and giving his left-back space to run into.
It was from such a move that Celtic won a free-kick in a wide position, crossed by Commons and finished by Jozo ŠimunoviÃ„â€¡ to make to 2-0. Before that, Griffiths had taken advantage of a slip by Gunning to score his 50th goal for Celtic. It was his 25th of this season and just the second he has scored with his right foot, after being played through by RogiÃ„â€¡. The goal should have been flagged for offside but displays the striker’s willingness to play on the shoulder of the last defender and race on to through balls. He has done so for seven of his goals this season and has also won two penalties - both of which he has converted – through this.
Another common method of Griffiths’s goals has been getting on the end of crosses. This time he volleyed home, again with his right foot, after Mikael Lustig fired the ball into the box. This takes the total number of crosses Griffiths has converted this season to nine.
Falkirk and Hibs cancel each other out for large spells
For this important top-three clash, Hibernian brought Darren McGregor in at right-back while restoring Jason Cummings and Fraser Fyvie to their starting line up. They set out in a 4-3-1-2, with Dominique Malonga just off James Keatings and Cummings in attack. Peter Houston stuck by his trusted 4-4-2, though preferred Lee Miller to Kevin O’Hara up front.
The two sides cancelled each other out in a largely uneventful first half, with the home side just edging it on chances created. Hibs’ midfield three understandably sat very narrow, while Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston also tended to come towards the centre, meaning a congested midfield and lots of direct play.
The second half opened up a little more and made up for a lack of chances in the first and it was Falkirk who took the lead via Alston. Houston made a big deal of his side taking advantage of crosses versus Hibernian last season, though this one was taken in a slightly different manner. A low cross from deep led to a clever exchange at the edge of the box and a composed finish.
It was just what Falkirk deserved and they soon moved to consolidate their lead, withdrawing Miller in favour of an extra central midfielder in Conor McGrandles. Hibs had responded with a change of their own, bringing on Liam Henderson for Keatings. He initially started just off the front two but moved to the right as Stubbs set up in the narrow 4-4-2 he has used often this season.
Henderson’s introduction instantly changed the momentum and he was involved in a move that led to a strong penalty claim. He set up Cummings on a number of occasions and was unfortunate to not leave the pitch with any assists to his name. Cummings did eventually equalise though it came after tapping in the rebound from a Darren McGregor strike. The draw was a fair result but favours neither side in their pursuit of league leaders Rangers.