Craig Cairns take his latest tactical look at the SPFL, with the focus this week on Motherwell, Rangers and Aberdeen.
Motherwell’s pressing causes Hearts problems
Motherwell started with Louis Moult as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 system. Scott McDonald would come to the right wing when his side didn’t have the ball but would form a partnership with Moult while in possession. This was evidenced when he popped up on the inside-left channel to cross for Moult’s opener. The former Wrexham striker has now scored six league goals since arriving in the summer. Five of those have been from open play and four have been finished from within three yards of the goal – taking the definition of a penalty-box striker to the extreme.
Mark McGhee’s side harried the Hearts’ backline from the off, forcing Blazej Augustyn into a poor back-pass moments before the goal. The visitors were thus forced to knock the ball long more often than they would have liked. However, it was from one of those long balls that they equalised. Osman Sow won it after a Callum Paterson clearance before feeding Juanma, who finished delicately.
Both teams switched formations at half-time. Motherwell moved McDonald into attack in a 4-4-2, with McGhee sensing Hearts were there for the taking. Hearts did the opposite – switching from 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 – however, it was difficult to tell exactly what effect these changes had in the treacherous conditions.
Motherwell went ahead when Moult and McDonald combined to rob Hearts of possession in their own half. Marvin Johnson collected the ball and raced towards the goal, feinting and finishing expertly to give his side the lead.
Hearts then sent on Prince Buaben, moving Arnaud Djoum further forward in midfield. He fed Sow for the equaliser, but the goal was more about the finish (and the conditions) than any contribution from the Belgian. Regardless, it is worth pointing out that Hearts remain undefeated in eight league matches, a run which began when Djoum made his first appearance for the club.
Dean Shiels comes off the bench to net a hat-trick of assists
Rangers lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation against St Mirren, with Kenny Miller and Martyn Waghorn interchanging in the striker and right-wing positions - though, in effect, they formed a strike partnership for the majority of the match. As ever, the full-backs both pushed on and Saints boss Ian Murray attempted to take advantage of this by fielding two strikers against the two centre-backs – much like the previous meetings between the teams. Unfortunately for the away side, they failed to work the ball into attacking areas, especially in the first half.
A decent defensive performance at the other end still didn’t stop Rangers from creating numerous chances. Even up against two narrow banks of four, Mark Warburton’s side continually worked the ball through the middle with clever passes and through balls.
A block from Stuart Carswell, a headed clearance on the line from Sean Kelly and number of saves from Jamie Langfield kept the score at 0-0 until later in the half when Jason Holt gave Rangers the lead. This time, Andy Halliday chose to send the ball over the top of the St Mirren defence after the ball was half-cleared following a corner.
Rangers comfortably dominated possession for much of the game but failed to add to their only goal at first, leading to a period where St Mirren gave them a few scares. They did this mostly by taking advantage of the space behind the persistently advancing Lee Wallace. This culminated in Carswell striking the bar but, moments later, Rangers put the tie beyond Murray’s side.
By this point, Dean Shiels had replaced Holt. He was key in turning the tie from a narrow victory into a comfortable one. His clever through ball found Waghorn, who squared for Miller to make it 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining. Shiels then set up Waghorn for the third goal – although the Englishman created the space to shoot himself – before completing a hat-trick of assists when he nimbly worked his way into the box then forced Kelly into an own goal. Not bad for a man who was only on the pitch for around 30 minutes.
McInnes changes his formation several times in win over County
Aberdeen made two changes from the draw with Hamilton the previous week, replacing Ash Taylor and Peter Pawlett with Paul Quinn and Andrew Considine. The alterations meant Graeme Shinnie was returned to the centre of midfield.
Surprisingly, Niall McGinn was moved into attack alongside Adam Rooney. Derek McInnes said post-match that he wanted him up against Ross County’s centre-backs – specifically Scott Boyd. Despite this, it wasn’t until McGinn was moved to the left wing that he began to make his mark on the game, cutting inside to run at the centre-backs instead.
For the equaliser, McGinn showed great skill to turn Marcus Fraser before thundering down the wing and firing the ball across the goal for Rooney to finish. McGinn then fed Jonny Hayes, who fortuitously put Aberdeen ahead with a cross that flew in.
McGinn moving to the left was by no means the only formation change McInnes made. By this point, Hayes and McGinn were flanking Rooney in a three-man attack – in what looked like a 4-2-1-3. They also spent part of the match lined up as 4-4-2 - with Kenny McLean on the right and Hayes up front with Rooney- in their usual 4-2-3-1, and then finished in a 3-4-3.
We knew when the season started that players like Shinnie, Hayes, Considine and McLean gave Aberdeen masses of flexibility but this “relentless, thoughtful, intense, intelligent” performance - in the words of McInnes - is the most this writer has ever seen a team change their shape over 90 minutes.
They do have a habit of giving the ball away in dangerous areas, which is what led to County’s opener – they also gave similar opportunities away in their two previous games against Hamilton and Dundee United – but have enough tactical flexibility to get back into matches. They also have a player like McGinn, who rounded off an incredible second-half performance with goal.