Craig Cairns takes his latest tactical look at the SPFL, with the focus this week on Aberdeen, Ross County and Partick Thistle.
Aberdeen dominate but require a penalty to take the points
Niall McGinn missed the visit of Hearts so Peter Pawlett lined up on the right of Adam Rooney in attack. Ryan Jack retuned from injury but only made the bench, meaning Graeme Shinnie continued in midfield. Hearts began the match in what looked like a 4-2-3-1, though Arnaud Djoum was so advanced the formation was more like a 4-4-2. Jordan McGhee was at left-back in place of Juwon Oshaniwa.
True to form, Robbie Neilson then switched his formation around on a few occasions, eventually settling with Djoum wide and Osman Sow through the middle. No matter the shape, Hearts struggled to contain Aberdeen. Willo Flood and Shinnie dominated the Hearts midfield, while Jonny Hayes gave Callum Paterson a tough time whether it was Sow or Djoum providing cover for the Scotland U21 full-back and tormented the Hearts defence with his direct running and whipped crosses.
Hearts have deployed a 4-4-2 and coped with most sides in the division but they struggled to keep the Dons from relentlessly attacking - even if they kept them from scoring from open play.
Much of this was down to Aberdeen winning the midfield battle. Prince Buaben, Miguel Pallardo and Morgaro Gomis – who came on to replace Pallardo in the first half – all struggled to cope with the industry and dynamism provided by the Shinnie-Flood partnership. Shinnie moving to left-back in the second half to cover a defensive injury coincided with Hearts enjoying their best spell of the game. Ryan Jack, who came on to replace him in midfield, is just returning from injury and was thrown in against difficult opponents, but it is clear Aberdeen miss something when Shinnie is absent from the centre.
Hearts’ defensive approach didn’t stop Aberdeen from leaving with the three points – a crazy handball from Jordan McGhee saw to that – but it did prevent the Dons scoring from open play. Reliance on set-pieces has been a key feature of Aberdeen’s games this season. Of their 28 league goals, five have now come from the spot, five have come from free-kicks and three from corners.
Ross County substitutes open up more space for key players
A number of players have returned for Ross County in recent weeks and this aided them in taking all three points from New Douglas Park. Scott Fox lined up in goals, Chris Robertson and Jamie Reckord came back into the defence and Michael Gardyne was selected as a substitute.
For the first half their two key men were kept quiet and they trailed 1-0 to Hamilton Accies at the break. Jackson Irvine was allowed possession around halfway but both he and Liam Boyce were crowded out in the final third. Both broke free to inflict damage in the second half, but it wasn’t until the introduction of Gardyne and Alex Schalk that they really began to dominate the game.
By this time County had drawn level through Craig Curran. Schalk then took to the field in place of Curran while Gardyne replaced De Vita. Schalk’s ability to drop deep and link with others, along with Gardyne’s willingness to run behind full-backs, opened up the space for other County players to take advantage.
Even though there was a heavy dose of good fortune with Stewart Murdoch’s goal to give County the lead, both Boyce and Irvine found some space on the ball in the build up. The third saw Gardyne race behind Antons Kurakins before cutting back for Boyce to finish.
The win is the first time Jim McIntyre’s side have taken points from a losing position this season, though they did come pretty close against St Johnstone the previous week. The fact they don’t score many second-half goals goes a long way to explaining this - before last week they had only netted five goals after half-time. Now they have doubled that total in the last two matches.
A subtle change in formation secures another win for Thistle
Since their last win over Dundee United – their first victory all season – Partick Thistle have gone on a superb run which has seen them lose just once in their last eight. Five wins from those fixtures, including their last three, has seen Thistle rise from bottom of the table to eighth spot.
The most unpredictable team in the division has finally found some consistently good form. But, far from never changing a winning team, manager Alan Archibald has tweaked his line-up a few times throughout this run. Mathias Pogba began the streak as the lone striker but has been replaced by Kris Doolan in recent weeks. The hitman has relished being restored to the starting XI, scoring four goals in his last three matches. He may not offer the same physical presence as Pogba but has shown a predatory instinct that his team-mate has so far failed to.
Robbie Muirhead has come on to a game recently but missed this match as it was against his parent club. Even though David Amoo came in to replace him, in more or less a straight swap, Thistle lined up with a flatter midfield four in a 4-4-1-1. Steven Lawless came inside to play just behind Doolan, with Stuart Bannigan on the left of midfield.
This change kept the Dundee United full-backs quiet and stopped the supply to their dangerman Billy McKay. Bannigan’s cross from the left brought about Thistle’s winner, allowing Doolan to turn and finish. The win takes Thistle to within two points of the top six and leaves them just four points shy of Ross County in fifth.