Craig Cairns takes his weekly tactical look at the SPFL, with the focus on Ross County, Partick Thistle and Aberdeen.
Ross County’s formation surprises everyone
The talk about Ross County going into Sunday’s League Cup Final with Hibernian was about whether they would line up in their usual 4-4-2, or show their opponents the same respect they have done in bigger matches this season by dropping a striker in favour of an extra body in midfield.
They did neither. Instead, they played Richard Foster and Michael Gardyne as wing-backs, asking Marcus Fraser to join Paul Quinn and Andrew Davies in a back three. They kept their plan secret all the way until kick-off and fooled everyone when they appeared to line up in their usual back four. However, as soon as the game started, Foster pushed right up the pitch to confront David Gray.
This was likely a response to Hibernian’s diamond. In that formation, Liam Henderson supports the two strikers and is aided by John McGinn’s driving runs from the left-sided shuttling role. The diamond also contains one outright holder, while the right shuttler, in this case Kevin Thomson, takes up a more reserved role and aids the centre. This means that, not only is there large amounts of space on that side, Gray is expected to cover it with his forays.
Foster man-marked Gray while the rest of his side took a leaf out of Inverness’ book from the week before, by man-marking the Hibernian diamond. Jackson Irvine stuck to McGinn, Ian McShane followed Henderson’s runs, while Alex Schalk dropped off the front to harass Marvin Bartley. On the other side, Gardyne pressed up against Lewis Stevenson, preventing him from getting forward as often as he’d have liked.
This meant a lop-sided nature to the County five across the midfield. Foster, naturally a full-back, was likely to drop back into position when required, Gardyne, by contrast, played more like a natural winger. Cover was provided behind him by Fraser, however, who played halfway between a right-back and a centre-back.
Towards the end of the match, with the score at 1-1, Jim McIntyre decided to make a positive change that helped win the match. Jonathan Franks came on in place of Foster, meaning County now had a winger on each flank. He went to the right, Gardyne came to the left and it was from his direct run on the counter attack that they scored their last-minute winner.
Partick Thistle start well but succumb to Celtic’s dangermen
Alan Archibald decided to change his shape for this match, pushing one of his holding midfielders forward into a 4-1-4-1 formation. They came into this match with a pretty impressive defensive record and for most of the first half they preserved that record. Rather than sitting in, they did this by keeping possession of the ball.
Moreover, they tried to take advantage of a vulnerable Celtic side by pressing them when out of possession. Their 4-1-4-1 facilitated this. Kris Doolan, back in the starting line-up, harried the two centre-backs, while Sean Welsh and Gary Fraser man-marked Celtic’s holding midfielders in order to deny them the ball.
Despite all their possession, Thistle rarely threatened. Liam Lindsay came close with a long-range effort and Doolan almost put Thistle ahead after dancing beyond Erik Sviatchenko. At the other end, Celtic cut the home side open more frequently and always looked more likely to score.
Leigh Griffiths had a header saved early on but then began to drop deeper to get involved as the half progressed. A dipping strike from outside the box was also saved before he eventually got his goal, arriving late in the box to control and finish Gary Mackay-Steven’s cross.
When attacking, Thistle were prone to pushing Callum Booth forward, leaving a huge space behind him. Callum McGregor exploited that area on a number of occasions – including the earlier header from Griffiths – and did so again shortly after half-time to give his side a 2-0 lead.
The Jags converted a late penalty, their first in almost 70 matches, but they failed to take advantage of any subsequent momentum. However, it was the first goal they had scored versus Celtic for around two years and over 10 hours of football.
Aberdeen’s fluid front three cause problems, as do their set-pieces
Aberdeen lined up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 shape yet retained the propensity for their front four to interchange. Jonny Hayes seemed to start the match on the right but would often drift in to take up the centre-forward role, or else he would come to the left to link with Niall McGinn and Kenny McLean.
Their movement confused the Kilmarnock defence from the off, creating an early chance for McLean which came back off the post. The away side eventually managed to quell the threat from open play so it was down to another of Aberdeen’s weapons through which they took the lead.
Ash Taylor had threatened after connecting with a Barry Robson corner earlier in the match and the duo combined once more in a similar fashion for the opening goal. Robson has been given a run in the starting line-up in recent weeks and his deliveries from set-pieces have been crucial.
After coming on as a substitute in midweek versus Partick Thistle, with his side 1-0 down, he was involved with Hayes following a set-piece to set up the equaliser. Minutes later he produced the perfect delivery for Simon Church’s near-post header. In all, Aberdeen have scored 10 of their league goals from set-pieces, a further two goals have come from sustained pressure following a set-piece.
Josh Magennis equalised early in the second half but Aberdeen again showed their resolve when Shay Logan popped up in the box to put the Dons ahead once more. The goal was the result of Hayes again popping up on the left-hand side. The Irishman now has seven league assists for the season. He has also scored four goals and has been directly involved in another five.