Craig Cairns takes his weekly look at tactical matters in the SPFL, with the focus on Hearts, Aberdeen and Rangers.
Neilson again switches formation, but keeps it direct
Recently on the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast, Robert Borthwick of SPFL Extra fame said that Hearts often raise their game under the floodlights at Tynecastle. Friday’s frantic match is yet further evidence of that claim.
It was Aberdeen who were quicker out the traps, however, in a start to the match reminiscent of the way Hearts began the previous fixture between the sides in January. For the opening goal, just as they had the week before, Jonny Hayes and Graeme Shinnie combined to great effect down the left. Shinnie’s cross was met by Simon Church who scored in an almost identical manner to that goal against Hamilton.
The Welsh international has now netted six goals in 10 matches since he arrived on loan. Each one of those goals has been finished from within the six-yard box and each one has been the result of a corner or a cross.
Robbie Neilson again changed his formation, bringing Blazej Augustyn in for the suspended Juwon Oshaniwa and switching to a back four. Sam Nicholson started on the left, with Prince Buaben tucked in on the right. Jamie Walker continued up front with Juanma.
Hearts’ strategy was to be direct, be it through long balls to Juanma or long diagonals to quickly switch play. It took them a while to find their feet but the match eventually swung in their favour. Alim Ozturk’s long-range effort was pushed back out by Scott Brown and Juanma was the only player to follow in for the rebound. By that time, Nicholson and Buaben had swapped sides and, for the remainder of the match, Shinnie struggled to get forward and impose himself with Nicholson as his direct opponent.
The hosts continued their dominance into the second half and it was through their direct approach that they scored the winner. Walker raced on to Bauben’s long pass before whipping in a cross for Juanma, who scored his 12th goal of the season.
McGhee gets more joy after half-time switch
For the visit of Celtic, Mark McGhee kept the same XI from the win over Inverness but moved Louis Moult to the left and Marvin Johnson to the right, leaving Scott McDonald as the lone striker in a 4-5-1.
The more defensive set-up invited the champions on to them and hampered their use of the ball. If it wasn’t for a superb performance from Connor Ripley, they would have been more than a goal down going into the break.
Celtic also tweaked their formation. Colin Kazim-Richards was brought in on the left-hand side of a 4-3-3, with Scott Brown, Nir Bitton and Stefan Johansen making up the midfield three. Kazim-Richards would often join Leigh Griffiths in the centre, while Patrick Roberts would collect the ball wide before cutting inside and unleashing his trickery. From one of these runs he won a penalty that was fired wide by Griffiths. After the match, Griffiths said that he was “a million percent off penalties” from now on and that “Craig Gordon probably has more chance of taking one” before he does again.
Kazim-Richards’ positioning created space for Kieran Tierney to drive into and, just before half-time, the full-back linked well with Johansen before aiming a low cross towards Griffiths, who scored for the first time in four matches – a drought by his standards.
Motherwell switched to a 4-4-1-1 for the second half, moving Moult up front with McDonald just behind him. Whereas the first half had seen them aim many a long ball at McDonald, the switch allowed Moult to hold the ball up and win flick-ons and they enjoyed better possession.
Well had a goal chopped off for a marginal offside and eventually equalised but were undone when Ripley allowed the ball to slip from his grasp and through his legs. The creator was again Tierney, who again crossed low, this time finding Griffiths at the edge of the box.
After the match, Ripley said: “If that had never happened, I think that probably would have been the best game I’ve played since I’ve been at Motherwell. The first half, I did have a lot of shots to save and I think when we changed our tactics and the way we shaped up in the second half, I didn’t have that much to do.” Unfortunately for the 23-year-old, after making 11 saves, one of the strikes he did let beyond him was possibly the easiest to stop of the lot.
Warburton’s system too much for Peterhead to handle
Rangers stuck with their aggressively attacking 4-1-2-3 for their Petrofac Training Cup Final tie with Peterhead. There were question marks over who would start on the wings, but Mark Warburton decided upon the in-form pair of Harry Forrester and Barrie McKay ahead of Michael O’Halloran and Billy King.
They dominated from the off, hitting their wingers with quick, direct passes to put them in behind the Peterhead defence. Jim McInally’s men lined up with two banks of four but it wasn’t enough to stop Rangers dominating the wide areas and whipping in low crosses. One of these was turned into his own net by Ally Gilchrist for the opening goal after Shane Sutherland conceded possession in his own half.
The Blue Toon failed to recover from the early setback. Other than a few chances at the end of the half, they rarely threatened Wes Foderingham’s goal. By that time, however, they were further behind to a wonderful strike from James Tavernier and it was always going to take something special to turn it around.