Craig Cairns analyses key tactics from the weekend's SPFL action, focusing on Inverness Caley Thistle, Rangers and Dundee United.
Inverness play without a striker for the second game in a row
Remember when Scotland lined up in an infamous 4-6-0 formation? Well Inverness manager John Hughes has deployed something similar against the top two recently with a little more success. Sure, they were on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline on Saturday but dominated for most of the match before succumbing to the potency of the Celtic attack. They also came away with a comprehensive victory after deploying it versus Aberdeen.
A narrow midfield four in a 4-4-2-0, with and Jordan Roberts and Miles Storey wide, caused the Celtic defence no end of problems. They kept possession better than almost any other team has at Celtic Park this season and in the end it was poor finishing more than anything else that contributed to the loss.
Celtic started the match with a very high defensive line, which Caley continually exploited. Gary Warren missed an open goal before Ross Draper saw a shot deflected agonisingly wide. Roberts’ pace also caused Erik Sviatchenko and Dedryck Boyata problems. For one chance he was through on the goalkeeper but couldn’t beat Craig Gordon; for another – a 3v2 situation – he played the wrong pass, failing to pick out Draper who would have been through on goal.
Celtic took the lead through Mackay-Steven, who scored his fourth goal in six matches, before an obligatory goal from Leigh Griffiths. Before adding their third, Celtic brought on Scott Allan, Ryan Christie and Patrick Roberts to play in the 3 attacking midfield positions. The trio combined in a free-flowing move to tee-up Griffiths for his 32nd goal of the season.
Substitute Miller scores wonder goal in absence of top scorer
The biggest question surrounding Rangers’ team selection on Sunday was who was going to replace the injured Martyn Waghorn? Mark Warburton stuck with his 4-1-2-3 formation, bringing in Nicky Clark to lead the line against his former club. Either side of him was Michael O’Halloran and Billy King, with Barrie McKay dropped back into midfield.
Rangers came up against a sturdy Queen of the South defence and struggled to get crosses into Clark. Whilst Waghorn likes to do a lot of his work outside the box, linking with team-mates, Clark is more of a poacher. Despite the change in style up top, Clark wasn’t able to get on the end of many chances.
James Fowler set up with a narrow back four and two holding midfielders, stifling the Rangers dangermen. At the other end, their two wingers and two strikers went man-for-man against the Rangers backline, making it difficult for Lee Wallace and James Tavernier to get forward as much as they usually do.
Kenny Miller came on for Clark on the hour mark and scored an absolute peach with his first strike. His movement outside the box for the goal, which started from a throw, displayed what Rangers had been missing in the match, even if it took a terrific strike to unlock the Doonhamers defence.
Return of Paul Paton improves United
Four wins and a draw in their last seven may give Mixu Paatelainen’s side some cause for optimism. A win at the weekend over a top-three side will most definitely have helped! Unfortunately for their survival surge, two of these victories have come in the cup and every team above them seems capable of gathering points.
When Mixu arrived at Tannadice, he started with a back four though quickly abandoned this due to a heavy loss at Celtic Park. A switch to a back three followed, which he has stuck to since. A dearth of natural wide players meant this change made sense, though United continued to struggle at both ends.
For the Dundee derby – the match which immediately preceded this run of seven – United were forced to use Blair Spittal as a right wing-back, as Ryan McGowan was required in central defence. Spittal’s performance in that match, along with McGowan’s subsequent transfer to Chinese club Henan Jianye, means that the former Queen’s Park player has continued on the right of a five-man midfield.
There was a stretch of matches where the narrative surrounding United centred upon playing well but not converting these performances into results. It wasn’t until a similar change on the other side that league wins started to come. John Rankin, although required in the centre for the majority of the second half versus Hearts, has taken up the role as left-wing-back during this run.
The run of form has also coincided with the return of Paul Paton. Much of the focus was placed upon a leaky defence, but recent weeks would suggest that the problem may have been related to the lack of a midfield destroyer in the centre of the park. The Motherwell result aside, United have conceded just two goals in four matches since his return. Furthermore, it was his superb strike that secured all three points at the weekend.
The performance of Ryan Dow in the match versus Kilmarnock, and his cameo versus Hearts, should also give United some optimism for future weeks. He linked excellently with Spittal to pick apart Gary Locke’s side in a 5-1 victory and his driving run was a factor in Paton’s winner.
United like to attack down the sides of their opponents and this match was no different. From the off they had the Hearts defence on the back foot and won a number of corners. They very nearly took the lead from one early on, with Neil Alexander forced into a spectacular save from an Edward Ofere header and did open the scoring when Guy Demel nodded in from a similar position.