Craig Cairns takes his latest tactical look at the SPFL, with the focus this week on Hearts, Celtic and Motherwell.
Hearts harry Dons from the off
For the visit of Aberdeen, Robbie Neilson decided to drop Juwon Oshaniwa and move Igor Rossi to left-back, bringing club captain Alim Öztürk back into the centre of defence. Osman Sow was restored to the starting line-up at the expense of Juanma and was too much for the Aberdeen defence to handle, especially in the first half. The changes worked well for the home side, as both Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes were kept quiet, meaning the service to Adam Rooney was cut off.
Rooney has scored 14 goals this season, six from the penalty spot. Of the other eight, six have been assisted by McGinn or Hayes (three each) and each one has been from either a cross or a set-piece. Even the goal against Dundee United at Pittodrie, which Rooney forced over the line after Peter Pawlett’s attempt, initially came from a Hayes cross.
Aberdeen struggled to contain the whole Hearts side from the off. Neilson’s side were sharper, hungrier and harried the Dons so much that they failed to create anything meaningful in the first half. Derek McInnes was forced to react with just 12 minutes played, moving Graeme Shinnie to wing-back and changing to a back three.
Hearts continued with a similar strategy as they had in their previous two matches, deploying a 4-4-2 with Prince Buaben on one side and Sam Nicholson, a natural winger, on the other. At times they moved the ball quickly through the centre of the pitch; at others they played direct balls down the flanks and towards the strikers. A long pass from Rossi behind the Aberdeen defence led to the corner from which Hearts took the lead in the opening minutes.
It was Callum Paterson who eventually headed in, scoring his sixth goal of the season. That’s two in two now for the Scotland U21 international and his scoring record is rather impressive given his position. Even when taking into account that Paterson spent part of his Hearts career as a striker, or on the right of midfield, his scoring rate is just shy of one in four.
Things got worse for Aberdeen when they lost Willo Flood to injury towards the end of the first half, meaning Shinnie was restored to central midfield. They came more into the game in the second half and should have equalised when the ball fell to Considine in the box. That said, Aberdeen were fortunate to be just one goal behind at that stage and were soundly beaten.
Deila does direct in a switch to 4-4-2
Since arriving at Celtic Park, Ronny Deila has stuck to his preferred 4-2-3-1 and rarely deviated. For their visit to Stranraer’s Stair Park he opted to switch to a 4-4-2, pairing Carlton Cole in attack with Leigh Griffiths. Kris Commons and Callum McGregor were used in the wide positions, though naturally drifted inside when their team had the ball.
This spelled a slightly more direct approach for Celtic. Stranraer didn’t allow Deila’s men to settle in the early stages and they responded by aiming long balls towards Cole. The former England international was presented with three chances early in the match but was quickly closed down by a pumped-up Stranraer defence. Celtic looked more dangerous when they got a foothold in the match and attacked by building through midfield and looking to slip in through balls.
It was through this method that they took the lead. Unlike his strike partner, Griffiths needed just one chance to find the net – arching his run to move on to a McGregor pass to fire past young keeper Max Currie. With half-time approaching, Cole then displayed what he can bring to the side, using his strength to take up position and nod in Nir Bitton’s cross for Celtic’s second.
The two strikers meant Celtic went with an unfamiliar central midfield two. Bitton was partnered by Stefan Johansen and the two worked well together. Bitton would drop between the centre-backs to take possession and launch attacks, while Johansen used his energy to perform an effective box-to-box role.
The third goal showed how dangerous Griffiths can be when a defensive line pushes up against them and he has space to run into. Substitute Scott Allan slipped in a clever through ball for him to race on to and claim his 22nd goal in 31 appearances this season.
Mark McGhee’s Motherwell manage to find their best XI
Even though this comprehensive 5-0 win was against Highland League opposition in Cove Rangers, it comes during an impressive run of form for Mark McGhee’s men. Since their 3-0 defeat in Dingwall, Motherwell are unbeaten in six, winning four. Had it not been for a last-minute penalty awarded against them versus Hamilton, Saturday’s win would have meant a sequence of five consecutive victories. The run has seen them move from 11th to eighth and the latest win is their first in the Scottish Cup since 2012.
It took McGhee a few weeks but he has finally settled upon a strong starting XI. He is inclined to make a few tweaks, depending on opposition, though uses the same personnel to do so. For instance, Scott McDonald plays up front with Louis Moult in a 4-4-2, though has also operated on the right of a 4-5-1 – moving up to join Moult when his side have the ball. During this impressive run, Moult has netted six times in six matches, while McDonald has rediscovered his goalscoring form, chipping in with four across the same period.
Liam Grimshaw has been used at central midfield, as well as on right – in a similar role to what Buaben has played for Hearts recently – while Stephen Pearson has been used in the centre mostly but started on the left in the recent victory over St Johnstone. Again, in a similar style to Hearts, Motherwell start with one natural winger in Marvin Johnson. He plays mostly on the left but started on the opposite side against St Johnstone.
Key to all this is McGhee getting his experienced players back in the side and back on form. We have already mentioned McDonald and Pearson but, as well as this, Steven Hammell has returned to fitness while Stephen McManus has stuck up a decent partnership with 18-year-old Ben Hall in central defence.
It’s still very tight in the middle section of the Ladbrokes Premiership but Motherwell are increasingly looking like serious contenders for a top-six finish. On this form, they may even get a decent run in the Scottish Cup as well.