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Wednesday 28th October 2015

Terrace Tactics

Craig Cairns takes his latest tactical look at the SPFL, focusing this week on Hearts, winning with 10 men, and St Mirren’s game against Rangers.

Craig Cairns takes his latest tactical look at the SPFL, focusing this week on Hearts, winning with 10 men, and St Mirren’s game against Rangers.

Hearts’ 4-4-2 continues to reap rewards
Save for the first 45 minutes against Dundee United recently, Robbie Neilson’s favoured formation has been 4-4-2 in his previous four matches. After conceding 17 goals in their first 12 games in all competitions, Hearts have now conceded just once in those four.

Even though their formation matched that of Ross County on Saturday, Hearts dominated the match. In an attacking sense, they did this through the movement off, and the ability on, the ball of Osman Sow and dominated the midfield by the way wide men Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson drifted inside. This, in turn, allowed their full-backs to join in. A combination of these three factors is how the opening goal came about.

Some good work on the right wing from Sow allowed Hearts to move up the pitch. Later in the move, Nicholson cut inside and saw his shot at goal blocked before the ball eventually found its way to Callum Paterson. His thunderous strike from just outside the box beat Gary Woods to give Hearts the lead.

When the goal is scored, both Walker and Nicholson are in narrow positions on the opposite side from which they lined up. Contrast this with Ross County, whose wide players were more inclined to stick to their starting positions. This allowed Hearts to overrun them in the centre of midfield.

But it was Hearts’ defending that was arguably the most important factor in the victory. When not in possession, Hearts were happy to get everyone behind the ball and were so compact that Ross County found it difficult to break them down. Crucially, they were able to reduce the service to Liam Boyce, whose only real chance saw him run on to a poor Igor Rossi pass and draw a red card-inducing foul from Blazej Augustyn.

After being reduced to 10 men, Neilson decided to move right-back Paterson into the centre instead of Jordan McGhee, who started at left-back but is naturally a central defender. The choice was vindicated as Paterson and Rossi battered everything away for the remainder of the match. Other than the incident mentioned above, Rossi hardly gave Boyce an inch. So much so that he intercepted a pass intended for the Northern Ireland international before launching the attack for the second goal. The win was especially impressive given that Hearts played the vast majority of the second half with 10 men.

A good day for 10 men all round
It wasn’t just the Tynecastle club that emerged with an impressive result against the odds, Hamilton Accies came from behind with 10 men at Firhill to earn a draw for the second consecutive match. After losing Darian MacKinnon for violent conduct at home to Dundee, Hamilton dominated until Dougie Imrie popped up to rescue a point. On Saturday, Imrie again bailed the 10 men out, this time after Lucas Tagliapietra was dismissed in first-half injury time.

Meanwhile, at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, St Johnstone left it late as they won 1-0 with an injury-time penalty from Liam Craig. Just like Hearts, St Johnstone played almost the entire second half with 10 men after the dismissal of Dave Mackay. Bizarrely, this led to St Johnstone’s first clean sheet all season. Before Saturday, St Johnstone had played 14 matches in all competitions and had conceded in every single one.

So, of the three Ladbrokes Premiership teams that saw a man sent off on Saturday, two went on to win and one came from behind to earn a draw. Some were surprised when Robbie Neilson suggested his side had been training with 10 men in the build-up to their match with Hamilton a few weeks back, but it is actually more common for managers to dedicate some time to training with a man down than people think. Whether these sides trained as such or not, they all managed to pull off impressive results when a man short.

Rangers rattled by St Mirren’s approach but continue winning streak
When facing a side that has now won 11 league matches from 11, scoring 34 and conceding six goals, a high-pressing game sounds like suicide. That’s the theory anyway. In practice, St Mirren rattled Rangers for much of the first half, forcing them into uncharacteristic errors.

So far this season, Rangers have encouraged both their full-backs to take up advanced positions, leaving their central pairing alone as the only defensive players. Ian Murray decided to test their mettle, lining up with a front two of Steven Thompson and Calum Gallagher and asking them to press the Rangers centre-backs.

Two St Mirren strikers up against Rangers’ central defence and a high-pressing game meant that if Rangers pushed both full-backs on, they were leaving a dangerous two-v-two situation at the back. The result was several forced errors in defence and, except for the visit of Hibernian, the most a team has troubled Rangers in the Ladbrokes Championship this season.

Despite the clever tactics deployed by Murray, Rangers still walked away with the three points courtesy of a Jason Holt strike. The goal was created through a familiar source: Martyn Waghorn - who plays as the lone striker but does his best work outside the box - dropping deep to collect the ball before finding a team-mate running beyond him.