Craig Cairns takes his latest tactical look at the SPFL, focusing on the weekend games at Celtic Park, Pittodrie and Dens Park.
Neilson again switches formation, Deila sticks to what he knows
Some managers in Scottish football are set upon a system and merely change personnel within that system, tweaking it slightly as they go. Others have proven their ability to adapt their shape, be it from week to week or as a one-off for big matches. Derek McInnes falls into the latter category; as does Jim McIntyre, who won the League Cup final by fielding a back three for the first time in the season (to my knowledge anyway); while Tommy Wright tweaked his front line to startle a previously invincible Rangers side at Ibrox.
Another of these is Robbie Neilson, who has used 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, a 4-4-2 diamond and their many variants this season. For the visit to Celtic Park on Saturday, he opted for a 4-4-2 which would often morph into more of a back three. Juwon Oshaniwa would cover the left flank, with no winger ahead of him, and John Souttar started at right-back but would often tuck in and become part of a back three – not too dissimilar to Ross County’s formation from last month’s League Cup Final.
Further ahead, Perry Kitchen sat in front of the defence and provided an extra body in the back line when required, mainly focusing on what Celtic’s Tom Rogic was doing. Prince Buaben and Arnuad Djoum took up central midfield roles while Jamie Walker supported Juanma in attack.
It worked for around 35 minutes. Hearts got the ball forward quickly when they had the ball and pressed Celtic when they didn’t. Walker gave Hearts the lead after five minutes when his side had won the ball in Celtic’s half before instantly playing it forward.
Celtic managed an equaliser through a set-piece but the goal came against the run of play. It wasn’t until they took the lead through a superb Patrick Roberts goal that they began to dominate proceedings. Hearts’ high pressing, coupled with Oshaniwa’s advanced positioning, meant that they were effectively man for man against the Celtic front four. Once the tide started to turn in Celtic’s favour they took control, were ruthless when taking their chances and never looked back.
While Ronny Deila has faced some criticism for sticking rigidly to his favoured 4-2-3-1, he has rotated personnel relentlessly throughout the season. Celtic are now on a run of 10 matches without defeat, including seven wins. In Patrick Roberts, they have a player that can win matches while turning on the style and exciting the fans.
Aberdeen double up on the Accies wing-backs
It was Hamilton manager Martin Canning’s 50th game in charge but, on the day, it was trumped by another milestone. Niall McGinn reached a half century of goals in Scottish football, a strike sandwiched between goals from Simon Church and Kenny McLean in a dominant display.
Aberdeen lined up in their frequently-used 4-2-3-1 formation and faced a somewhat makeshift Accies side who started in a back three. Aberdeen immediately took control, pushing full-backs Shay Logan and Graeme Shinnie forward in order to double up on Hamilton’s wing-backs.
As a result, they created countless opportunities in wide areas and took the lead from one a few within minutes. Jonny Hayes robbed Antons Kurakins in the Accies half before ruthlessly driving beyond him and firing in a perfect cross for Church to meet at the near post – a goal which takes the Welshman to five goals in nine appearances.
Hamilton were architects of their own downfall once more when Ziggy Gordon appeared to have the ball in his possession but allowed McGinn to nip beyond him and knock it past the advancing Michael McGovern. Canning would have known the size of the task going into this match but will be disappointed his side surrendered possession in their own half for the first two goals.
As has been noted a number of times in this column, Aberdeen like their front four to interchange. In this match it was slightly different, the two wingers mostly stuck to their side and Church stayed up front, while Kenny McLean drifted around in a free role. McGinn and Hayes switched flanks at one point in the match, but there was a lot less of the fluidity we often see from them.
Canning eventually switched to a back four, giving his team a winger on each side to aid the full-backs defensively. However, by that point the match was already beyond them and it became an exercise in not going further behind.
Have Dundee found their perfect formation?
For much of the season, Paul Hartley has tried to shoehorn Rory Loy on to the left of a front three. His switch to a back three in recent weeks has facilitated a rethink. For their thumping victory over Ross County, he started Loy in a front two with the prolific Kane Hemmings. Greg Stewart was given a free role behind these two, a position he has thrived in recently.
Their movement was too much for the County defence to handle and produced five goals, with each of the front three on the scoresheet. Even substitute Craig Wighton grabbed a goal after coming on in place of Loy with 10 minutes remaining. By this time, Stewart had been restored to his more familiar role of inverted winger. He cut in from the right to indirectly create Wighton’s goal before dancing and dummying his way to his second strike of the afternoon.
The 3-4-1-2 also allows the two central midfielders to sit and dictate play from deep and puts Kevin Holt in a wing-back position that he appears more comfortable in, and in which he played to great effect for Queen of the South last season. Cammy Kerr on the other side also looks comfortable as a wing-back and has broken through and shown the potential to become a regular starter for Dundee.