Five Things We Learned, 10 March 2014

1) Rangers go from despair to where

Although this column tends not to concern itself with the fiddle-faddle of the cup competitions, it would be somewhat remiss to completely ignore yesterday’s events at Ibrox. A nation turned its lonely eyes to Sky Sports where the Scottish Cup quarter-final between the mighty Rangers and little ol’ Albion Rovers ended up with the big blue juggernaut halted by the pluckiest of opponents in a 1-1 draw. It was an astonishing contest and one which, on their defensive display alone, Rovers deserved something from; Rangers, meanwhile, brought new and imaginative meanings to the words “abject”.

Albion Rovers first. James Ward’s side entirely merit every piece of praise thrown in their direction. They rarely saw the ball – their goal and a few infrequent forays upfield aside, of course – and only fleetingly came into contact with it when they were required to hack it away from the six yard box, but the obdurate, unbending commitment to keeping their hosts at arm’s length deserves the highest commendation. Sure, they rode their luck in parts (Mick Dunlop’s toothy grin when he poked Fraser Aird’s testing cross beyond his own post summed it all up) but their defensive performance was extraordinary, with Neil Parry, Ross Dunlop and Ciaran Donnelly in particular excelling. Had Rovers shown more assurance in possession then they could have earned more than a replay.

And what of Rangers? Seven days ago, this column lamented their performance against East Fife and labelled it as one of their poorest of the season; it was roundly trumped by yesterday’s display. This was Ally McCoist’s Rangers at their very worst: bloodless, one-paced, and insipid. Given what was at stake and given the relative mediocrity of their opponents, this was, pound for pound, arguably the nadir of his management so far. The players must take their share of the responsibility for their inability to break down their visitors but McCoist will carry the can for their failure to progress at the first attempt. Not since The Adventures of Pluto Nash has so much money been thrown at something so incoherent.

Rangers’ flaws were numerous, but the decision to remove Jon Daly for Sebastien Faure and move Bilel Mohsni into attack for the final 15 minutes was met with widespread derision. This author even laughed in astonishment at the maneuvering. Granted, McCoist was vindicated as Mohsni flicked David Templeton’s deep cross into the net (although whether or not the goal should have stood is certainly open for debate – the ball appeared to nudge beyond Parry off the defender’s raised arm) but the manager, paid a salary of around £400,000, should have far more tactical nous to beat a team from the lower reaches of League 2 than simply sticking a centre-back up top for the closing stages.

McCoist will face some awkward questions but for all his recent blundering, he still seems entirely secure in his position. The team are still competing in three competitions after all, no matter how unconvincing they have looked of late. But if there was stability in the Ibrox boardroom, would his role within the club perhaps be a little more invidious? The current regime needs an acceptable face to present to the support, but are Rangers, on the park at least, moving forward? Are the players any better than they were since the beginning of the season?

The outcome of the match will now be contested by a replay on 17 March at Hamilton Academical’s New Douglas Park. Ward believes that Rovers can overcome Rangers, and why shouldn’t he? On current form, why shouldn’t any team in the country fancy their chances against them? CGT

 

2) Livingston’s free-wheeling tactical style continues to fascinate

In a division where certain teams adopt one style or formation over the course of the season – Alloa Athletic’s midfield diamond immediately springs to mind – Livingston are the antithesis to such a thing. They began the campaign as an expansive, ball-playing side with little solidity (something which perhaps hastened Richie Burke’s departure) before shifting towards something more robust under John McGlynn. They retained their stylish identity through Coll Donaldson and the irrepressible Stefan Scougall but their departure during the January transfer window saw Livi embrace the stouter aspects of the game more associated with McGlynn’s management.

Saturday’s trip to Falkirk saw another shuffling of the deck. Having lost their three previous games against Falkirk this season, McGlynn perhaps harboured concerns that the host’s strengths preyed on the visitor’s weakness and that the necessary tactical adjustments were required to avoid a whitewash. His subsequent approach was certainly interesting, even if it made for an absorbing rather than a thrilling spectacle.

McGlynn arranged his side into a 3-4-3 system which, at times, bordered on a 3-4-1-2, with Kyle Jacobs afforded the freedom to drop back into the midfield from the attacking trident. In front of the defence, Simon Mensing and Jimmy Scott – Livingston’s own version of the Mitchell brothers – were charged with denying Falkirk the space they required to play through the middle and attack their back three.

Livingston’s set-up only accounted for half the intrigue. When the team attacked, the centre-backs would spread to offer passing options, something that would often be mirrored by the three forwards. With the two wing-backs – Keaghan Jacobs and Jason Talbot – also moving out wide, their formation looked like a box. It did not necessarily translate into tangible opportunities – Marc McNulty’s 35th minute strike came from their first chance on goal – but from a defensive perspective, it worked superbly. Falkirk were afforded space on the flanks (they began the match with a traditional 4-4-2 formation) but so poor was their crossing that Livi repelled them with ease. Between the first 20 minutes and the final ten, they failed to create a chance of note.

Livingston have been mentioned as an outside shout for the final play-off place in the past but their performance in the game’s closing stages showed that they do not have the quality to compete with Falkirk and Hamilton Academical on a consistent basis. The Bairns were able to introduce Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston, and the pair immediately lifted the team. Sibbald dominated proceedings, while Alston scored with one of two excellent opportunities that came his way. They could have even won the match four minutes from time had Mark Millar converted from the penalty spot after Mensing pulled down Sibbald inside the box. Despite their defensive style working well, Livingston could not match their hosts in terms of possession.

Tactically impressive, yes, but whether this develops into something that will lift them up the table remains to be seen. CF

 

3) Every match is now a “must-win game” for Cowdenbeath

The problem with using the phrase “must-win game” isn’t just the pressure with which it burdens the team, but the additional disappointment if the tie is squandered. Indeed, there was a palpable feeling of frustration around Central Park on Saturday afternoon when Cowdenbeath failed to triumph in another important match. Their 2-2 draw with Alloa Athletic was their third must-win game of the past four weeks (they had recently drawn with Greenock Morton and lost to Livingston) and the nature of the result will only have added to their sense of disgruntlement.

Jimmy Nicholl’s side did not play poorly against Alloa – far from it. But the strange deviation from the 3-5-2 system which had served them well in previous matches and the superlative display of visiting goalkeeper Scott Bain hindered their performance. This was very much a case of two points dropped rather than one gained.

Nicholl’s preference for deploying five across the midfield normally provides his team with a man-advantage in the middle of the park, while his willingness to pair Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart in attack has allowed the strikers to develop one of the better offensive partnerships in the division. Yet with Hemmings absent through injury, Nicholl began the weekend’s match by configuring his side into a 4-4-1-1 formation and stationed Jamie Stevenson in behind Stewart. Any doubts over the system’s efficiency were confirmed when Graeme Holmes capitalised on their hesitancy after six minutes. Only when Nicholl reverted to a pack three and added more to the midfield did they begin to exert their dominance.

Stewart levelled before half-time before a Ryan McCord strike on the hour mark – completely against the run of play – restored the visitors’ advantage. Stewart equalised once again with over 15 minutes remaining but Cowden were unable to overcome a dour Alloa side. Earlier in the season, Paul Hartley was occasionally accused of his overly cautious approach, one which was built around contain and counter, and his successor Barry Smith has continued with this strategy. It has its benefits, particularly on Saturday when the side had a lead to hold onto, but it has its drawbacks – under Smith’s tenure, they have collected just one point after going behind (and that was the 1-1 draw with Dundee, a match in which Smith preferred to watch from the stand while his assistant Paddy Connolly took control). The new manager has been at Recreation Park for less than six weeks but he must develop a Plan B if his team are to pull away from the relegation play-off position.

Cowdenbeath, meanwhile, will have understood the full of extent of Hemmings’s importance to their cause. Without the Championship’s top goal-scorer in their line-up, they have taken one point from a possible nine this term. Hemmings is expected to return for the weekend’s meeting with Dumbarton and his team will need him to hit the ground running – they take on the current top five placed sides in their next six matches. This might not be as difficult at first glance – they have won 17 points against teams from the top half of division compared to 12 against the bottom five – but Cowden are still three points and an inferior goal difference from safety, while Raith Rovers in eighth have a game in hand on them.

With the season now in its final quarter, every fixture is shaping up as a must-win game for Cowdenbeath. SM

 

4) Michael Moffat is back and he is on fire!

Mark Roberts recorded the biggest win of his managerial career on Saturday, but it wasn’t just the 5-0 score-line that defined the magnitude of Ayr United’s victory over Stranraer. After four consecutive defeats, United were in serious danger of dropping out of the play-off positions for the first time this season (Stenhousemuir sat three points behind them and Forfar Athletic, 3-2 winners at Somerset Park in midweek, a further point behind with a game in hand) and the more vociferous elements of their cantankerous support were becoming increasingly disillusioned with his leadership.

Roberts described the first 45 minutes of last Tuesday defeat to the Loons as “unacceptable” (the same term he used to describe the 2012-13 season) and the worst during his time at the club. He was right, Ayr were awful: their defence was in disarray and the lacked confidence and ideas further forward. Stranraer posed ominous opposition, have netted ten times in their previous two encounters with Ayr. Few could have expected such a comfortable 90 minutes.

The difference between Tuesday night and Saturday? Michael Moffat. Ayr’s talismanic striker returned from his four-match suspension after breaching the SFA’s betting rules and the SPFL’s leading goal-scorer wasted no time in getting back into the swing of things. After just eight minutes, he was felled by Scott Rumsby and converted the resultant penalty, and the goal visibly lifted United from their stupor. From there on, they were rarely troubled by a tired Stranraer side and were three-up before half-time (with Moffat nodding the ball on for Michael Donald to score the third). With central midfielders Brian Gilmour and Adam Hunter acting to ensure that Ayr retained possession and their territorial advantage and preventing their opponents from instigating the quick passing game that has brought them unanticipated success this term.

Moffat added a fourth after 59 minutes with an archetypal strike. Picking the ball up 30 yards from goal, he ran at Frank McKeown and David McGregor before moving the ball onto his left foot and shooting across goalkeeper David Mitchell for his 22nd goal of the season. To compound Stranraer’s misery, McKeown was sent off minutes later after hauling down Moffat and Ayr added a fifth before full-time.

Moffat’s pace and acceleration was crucial in allowing his side to get in behind the Stranraer defence, and his performance was in stark contrast to what Kevin Kyle has offered in recent weeks. The burly striker missed the match through suspension and it was perhaps little coincidence that his team turned in their best attacking performance in his absence.

Ayr travel to East Fife at the weekend and then host Arbroath, two presentable opportunities that should allow them to maintain their advantage in fourth before taking on nearest challengers Stenhousemuir on 29 March. Kyle will likely return for the trip to Methil (Craig Malcolm is suspended) but the calibre of Saturday’s performance shows that Moffat must now be the primary focus of their attack instead of Kyle and the dreary long ball approach he seems to encourage from his team-mates. AG

 

5) Peterhead can only throw away the League 2 title from here

In a 3-2 win away to Elgin City, Peterhead made difficult work for themselves having gone behind twice, but their strength eventually showed. Having won 14 of their last 18 league matches, it seems impossible for Annan Athletic to overturn the 11 point lead at the top of the League 2 table, even with a game in hand.

From the first moments of Saturday’s match, Peterhead looked the superior team, yet in the first half it only showed for the opening five minutes. With Jim McInally setting his team out in a 5-3-2 system with Graeme Sharp and Steven Noble as wing-backs, and a reprise of the defensive shape that helped towards 18 clean sheets in last season’s league competition, they looked unworried against Barry Wilson’s 4-4-2 side that consisted of four forwards, a winger and a playmaker. As Ryan Strachan was the spare defender, he used his composure on the ball to bring the play out of the backline and build attacks without fuss from a central position. As well as having the form team, it looked like the tactical circumstances would fall into McInally’s lap.

It didn’t work like that. With Strachan moving forward, City were able to counter, with Shane Sutherland taking the initiative from his central-midfield role to drive forward. Twice he surged beyond Peterhead’s midfield  in the first six minutes; twice Craig Gunn got the better of Ross Smith at the inside-right channel; and twice was all that was needed to earn the opening goal. Leaving Paul Harkins alone in the deep-lying midfield position was a risk, but it paid off as Harkins had one of his best matches for the club with the added responsibility and increased space to allow his raking passes to breathe. Elgin enjoyed the best of the first half on the balance of play using the same pattern, with Peterhead’s midfield three generally too similar and static.

Nonetheless, Peterhead were dangerous. With Strachan able to take the ball out of the defence with relative ease, he and his colleagues had plenty time to lift their heads and play diagonal balls, either to the wing-backs or more particularly behind Elgin’s defence. Rory McAllister was relentless in his testing of Jamie Duff, whose nervous misclearance allowed Peterhead to equalise from Andy Rodgers pouncing on Noble’s effort after McAllister’s shot was parried by Raymond Jellema. McAllister had the beating of Duff nearly every time and even if Elgin held their own in the first half, it was a surprise that the Blue Toon didn’t make more of the opportunities behind the defence.

As it happened, Sutherland’s shot from a short corner deflected wickedly over Peterhead goalkeeper Graeme Smith’s head for a half-time lead, but it seemed inevitable that the away team would get back into the match. Even if Rodgers only rarely dropped off the his marker (he got no joy from Sean Crighton), and while the midfield three offered little attacking threat, McAllister’s constant questioning of Duff was going to prevail eventually.

Although Moray was indulged in sunshine and a temperate 13C in the shade, there was a strong westerly wind that assisted Elgin’s counter-attacking in the first half and only seemed to help Peterhead in the second. McInally put on Jordon Brown at half-time, initially to sit back off the rest of the defence, but when the inevitable happened and Duff picked up a second yellow card six minutes after the break, Brown played at the tip of the midfield triangle and gave Elgin something different to think about as Peterhead’s wing-backs encroached further up the pitch.

City rolled with every punch and countered on their own, probably in the only way they could. With Shane Sutherland temporarily deputising in defence alongside Crichton, as Harkins tried to hold down the midfield with Dennis Wyness, and with yet three more forwards ahead of them, there was little chance of winning by containment. The passage between Duff’s sending off and Peterhead’s equaliser represented the most entertaining slugfest witnessed by these eyes this season, as both teams attempted to put the other on the back foot. Ultimately, there was a sense of inescapable defeat for Elgin as Peterhead created more and the better of the opportunities, and when Harkins switched off to allow Rodgers and Jamie Redman to combine for McAllister to net the equaliser from the rebound of yet another Jellema save, there was only going to be one winner.

Peterhead’s strength in depth was telling when they had attacking options such as Brown and Fraser McLaren to come off the bench. The ability to use the bench to help change the outlook on a match is something that Barry Wilson will certainly be envious of. In the end, there is just too much vibrance on top of a solid foundation in the Blue Toon’s make-up to not go on to win the top prize in the league, with McAllister’s 21 goals barely over a third of the team’s output. The title is theirs to throw away. JAM

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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