1) Have Bomber’s tactics been found out already?
John “Bomber” Brown arrived at Dens Park to some incredulity last season, but proved his acumen by only losing three and winning four of the 11 matches of which he was directly in charge of. Considering his predecessor Barry Smith only managed three wins in 26, Brown’s job was a success, even if he couldn’t keep Dundee in the top flight.
Brown’s “kick up the back side” to the playing staff will have played its part but in this writer’s opinion, a lot of his success was based upon his tactics. At first, Brown tried variations of 4-5-1 in an effort to get one-time First Division star Gary Harkins close to the striker, but a change to 3-5-2 (with either Harkins off the forward in a 3-5-1-1, or with Harkins or Jim McAllister behind two forwards in a 3-4-1-2) brought immediate success.
As the arbitrary SPL split took place, the teams who predominantly relied on 4-4-2 systems were cast off from the rest of the pack (make of that what you will). Against orthodox 4-4-2 teams, Brown’s tactics gave him the best of everything to complement his squad: a spare man in defence to cover the two marking defenders and ensure defensive solidity (Matt Lockwood’s conversion from cultured but ageing full-back to a ball-playing sweeper has been Brown’s key innovation); a midfield triangle to compete and out-number the 4-4-2’s central midfield; and two central strikers to work in tandem. Wins against St Mirren (twice), Kilmarnock and Heart of Midlothian from the beginning of March 2013 were symptomatic of these tactical patterns.
Leading up to the weekend’s match away to Queen of the South, Brown had balancing issues in his team, having to use Jim McAllister at right wing-back in the absence of the suspended Gary Irvine. That in itself drew McAllister away from his most effective position and left an inventive cortex in central midfield, as Iain Davidson, Kevin McBride and Gavin Rae started together (and expended too much effort on staying out of each others’ way to form an effective trio).
In that context, a fixture away at Queens was probably the most difficult test for Brown’s team to begin the league season with. Jim McIntyre’s side have already settled into a 4-3-3 formation, which, in the most basic generality, trounces 3-5-2; McIntyre’s scissors lacerated Brown’s paper.
With Michael Paton and Iain Russell flanking Derek Lyle, Dundee didn’t have a spare centre-back to cover. When Paton and Russell occupied the outside channels, it drew Dundee’s wing-backs into defending, keeping the away side on the back foot. Not only that, but Rae, McBride and Davidson were matched by Ryan McGuffie, Stephen McKenna and Paul Burns in the centre of midfield, so Brown enjoyed no numerical advantage there. Queens’ full-backs, meanwhile, were free at times to take the game forward to the visitors.
The teams went into half-time with a goal each (from Peter MacDonald and later Lyle), as well as roughly equal performances to reflect upon. However, the start of the second half brought the inevitable onslaught on Dundee’s goal. Pressure arising from Russell’s duel with Kyle Benedictus resulted in a succession of set-pieces, with Davidson committing a penalty from which McGuffie scored. In a flash, Queen of the South were 4-1 up with goals from the wide forwards Russell and Paton. It took some late Dundee pressure on Queens goalkeeper Calum Antell for the hosts to concede again, with the score finishing 4-3, but Queens were rampant in the opening 20 minute spell of the second half and deserved to win by a higher margin. Dundee played the last quarter of the match with three strikers in a 3-4-3, with Davidson falling back into the centre of defence, but Brown’s team didn’t deserve a result from the game.
This was neither a tactical masterstroke by McIntyre nor a show of incompetence by Brown, but a natural result of what can happen when both managers’ first-choice deployments compete as they did. Dundee should still be favourites to win the league; nothing changes with 35 matches still to play. Yet, if the rest of the division take notice and attack Dundee’s 3-5-2 with 4-3-3 equivalents (as Raith Rovers, Livingston, Greenock Morton and Hamilton Academical are capable of doing so), then Brown must show that he is made of the right stuff and capable of reacting successfully. JAM
2) Hamilton Academical will be a tricky customer this year
It might have been a little tongue-in-cheek, but as the Hamilton Academical supporters made their way from Starks Park to Kirkcaldy train station on Saturday evening, their chant of choice was: “We’re going to win the league“. Although their 1-0 victory over Raith Rovers did little to elicit such braggadocio, opening day results do tend to bring out the more fanciful notions of some fans.
There could have been justification for the Accies’ optimism, however: in the last 30 seasons, just four sides have won the First Division title after losing their opening fixture. It begs the question: if favourites Dundee don’t win the Championship, who will?
Raith Rovers and, to a lesser extent, Hamilton were considered to be play-off contenders before the weekend, a prediction that will not have changed since. The game was never the most aesthetically pleasing, but Accies player-manager Alex Neil deserves credit for the manner in which his team set up, denying the Rovers midfield time and space during a game of few chances. Neil would also have been pleased that the winning goal was scored by new signing James Keatings. Keatings is emerging from Stevie May’s shadow and although he could go on register an equally as impressive total, his performance was largely anonymous.
Such criticism could never be levelled at Neil, who was the fulcrum of Hamilton’s victory. He dominated proceedings in the middle of the park and nulifyied the creativity of Raith’s midfield quartet (his combative approach also earned him an obligatory yellow card – such aggressive tendencies saw him dismissed three times last season). Despite Neil’s advancing years, if he is able to keep himself fit and free from suspension, he will play an important part in his team’s success.
Last season, it took the Accies more than eight weeks to record their first victory. Since Neil took charge, however, the team look like an entitrely different proposition – his side have won six out of eight matches during his tenure, keeping six clean sheets in the process. They are still a handful of players away from offering a significant promotion challenge, but Saturday’s performance suggests that Hamilton Academical could be a tough nut to crack this year. SM
3) Ian Black has turned a corner at Rangers
Last season, Ian Black experienced the worst year of his professional career. Before joining Rangers, the midfielder enjoyed a fruitful campaign with Heart of Midlothian which culminated in a famous Scottish Cup victory over Hibernian. During his tenure at Tynecastle, Black matured from an energetic, often over-zealous ball-winner into a classy playmaker and his performances over the course of the 2011-12 season deservedly drew plaudits. Despite the obvious financial gains, he claimed he moved to Third Division Rangers because “you only get an opportunity to come somewhere like here once”. A player of his calibre should have cantered through the basement league.
Not so. Black was roundly dreadful last year, with his touch and passing ability virtually abandoning him as his team struggled through the season – he was like a Catherine wheel which had come loose from its stick, spinning round and round and round with no purpose or direction. Black collected 13 yellow cards and two reds, reserving his worst performance of the year for the lamentable cup tie with Dundee United, a defeat which ended with his dismissal and drew heavy criticism from Gers fans in the process. To watch the one-time Scotland cap regress into a hapless clogger was alarming.
So far this season, Black’s control and vision appear to have returned and he turned in his finest game for Rangers in the weekend’s match with Brechin City. Paired alongside Nicky Law in the heart of midfield, the duo operated with fervour, controlling possession and dictating the tempo. With Law the more adventurous of the pair, Black stationed himself around the centre circle and executed a series of short, crisp passes throughout. It was simple, yet effective: Brechin were barely in the match, spending long spells without the ball. Black even scored, his second goal in three matches to add to his stunning strike against Albion Rovers in the Ramsdens Cup.
Black is finally performing to the standard expected of him and punching his weight. The subject of a number of rambunctious challenges, instead of engaging in petty squabbles with the opposition he was able to rise above it and concentrate on his own duties. If Black is able to build on this, his burgeoning partnership with the excellent Law – a player who compliments his economical style – will serve both him and his club well over the coming season.
Regarding Brechin, it would be unfair to judge them against such vastly superior opposition. Throughout the first half, they were unable to pose any kind of challenge to their hosts with only goalkeeper Graeme Smith offering some resistance. They improved after the interval, with Ray McKinnon successfully reconfiguring his side by bolstering the midfield and pressing higher up the pitch. City were able to limit Rangers and, after Steven Jackson’s spectacular overhead kick reduced the deficit, hinted that they could perhaps go on to take something from the game. Paul McLean’s dismissal and the resultant penalty, however, curtailed such thoughts.
Having lost three consecutive matches, Brechin’s season begins now. The weekend’s match with East Fife at Glebe Park will provide the perfect opportunity to gauge just how capable this side are for the season ahead. CGT
4) Arbroath’s poor start to the season continues
League 1’s most impressive result of the weekend came at Gayfield, where Ayr United ran out comfortable 3-0 winners over Arbroath. It was a professional performance from the Honest Men, with the excellent Michael Moffat completing a double after just 17 minutes. The victory consigned Arbroath to the bottom of the nascent table and compounded a dismal start to the season for Paul Sheerin’s side.
The Red Lichities entered the weekend’s fixture having already exited two cup competitions. They lost out on penalties to Stenhousemuir in the Ramsdens Cup, before departing from the League Cup after failing to overcome ten-man Montrose. Despite Paul Watson’s red card after 58 minutes, Sheerin’s side could not break down their rivals and succumbed to a spectacular Ross McCord strike with 15 minutes remaining.
Sheerin bemoaned his side’s failure to “get going” against Montrose, but they were never given the opportunity to do so on Saturday. Ayr took the match to their hosts from the beginning and should even have been ahead before Moffat opened the scoring on 13 minutes. Although both teams deployed similar systems, Moffat and Michael Donald were far more involved with proceedings than counterparts Bobby Linn and Lari Yao, leading to Arbroath ceding the midfield. Thus, their defence was exposed to United’s brisk counter attacks, while strikers Graham Bayne and Steven Milne were offered little service; Arbroath’s best chances came from set-pieces.
Sheerin has admitted he is still looking to add to his playing pool and will have been aggrieved to have lost out on defender Ross Smith, who chose to join Stenhousemuir on loan from Dundee United instead. Even at this early stage, it appears as though the current squad might find themselves in a relegation battle. Arbroath’s next four games see them take on Dunfermline Athletic, East Fife, Rangers and Brechin City – this tough set of fixtures could leave their supporters worrying where their first points will come from. AG
5) East Stirlingshire’s new signings can fire them into the play-offs
It had been suggested elsewhere that East Stirlingshire’s transfer business over the summer could instigate a sea-change at the club. Following two years of general inconsequence, manager John Coughlin had been afforded a relatively generous budget and as such, was able to bring in a host of clever signings. From centre-backs Chris Townsley and Michael Bolochoweckyj to midfielders Iain Thsomson and Ross O’Donoghue, the new acquisitions were a significant upgrade on last season’s fare, with Townsley recently revealing his initial satisfaction with Coughlin’s “project”.
Their match against Queen’s Park offered the perfect indication as to how well Coughlin’s new charges would assimilate with the existing squad. How did they get on? Very well, as it happens.
Thomson – who was excellent thorughout – sent a cute pass to play in Kevin Turner on 26 minutes and as the big striker meandered through a rickety offside trap, Ricky Lamie hauled him to the ground. The defender was immediately sent off; Thomson calmly scored the resultant penalty. Later in the game, Townsley scored twice either side of a Blair Spittal strike to give the visitors a deserved result.
Lamie’s dismissal certainly affected the match and without their full compliment of players (David Anderson, for instance, was unavailable) Queen’s Park struggled, but it cannot be ignored just how well the Shire’s new contingent appear to have integrated into the team. Thomson and Townsley will inevitably takle most of the plaudits for the goal-scoring exploits, but equally as impressive were the performances of O’Donoghue and full-back Michael McGowan (although he will have been disappointed with his role in Spittal’s goal). Alongside existing players such as the irrepressible Scott Maxwell and clever David Greenhill, the current Shire side is a capable one.
Sterner tests await them – their next three ties are against Elgin City, Stirling Albion and Peterhead – but the intial signs are promising. If Coughlin’s team can collect at least five points from the three fixtures, they must be taken seriously as credible challengers for promotion. CGT