Five Things We Learned, 16 September 2013

1) The Championship is having a great (part)-time of it

With just a single point separating Alloa Athletic, Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton in the Championship table, it appears as though the part-time mini-league many predicted before the beginning of the season has come to fruition. What is surprising, however, is that the three teams are currently sitting in mid-table, with Greenock Morton, Queen of the South and Livingston propping up the league instead. The season is, of course, still in its embryonic stage and presumably at least one, if not all three part-time sides will struggle to stay in the division, but encouragingly for their supporters, each team is already demonstrating the qualities required to survive.

The last three rounds of Championship fixtures have almost been something of a round robin tournament for the trio, with each team having played the other. The sides boast one win each, with the results suggesting little between them.

Cowdenbeath’s second consecutive last minute victory (this time a 1-0 win over an insipid Falkirk) has catapulted them upwards, and although they are actually three points worse off than they were at this stage last term, there is an obvious improvement in their overall performance. Colin Cameron began the season by fielding two strikers but his side have enjoyed greater success since deploying Kane Hemmings as a lone forward, augmented by five across the midfield. The last two matches have also seen the manager switch to a Plan B when necessary (the introduction of substitute Greg Stewart to support Hemmings in attack has been a profitable tactic) and after conceding 11 goals in their past four matches, Saturday’s clean sheet will have been gratefully welcomed.

Dumbarton have also defended far too generously, with only Cowdenbeath and Livingston having conceded more, but their 2-1 win over Alloa (which followed back-to-back 2-3 defeats) was a real fillip. Ian Murray’s side are excelling offensively, with their nine goals – the best in the league – equalling Hamilton Academical. The goals are coming from all areas, and ten players have contributed in all competitions. Such is their progression under Murray: it took the Sons until the end of December to reach the same points total last term. With greater defensive solidity, they could surely emulate 2012-13’s achievements.

Alloa, meanwhile, are defensively sound but seem lacking in the requisite attacking threat. Only Hamilton have conceded fewer goals but in their nine matches in all competitions, they have only scored on five occasions. With last season’s top scorers Kevin Cawley and Ryan McCord unlikely to find the net with the same regularity at Championship level, a greater onus will fall on Andy Kirk to provide ammunition. Paul Hartley’s side have started well, but it will be fascinating as to how they respond to the defeat (or a losing run) after two seasons of unblemished success.

Their fans, as well as the Cowden and Dumbarton supporters, should be highly satisfied with their respective starts. But with Morton and Queens expected to improve, and with Livingston having appointed John McGlynn as their new manager, both the automatic and play-off relegation positions will be closely contested once again. SM

 

2) No plastic fantastic just yet for unbeaten Ayr United

Ayr United continued their unbeaten start to League 1 but they were unable to overcome their synthetic surface hoodoo, drawing 1-1 with Stenhousemuir at Ochilview on Saturday. Despite player-manager Mark Roberts opening the scoring before half-time with a fine strike, Darren Smith equalised with 19 minutes remaining. United have now gone 11 games without a win on plastic pitches, a dismal run which stretches back to November 2011 when they defeated Montrose at Links Park in a Scottish Cup replay.

Despite the match being played out on a bright, autumnal afternoon, it was a poor demonstration of how to make the best use of a 3G surface. Both teams’ midfields were criminally underemployed, with the ball moved from back to front with unseemly haste. Stenhousemuir’s John Gemmell and Sean Higgins and Ayr’s Michael Moffat and Craig Malcolm are two of the division’s best strike partnerships, but neither were able to break down their opposing defences: it was a scrappy game between two well-matched sides.

The salient moment of the match was the appearance of trialist Kevin Kyle. The former Scotland international has been training with United and was introduced as a  second half substitute and showed in his 17-minute cameo that he could be a useful addition to the side (although Saturday’s endless series of long balls was the ideal type of match to bring out the best of Kyle’s attributes, his physique suggests he’s not ready for a longer run out just yet). Who knows, he might even help the Honest Men win on Astroturf at some point in the near future. AG

 

3) Stranraer’s poor start to the season continues

At the beginning of the season, there was only one certainty to this inaugural League 1 campaign: Rangers will win it. Everything else was almost impossible to predict – relegated Dunfermline Athletic were callow but full-time, while the remaining eight teams had strengthened over the summer. As such, all nine were each able to each offer a legitimate claim for a promotion play-off. Five matches in, however, and patterns are already beginning to emerge: Stranraer are likely to contest a relegation battle this season.

Against Airdrieonians on Saturday, the Blues looked on course to collect their second point of the campaign until Gregor Buchanan’s close range finish on 89 minutes saw the Diamonds win their first home match in 13 months. The opportunity to double their total for the season had disappeared.

Last term, their tally after five matches stood at five points; it would not increase until after the first round of matches and by then their poor form had already led to the dismissal of Keith Knox, with his assistant Steve Aitken promoted to manager. At the time, the decision was deemed unfair (Stranraer had been shunted into Division Two following Rangers’ liquidation and started the season with an uneven group of players) but a subsequent eighth place finish vindicated Knox’s removal.

Despite losing Craig Malcolm to Ayr United, Aitken’s summer transfers were generally sound, with the squad upgraded in almost every department. Cup performances, particularly in the League Cup, have been promising but the team have been unable to translate the same form into their league campaign. Although they led at Airdrie, their unwillingness to press their advantage, coupled with a lack of pace in midfield, allowed their hosts back into the game. Despite scoring twice (one of which came via a penalty), they rarely threatened.

Stranraer host East Fife on Saturday, another side whose season has yet to spark, and the match is already begining to take on grandiose proportions. Aitken’s position, for the foreseeable future at least, should be secure, but the same thing could have been said about Knox last year. Someone has to finish the season in tenth place and on current form, it will most likely be Stranraer. CGT

 

4) Three central midfielders can be better than two

Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things – José Mourinho

Perhaps Jim Duffy scratched around for an old tactics clipping board in the quest for some inspiration ahead of East Stirlingshire’s visit to Broadwood. Maybe he did what so many SPFL managers fail to do in scouting the opposition and doing his homework. He might have even had an epiphany. In any event, Clyde lost 1-2 at home to the Shire, but Duffy did his best to ensure his team was competitive and prevented what would otherwise have been a tactical victory for John Coughlin.

The Shire have caught a lot of teams by surprise so far this season. Their success has come down to how well the central midfield triangle has worked against standard 4-4-2 teams, notably with former Stenhousemuir anchorman Iain Thomson at the base of the unit. Just as Paul Lawson once cruised through the First Division as a deep-lying playmaker between the lines of Ross County’s defence and midfield, Thomson has been one of League 2’s best players so far in the middle of Coughlin’s 4-3-3/4-1-4-1. Given that Clyde – with two flying wingers – are typically as orthodox 4-4-2 as Allen Wade could theorise, it was expected that Thomson would coast through this game as well.

It didn’t work out that way. Duffy dropped a striker in Kevin Watt from the team that lost to Elgin City prior to the international break to include Ryan MacBeth in the middle of the park. Clyde captain John Sweeney stepped forward into the number 10 position as the middle of the three in the band of “3” of a 4-2-3-1 formation. That left MacBeth and Ian Gray matched up against East Stirlingshire’s Jordan McKechnie and David Greenhill perfectly; probably too perfectly, as the latter four negated each others’ influence on the match.

Little happened in the middle of the park throughout the game, which is something that Duffy had clearly planned on. The art of using tactics is to play to the team’s strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses – Duffy would have known that his best chances would be created on the flanks through Stuart McColm and Scott Ferguson and he would have wanted to restrict Thomson’s role in the match. McColm was arguably Clyde’s best player as he drove at the Shire’s right-back Graeme MacGregor at every opportunity – the left winger’s service to Michael Daly was a vast improvement on his final ball against Elgin a fortnight previous. East Stirlingshire similarly looked to Scott Maxwell and Max Wright for penetration on the flanks.

Nevertheless, the Sweeney versus Thomson duel was the game’s fascinating contest and it was telling that Clyde generally had the better of the first half while Sweeney had the upper hand. Thomson was eventually booked after 38 minutes for persistent fouling on his opponent, whose driving runs and incisive passing from midfield put the home team in the ascendancy, despite a lack of clear cut chances.

The goals that Clyde conceded were not from the main tactical theme of the match at all, but from lapses in concentration in defence. Wright followed up on a Michael Bolocheweckyj header for the opening goal after Maxwell was given too much time to cross from the left, and the same player scored his second after benefitting from Ian Gray missing a centred ball, which resulted in goalkeeper Jamie Barclay over-committing himself while attempting to narrow the angle to the incoming shot. In truth, the whole Clyde team had not settled back into the match immediately after equalising and Duffy would have been disappointed to have witnessed his team lose the lead again so quickly.

It was only late in the match that Thomson could exert his influence, as Duffy recalled Sweeney to a deeper position and gambled Stefan McCluskey in the number 10 role. McCluskey’s wager was on keeping within the space between Thomson and the Shire defence, but by then Clyde attacked relentlessly. McCluskey himself was at fault for wanting one-too many touches inside the visiting penalty area and Pat Scullion and others squandered some testing deliveries on top of goalkeeper Grant Hay – it was difficult to see exactly where the second equaliser would arrive from.

Duffy might have lost the match, but he arguably won the tactical battle. The club have ceded two matches in a row but probably deserved a point each from both. This team, however,  is much improved on last season’s mediocrity and a sense of perspective is important. Among Sweeney, McColm, Ferguson and Ryan Frances, there is genuine talent to build upon.

Meanwhile, the Shire have earned another three points and will be difficult to beat for as long as Bolocheweckyj and Chris Townsley can continue their dominating performances in the centre of defence. Iain Thomson will have far easier games than this and with such a solid spine, there is every reason to believe that promotion is plausible. JAM

 

5) Albion Rovers’ senior players have to start pulling their weight

Two consecutive defeats (both at home, both by the same 0-2 score-line) has caused consternation among some sections of the Albion Rovers support. The weekend’s loss to Berwick Rangers was another dour performance lacking in spark and imagination. There is no shame in losing to a team of Berwick’s calibre and without a series of fine saves from visiting goalkeeper Paul Grant, a draw would have been a more likely outcome, but far better should be expected for a side with Rovers’ aspirations.

Despite collecting seven points from their opening three games, the recent defeats to Montrose and Berwick have been marked by the poor contribution from some of the club’s senior summer recruitments. After several seasons of defensive uncertainty brought on by the lack of a first choice goalkeeper, the signing of Neil Parry from Queen’s Park should have settled the backline but the 27-year-old has yet to convince and on Saturday was culpable for Kenny O’Brien’s opening goal. Elsewhere, the returning Scott Chaplain’s influence has been fleeting and the midfielder has made a limited impact so far.

Perhaps most disappointing has been the performances of Mark McGuigan. The Partick Thistle striker had excelled during a brief loan spell at Cliftonhill last term and was widely predicted to make an even greater impression this season (this author even boldly predicted the 24-year-old would reach double-figures before returning to his parent club in January). However, McGuigan has performed well below expectation and has yet to score, often cutting a frustrating presence. Granted, he has lacked service and there is a feeling that if he can find one goal then more will follow, but he does not look like the same player he did 12 months ago.

Albion Rovers’ September concludes with difficult fixtures against East Stirlingshire and Peterhead and manager James Ward and his sizeable entourage – surely one of the biggest backroom teams in the lower leagues – must quickly find a solution to get the best out of their players. Given the sizeable outlay on the playing staff this term, anything less than immediate improvement will raise concerns about Rovers’ – and Ward’s – credentials. CGT

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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