Five Things We Learned, 28 October 2013

1) Livingston continue to improve under John McGlynn

Livingston’s 2-1 victory over Dundee has moved the club further away from the foot of the table and into fifth place, highlighting their continuing improvement under John McGlynn. Since his appointment on 12 September, the club have collected 14 points from their last six matches and seem well placed to mount a challenge for fourth – although affairs off the pitch are fairly chaotic, they’re moving in the right direction on it.

Of course, Dundee manager John Brown might claim that a makeshift defence (Kevin McBride was fielded at right-back) and poor goalkeeping (Jimmy Scott’s 88th minute winner came courtesy of Kyle Letheren’s horrendous mistake) undid his side but for the best part, they were the poorer of the two teams. Their direct approach was easily repelled by Livi centre-backs Simon Mensing and Col Donaldson, and Craig Beattie was rarely involved – they did not perform because Livingston did not allow them to.

McGlynn claims he doesn’t have a philosophy or a preferred formation, but with Heart of Midlothian he often deployed at 4-5-1 system and the same tactic is being used to good effect at Almondvale. Against Dundee, he used a similar system but shifted his players around to suit: Stefan Scougall was fielded on the right flank; Marc McNulty started wide on the left; and Kyle Wilkie sat at the apex of the midfield triangle in front of Keaghan Jacobs and Burton O’Brien.

Scougall’s outstanding technique on the ball is renowned but equally as impressive is his movement without it. The playmaker didn’t play as a traditional winger – he didn’t attempt to beat his full-back, nor did he look to hit the byline – but instead shifted into central areas and move beyond lone forward Andy Barrowman. Scougall almost profited from this and had two fine chances to score in the first half. On the other flank, McNulty, a natural striker, operated in a similar fashion. As a result, Livingston were often narrow but they kept possession well. Any fears about McGlynn dispensing with the team’s traditional style of play in favour of something more percentage based should now safely be allayed.

Elsewhere, it was fascinating to note the role of Wilkie as an attacking midfielder. At Hearts, McGlynn preferred using Ryan McGowan and then Dale Carrick in the position ahead of the classy Jason Holt, believing their energy and industry could limit the opposition’s deep lying playmakers. Against Dundee, Wilkie faced off against Gavin Rae and restricted the 35-year-old’s impact – going forward, it will be interesting to see if McGlynn prefers brains over brawn in the same position when his team come up against a side who don’t utilise the deeper midfielder. CF

 

2) Greenock Morton can still find positives (despite ten league games without a win)

The Greenock Morton players, management and supporters will be glad to see the back of Fife. Saturday’s 1-2 defeat at Raith Rovers was their second consecutive defeat in the Kingdom, following last weekend’s 1-5 dismantling at Cowdenbeath. The loss at Stark’s Park was certainly different to the catastrophe at Central Park, but to end the game with nothing after coming within seconds of winning a point probably hurts even more than a drubbing. With the score tied at 1-1, Gordon Smith’s late, late, late intervention will have been particularly cruel.

The defeat – Morton’s tenth league game without a win – has seen the club endure their worst sequence of results since the 2000-2001 season, a campaign which saw the them drop into the Second Division alongside Alloa Athletic. The league table makes for grim viewing: Cowdenbeath’s point at Dumbarton and Queen of the South’s comfortable win at Alloa leaves them five and six points behind the clubs placed ninth and eighth respectively. These bare facts provide no comfort for manager Allan Moore, but there were tentative signs of encouragement against Rovers.

Nacho Novo arrived at Cappielow amidst a degree of scepticism because of his advancing years and predominantly (although much less pertinently) because he spent a large part of the summer casting flirtatious glances towards Ibrox as he searched for a new club. If there were any doubts about his ability, however, then Saturday’s performance should have dispelled them.

Morton’s line-up suggested a 4-4-2 formation but Michal Habai’s tendency to drop into deeper positions left Novo leading the line on his own. His hold up play and fleetness of thought was the catalyst for the majority of his side’s industry – it was little surprise to see him score against his former club. The goal, as well as the other opportunities for the Spaniard to add to his strike, suggests he could be a very useful acquisition.

As well as Novo’s display, Morton should take some heart from a performance which was a marked improvement on the Cowdenbeath game and far more in keeping with their 1-1 draw with Hamilton Academical from two weeks ago. The midfield still looks short on creativity (Moore has not found a solution to Michael Tidser’s absence) but Dougie Imrie, if he is able to impress with greater frequency, is a potential match winner. Joe McKee, Fouad Bachirou and Stephen Stirling looked less threatening on the ball, but they did restrict Rovers to half-chances throughout the match. Elsewhere, the defence looks more solid after Craig Reid’s introduction, but the loss of Tomas Peciar through injury will have been a blow – his replacement Jonathon Page lacked resolve. Goalkeeper Nicolas Caraux continues to impress.

Allan Moore must find a way to maximise these positives over the coming days, starting at the League Cup quarter-final against St Johnstone on Wednesday. If results continue in the same manner then Moore’s management of the club – and indeed, Morton’s involvement in the division – might both come to end. SM

 

3) Kevin Kyle is becoming Ayr United’s key player

Ayr United ascended to second place in League 1 with a 1-0 win at Airdrieonians, their third consecutive victory. An Anthony Marenghi freekick, expertly dispatched beyond goalkeeper Scott Gallagher in the 53rd minute, secured the three points. Perhaps even more impressive, the victory was achieved with ten men after on loan Rangers defender Kyle McAusland was dismissed for confronting Martin Hardie after the freekick award. Amongst the customary vehemence that surrounds the fixture (there have been ten red cards in the previous eight meetings between the teams), the experience of Kevin Kyle was instrumental in United and their numerical disadvantage seeing out the game.

Kyle first appeared for Ayr as a trialist against Stenhousemuir six weeks ago, and his physique reflected the nine-month lay-off since his last game for Rangers at Montrose in December 2012. Mark Roberts, however, obviously saw enough to award the former Scotland international a short-term contract. Having started their last four games, a noticeably fitter Kyle has emerged as a key figure in his side’s good run of form.

On Saturday, his hold up play was crucial in relieving pressure on United’s makeshift back four and provided a steady influence on the rest of the team. Any concerns about his fitness were surely allayed when the striker suddenly appeared in the right-back position late in the game, to repel a poor Airdrie side that struggled to really create any salient opportunities in the second half.

If there is one aggravation about Kyle’s inclusion, it is that he offers his team-mates an easy outlet to send long balls toward his general direction. Ayr are noticeably more direct with Kyle in the side – a stark contrast to the style of play Roberts tried to implement when he took over the club last season. It seems unlikely this approach is a deliberate tactic, and the manager will be striving to ensure the long ball to the big man up top is just an option, rather than a definitive strategy.

Kyle has added more than just a physical presence to Ayr’s attack: he is an intelligent player and, in a squad with limited experience, brings authority and maturity. The striker has already done enough to justify a possible contract extension, which would keep him at Somerset Park until the end of the season. Signed until the end of January, Kyle may well be catching the eyes of full-time clubs looking for a striker with his invaluable attributes; he would surely be a big loss to the Honest Men. AG

 

4) Stenhousemuir should have signed Marvin Andrews

The situation has been highlighted on several occasions over the last few months, but it surely bears repeating once again (and leaves this author sounding like a broken record). When Stenhousemuir centre-back Scot Buist suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury in April (an injury which was likely to preclude him from playing in the 2013-14 season and at the very worst, finish his career), manager Martyn Corrigan should have immediately began sourcing a like-for-like replacement: an aggressive, physically imposing stopper. But instead of scouring the lower leagues for a burly central defender, Corrigan planned to move left-back Kevin McKinlay infield to partner Ross McMillan and bring in full-back Eddie Malone from Raith Rovers. McKinlay had played centrally on an ad hoc basis the previous year, filling in to cover for Buist or McMillan’s unavailability, but such deployment was based on necessity rather than anything tangible.

Minor quibbles about Stenhousemuir’s defensive capabilities suddenly became major concerns. Following a 4-4 draw with Arbroath in the Ramsdens Cup (the Warriors eventually progressed on penalties) and a 3-4 defeat at Airdrieonians in the League Cup at the beginning of the season, it was glaringly obvious that the McKinlay-McMillan axis was unsuitable for the campaign ahead (although it must be noted, the high concession rate was not solely the fault of the team’s centre-backs). Corrigan was left in an invidious position and was forced to bring in another defender, with Ross Smith joining on loan from Dundee United.

Smith enjoyed a reasonable start with Stenhousemuir and the side kept clean sheets in their opening two league matches but since the infamous 4-5 defeat to Dunfermline Athletic, the player has looked badly out of sorts. As well as poor positional sense, a lack of awareness and decision making, Smith has a rash streak and has directly cost his team a number of goals over the course of the season. The caveat is, of course, that the player is young and may still develop into a decent defender but for the moment, he is more of a hindrance than a help to Stenhousemuir and is not the appropriate replacement for Buist. During the weekend’s 1-1 draw with Forfar Athletic at Ochilview, he barely affected Chris Templeman’s play and the big striker was able to win the large majority of his aerial balls with relative ease.

Compare Smith’s performance to that of Forfar’s Marvin Andrews. Andrews has his inadequacies – he is susceptible to quick, direct forward play and his distribution is limited – but in terms of static defending and organisation, he is one of the best in the lower leagues. The former Rangers centre-back was tasked with marking John Gemmell and, with the exception of the striker’s wonderful tenth minute goal, Andrews minimised his impact on the game. Such was the defender’s command and aggression in winning the ball that Gemmell (never usually the most timid of forwards) seemed intent on trying to win fouls rather than challenge for possession. One can only imagine how far better the Warriors would be had Corrigan correctly addressed his team’s defensive personnel during the summer.

The result has seen Stenhousemuir drop to fourth place, with Ayr United and Dunfermline Athletic moving ahead of them. After this week’s Ramsdens Cup semi-final with Rangers and a potentially vexing Scottish Cup tie with Annan Athletic, the Warriors face a testing run of fixtures against Dunfermline, Arbroath and Ayr. Improvement is required to prevent the club from toppling out of the play-off positions. In the medium term, Ross Smith’s loan agreement expires in January and unless the player shows significant progression over the next two months, Corrigan should think long and hard about whether or not to extend his deal. Until the manager is able to bring in additional defensive cover, his team must make do and mend. CGT

 

5) What’s wrong with being agricultural?

“If we could only keep it on the deck, we’d be a much better team.” It would be a rare lower league supporter who has neither spoken nor heard of this complaint.

It took half until half an hour for Annan Athletic to piece together a handful of passes in Elgin City’s own third of the pitch. By this point, they were already two goals down as the Black and Whites looked at their dominant best. Until that point, the Galabankies had played back to front almost exclusively, with right-back Andrew Mitchell particularly wasteful with balls forward. City’s Jamie Duff got his head to just about everything and the home side were able to mix their own long range passing with the midfield collecting from the defence.

Mitchell didn’t have the best of first halves. Faced against the sponsor’s man of the match Ally McKenzie, the Rangers loanee was continually targeted with diagonal through balls. Paul Harkins was in enterprising mood during the first period and his left-footed backspun passes from the right side of midfield would occasionally forge a division through the visiting back-line, despite Peter Weatherson’s experience beside Mitchell.

The scoring was indeed opened up with a stunning surge through the centre circle beyond two players from Shane Sutherland, who by doing so opened up the pitch for himself to guide the ball behind Athletic’s right-back – McKenzie’s low centre found Craig Gunn, who couldn’t miss. Ten minutes later, McKenzie chipped a ball over the top and just behind Mitchell, which gave the opportunity for Brian Cameron to adventure from midfield and score beyond Kenny Arthur. Elgin looked comfortable and it seemed only a matter of containing Jim Chapman’s side after that.

However, with City holding possession of the ball in their own half and with Cameron and Sutherland alternating in dropping deep to form triangles with the centre-backs, Annan forwards David Hopkirk and Kenny MacKay upped their workrate and forced a cheap turnover in possession. A deep free-kick was forced out of the situation – the cross found Weatherson at the near post which he duly dispatched after 33 minutes. Beyond that, the momentum in the match turned and Annan’s midfielders began to turn the screw.

The second half saw a remarkable drop in performance by Elgin, who lost the confidence to play from the back and right-back David Niven launched the ball forward from most opportunities. While MacKay increasingly became an important figure in the match because of his physical strength and aggression against City’s centre-backs, the home side launched balls towards Gunn and Dennis Wyness up front, who have barely won an aerial challenge between them all season. Possession of the ball was being turned over at a concerning rate; Sutherland saw the game drift by him as Matt Flynn and Martin McNiff won every challenge against him; and Paul “not a workhorse” Harkins began apathetically ball watching.  Elgin were carrying two of their most technically brilliant players against the resurgent away side and it was unsustainable.

Annan’s ascendancy was assisted by injuries to City’s Sean Crighton and central midfielder Brian Cameron. Cameron could probably claim to be within the three best midfielders in the division at the moment. but judging by the angle of his right ankle on his way off the pitch, Ross Jack might have to make plans for his absence for a few weeks. Crighton’s shoulder injury could also prove to be bad news for the manager because any morcel of composure that Niven had showed at full-back was quickly lost as he was moved to the left centre-back position vacated by Crighton. As the pack was shuffled, substitute Dachi Khutsishvili looked so short of confidence on the right wing that seeing him fall over the ball as he attempted to trap a pass barely registered as a surprise. From looking so strong in the first phases of the match, Jack must have some significant concerns for what seemed to be a winning formula.

Chapman’s re-configuration of his own team saw Hopkirk move to the left wing and his presence there had a say in the second half’s two goals. Even if this was not Annan at their most fluent or elegant, their second half showing highlighted that this is an ever-improving team with an impressive front pairing. When they can involve their wide midfielders and get Hopkirk running towards goal with the ball at his feet, the rest of the division should watch out. 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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