Five Things We Learned, 30 September 2013

1)  Raith Rovers can do better

It should really be all smiles down at Stark’s Park. Raith Rovers are sitting in second place in the Championship table, they boast the division’s best away record and are unbeaten in six league games. However, something’s not quite clicking for Grant Murray’s side: 12 points from seven matches is an entirely acceptable return, but there is a feeling that this team should be achieving more.

Of course, barring a fantastic stoppage time equaliser from Kris Faulds in the weekend’s 1-1 draw with Falkirk, this entry could have been drastically different, but the tie succinctly summarised Rovers’ performances this season. In spells, particularly in the first half, Rovers were excellent and outplayed a side looking bereft of confidence after their midweek capitulation to Aberdeen. But despite scoring in the second minute through Grant Anderson, Rovers failed to kill off the contest – with the exception of a Greig Spence shot at the beginning of the second half, their early dominance produced little more than half chances.

This might just be down to a bad day, poor luck, or Falkirk’s improved showing in the second half, but the make-up of the Rovers starting XI should also be considered. Each individual unit certainly looks reasonably strong, but the midfield and front two are struggling to create enough chances to punish the opposition.

Kevin Moon and Liam Fox are a combative combination in the middle of the park, but their main strengths lie in their ability to protect the team’s defence. Instead, the side rely on wingers Joe Cardle and Grant Anderson to supply the crosses for strikers Spence and Calum Elliot. Both wide players can, on their day, be match winners, but their inconsistency can often leave supporters exasperated. With Moon or Fox rarely making offensive ventures and with Elliot’s good work mostly coming outside the box, the lack of creativity is exacerbated. Crosses are often cleared, and on the occasions they are successful, there isn’t an abundance of targets to take advantage.

As a result, Raith Rovers have drawn more matches than anyone else in the Championship. It is a familiar trait: last term, the sheer number of draws saw the club briefly flirt with the bottom two. This is highly unlikely to be the case this season, but it could potentially cost them as they attempt to push for play-off place. They will certainly need to sustain their impressive away form – Rovers have already played all the teams around them (Hamilton Academical, Falkirk and Dundee) at home, something which suggests it may be some time before we can truly gauge how well the club will fare this season. SM

 

2) Cowdenbeath’s lack of set-piece nous could be their undoing

Last season, Livingston supporters bemoaned their team’s inability to break down a stubborn Cowdenbeath – three of their four encounters in 2012-13 ended as draws, and history seemed destined to repeat itself at Almondvale on Saturday.

Kane Hemmings gave Cowden the lead on 17 minutes, profiting from a wayward Simon Mensing pass before powering beyond Coll Donaldson and stroking the ball home. With John McGlynn configuring Livingston into their traditional 4-1-2-1-2 formation, the inability of full-backs Callum Fordyce and Connor McDonald to offer viable options on the flanks allowed their visitors to pack the middle of the park and cut off, as Americans might call them, the passing lines (an apt description, perhaps, given that Cowden’s Nathaniel Wedderburn bears the stature of an NFL linebacker).

The question is, how did a team that kept Stefan Scougall quiet and limit their opponents throughout the first half contrive to lose by five goals to one? Quite simply, Cowdenbeath were dreadful at defending set-pieces, with the efforts resembling Bayern Munich’s in the closing minutes of the 1999 Champions League final. Had John Armstrong flopped to the ground, beating his fists and sobbing, it would almost have been a carbon copy.

Before Fordyce equalised on 42 minutes, Cowden were warned about Livi’s prowess, with Mensing and Marc McNulty both going close with headers from corners. It was a caution they did not heed. Fordyce scored twice again to complete an unlikely hat-trick, while Andy Barrowman and Mark Burchill added one apiece. As Cowden opened themselves up in a bid to salvage something from the game, they were no longer able to contain Scougall and Keaghan Jacobs and were fortunate not to have conceded more.

The defeat places Colin Cameron in an invidious position with a difficult problem to solve: how can his side defend deep if they cannot cover at set-pieces? CF

 

3) Stenhousemuir’s defending has plumbed new depths

Stenhousemuir’s performance in the weekend’s defeat to Rangers brought new meanings to the word disgraceful. While the Warriors were never likely to take anything from the game, to capitulate in such a manner was quite astonishing. After Stenhousemuir’s 4-5 loss to Dunfermline Athletic, this author commented that the defending throughout was the worst they had ever seen; that display was roundly trumped by Saturday’s affair. To have to make the same statement in the space of five weeks is deeply concerning.

The standard of the defending has to be seen to be believed: Sean Higgins’s dreadful attempt to clear for Jon Daly’s second; Kevin McKinlay booting the ball against Ross Smith for the third; Ross McMillan’s lack of awareness for Daly’s hat-trick; the lop-sided backline that allowed Lee Wallace to add a fifth; and the fuck-it-let’s-just-get-this-over-and-done-with attitude which saw Bilel Mohsni acrobatically complete the scoring. Yes, yes, Rangers were relentless and generally magnificent (the returning Ian Black was wonderful throughout) but by Jove, it’s hard to imagine them having it as easy as that again this season. Goalkeeper Chris Smith did his best to keep the score-line down and Sean Dickson looked handy in the fleeting moments he had the ball, but there are absolutely no positives the Warriors can take from this.

Last season, by the end of September Stenhousemuir played 13 games in all competitions, conceding 17 goals; this year, the club have contested 11 games and lost 26 goals. Of course, the most important statistic is the number of points – as John Gemmell was keen to note, the Warriors are three points better off at this point than they were in 2012-13 – but the porous defence is becoming a great worry.

There are a number of reasons why the backline is so generous this year. “If only Scot Buist was available…” has become a familiar lament around Ochilview, with injury precluding the centre-back’s participation for, at best, the rest of the season. Goals would not be lost as cheaply with him in the side. His replacement, Dundee United’s Ross Smith, may have flourished on loan with Peterhead last season but looks unconvincing at a higher level. Despite a bright start with the Warriors (the side kept two clean sheets in his first two matches), his performances have been decidedly haphazard – on this evidence, a career in full-time football seems unlikely.

Martyn Corrigan’s tactics have also played a significant part, and it is disappointing that a former defender of fine pedigree is unable to rectify his side’s failings. His 4-2-3-1 formation ensures Stenhousemuir offer an offensive threat (until Saturday, they had scored in every match this season) but it is ill-equipped for sides who play with width – with no support stationed ahead of him, Nicky Devlin experienced a horrid afternoon as Rangers aimed the majority of their attacks down their left flank. Had he been offered greater cover, it is less likely Lee Wallace would have been able to maraud down the wing with as much freedom. Corrigan must concoct a plan B for occasions such as this.

Stenhousemuir must move to put the defeat behind them – it was a shocking performance, but every side will probably capitulate against this Rangers team at some point this season. The current Warriors sqaud possess great talent, particularly in attack, and if they are able to correct their defensive frailties, the club should be able to maintain their play-off challenge. How they respond to the weekend’s defeat will be fascinating. With consecutive home fixtures with East Fife and Brechin City ahead, victory in both ties should reaffirm their credentials. CGT

 

4) Dunfermline Athletic might be the best of the rest in League 1

With their emphatic 5-1 victory over Ayr United, Dunfermline Athletic laid down a clear marker of their intentions to finish the season as “best of the rest”. Although Michael Moffat gave United the lead in the third minute (scoring his eighth goal of the season in the process), the young Pars refused to be fazed and for the third time in seven games, overturned the early deficit to earn all three points.

Both sides lined up in 4-4-2 formations, but while Jim Jeffries stationed Andy Geggan on the left and Josh Falkingham on the right, Mark Roberts boldly (or foolishly) began the match by deploying two genuine wide players. Geggan and Falkingham – Dunfermline’s most experienced squad members – were hugely influential throughout; United’s wingers Michael McGowan and Alan Forrest, meanwhile, were both withdrawn before half-time. Dunfermline were able to completely swamp the visitors in the middle of the park, with full-backs Ross Millen and Alex Whittle often pushing up to join in with play.

Ryan Wallace scored the home side’s equaliser on 21 minutes via the penalty spot after the same player was needlessly pushed over by Adam Hunter. Dunfermline took the lead ten minutes later, with the goal highlighting their tactical advantage – deep inside the united half, right-back Millen received the ball in space and knocked it inside to Falkingham in space. The diminutive captain was able to look up, play a pass into Shaun Byrne and drive forward unopposed. Upon receiving the return, Falkingham shrugged beyond Scott McLaughlin and McGowan before neatly teeing up Whittle; the left-back crashed a ferocious shot into the net from 20 yards.

By this point, Ayr were chasing shadows and Roberts’ response was to drop his side deep and have them stand off their opponents. It didn’t work – within ten minutes of Whittle’s goal, Dunfermline scored twice again. Geggan finished off a superb 15-pass move and a devastating counter attack saw Falkingham grab a deserved goal.

Four goals in 20 minutes left Ayr shellshocked. Although Dunfermline eased off in the second half, they still added a fifth and while the game’s early stages suggested some defensive frailty, the high-tempo passing and movement of the Pars’ attack was irresistible. What Jim Jeffries’ side lack in experience (something one is obliged to mention when discussing Dunfermline these days), they make up for in exuberance. They travel to bottom place side Forfar Athletic on Saturday before completing the first quarter at Ibrox – at the moment, they look like the side most capable of halting Rangers’ clean sweep.

The same cannot be said of Ayr United, who host Ally McCoist’s side on Sunday. AG

 

5) Is Shane Sutherland the next Wayne Rooney?

This site paid close attention to Shane Sutherland at the very beginning of the season, when he scored on his debut in the Ramsdens Cup against Montrose. At the time, it was curious to see quite how much the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle forward dropped deep to make room for Craig Gunn to run beyond him, to the extent that he often shied out of the game completely.

Eight matches on and Sutherland scored his second of the season and first of the league campaign in a 4-0 romp over Stirling Albion. However, it wasn’t his goal that was noteworthy (as exquisite as the feathered trap and volley was), rather than his role in the team as he was deployed as a central midfielder beside Brian Cameron and behind Paul Harkins, Gunn, Ali McKenzie and Dennis Wyness. Maybe this is a natural conclusion of Sutherland’s tendency to retreat and see the match play in front of him. His long range of passing certainly gives some weight to the argument of putting him at the heart of the side, but it just doesn’t seem to be the right thing for him and his career.

As Ross Jack’s team attacked Albion in numbers, Sutherland was culpable of watching the game go by him. When Elgin defended as a unit, he was prone to meander aimlessly on occasion as he ball-watched and allowed others (namely the superb Cameron) to cover him. It is apparent that this is not a role Sutherland is used to, as he reacted to rather than anticipated events as they unfolded – the best example came from Stirling’s best opportunity to get back into the match. He failed to close down Phil Johnston outside the box, whose cross was met by Mark Ferry who in turn shot narrowly beyond the post. Ferry ran beyond Sutherland on more than one occasion; the same lackadaisical approach will be found out against more challenging opposition.

Sutherland did have the “second assist” for Craig Gunn’s second goal and his give-and-go to distract Stirling’s defence is exactly the sort of football that we should expect from him. However, it would be facile to simply assert that Sutherland had a good game because he was involved in two goals, because with Stirling uncharacteristically poor from back to front (this being only their third league loss away from home in 2013) he didn’t have to do very much while the rest of the team performed.

On the flipside, Sutherland’s deeper position brought balance further forward. Gunn looked confident and as sharp as his best form from three years ago, while Harkins will always play best with two central midfielders behind him. This was Elgin’s best attacking performance for some time and without David Niven, they looked assured enough in defence to defy their bottom-three status in the league.

Only two points separate second place from second bottom with a fifth of the season behind us. Sutherland might yet take the division by the cojones, as his ability no doubt could allow him, but he needs to be played further forward and start showing his quality more than just in fleeting glimpses. At this specific moment in time he is in danger of letting his career drift by him. 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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