Five Things We Learned from the SFL

1) The 4-4-1-1 formation is made for Chris Erskine

PARTICK THISTLE recorded their first league win since the middle of December with what seemed a routine home performance (by early season standards) against Falkirk at Firhill. The result was a statement of intent which showed that the Jags still belong in the promotion race alongside Dunfermline and Morton and although there were a number of anxious moments in defending against Lyle Taylor, there were also some exemplary passing moves and some workmanlike-yet-dynamic organisation off the ball.

Thistle began the match on a mission to score and kill the game off early. Initially set up in a 4-2-3-1 with Hugh Murray and Paul Paton anchoring the front four of Chris Erskine, Ross Forbes, Steven Lawless and Steven Craig, Thistle pushed forward at every opportunity and the visiting team were kept on the back foot for the first quarter of an hour. With Falkirk right-back Kieran Duffie only receiving sporadic assistance in defence by Blair Alston in front of him and Stewart Murdoch further infield, the Jags worked an effective passing triangle among Forbes, Lawless (later Welsh) and Craig on the right side of Falkirk’s defence, with Aaron Sinclair providing the occasional overlap. By the time Falkirk equalised after 18 minutes, the surprise was not that Falkirk managed to breach the defence, but that Thistle only had a one-goal advantage before then.

Taylor’s pace, first touch and ability to finish from anywhere within 18 yards of the goal caused the home side problems for the entirety of the first half, even when Falkirk did not have the ball. For the most part, Thistle kept three defenders (two centre-backs and the full-back on the far side of play) to manage Taylor’s prowling, which worked successfully. His goal came about from the rare moment when both full-backs were at least 15 yards forward of the defence and exposed Thistle to a two-versus-three scenario. Otherwise, Taylor could generally occupy two defenders at a time, but Falkirk could not get enough service to him as the Jags’ technical strength and experience in midfield dominated against Falkirk’s teenagers.

The defining moment in the match came when Duffie found space behind Sinclair from an incisive 30 yard through ball from Jay Fulton inside the left-back, allowing Duffie to lay on a clear-cut opportunity for Taylor to score from eight yards – Taylor, possibly suffering from a muscle strain, somehow slipped and scuffed the ball wide of the post. His miss occurred five minutes into the second half and he barely featured again, with Thistle later running away with the match.

Thistle’s superiority in possession materialised into a winning margin largely because Erskine was moved closer to Craig in a 4-4-1-1 formation, matching Falkirk’s set-up. In theory, there is little distinction between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1, but in practice the midfield played more compact behind Erskine in defence. This allowed Erskine as the second-half trequartista (swapping roles with Forbes) more space to exploit behind the opposing midfield. Erskine was a goal threat in the first half and scored a strong header at the back post after a left-flank interchange among the other attackers, but it was only when played behind the sole forward did he produce his best moments.

After Conrad Balatoni scored his second goal from a corner, Erskine scored a magnificent goal to make the score 4-1 and put the result beyond doubt. Erskine’s second was a true delight, but despite the absurd beauty of it, the goal was born of the particular tactical circumstances at the time.

With Thistle playing a narrow midfield four, Duffie found space on the flank to move forward to duel with Thistle left-back Sinclair towards the half-way line. Crucially, this drew Duffie away from the remaining Falkirk defenders. As Erskine collected the ball from a counter in a central position, he dribbled directly towards and between the Falkirk centre-backs, eventually deviating left to shoot from where a defending right-back ought to have been. There is rarely a more euphoric sight in Scottish football than watching Erskine accelerate towards a defence with the world at his feet; none more so than watching him chip the goal-keeper from 18 yards with a cute, drawing backspin to ensure the ball drifted inside McGovern’s left-hand post. Erskine could have had a hat-trick, again by bursting forward from somewhere behind Falkirk’s shapeless midfield (Murdoch might be able to tidily recycle possession, but for a deep-lying midfielder his position is ponderous at best), forcing a strong save from McGovern.

By keeping a compact shape in midfield and allowing Erskine to counter with freedom closer to the opposition goal, Partick Thistle might have inadvertently found the winning formula for playing away from home. JAM


2) Dougie Hill’s indiscipline is a cause for concern for Raith Rovers

Considering that Raith Rovers and Hamilton Academical have the two players with the worst individual disciplinary records in the First Division, it was little shock to see one of them involved in the major flashpoint Saturday’s encounter between the sides. Hamilton’s chief culprit Alex Neil was suspended for the game (which was no great surprise – the midfielder has received five yellow cards and three reds this season), but Raith’s main offender Dougie Hill was dismissed for the third time in an ill-disciplined campaign. With around ten minutes of play remaining and the score tied at 0-0, Hill’s red card came at a pivotal moment in the game – Hamilton eventually prevailed 2-0 with a pair of last minute strikes.

This was the latest misdemeanour from a player who is currently experiencing a torrid time. Although the centre-back’s decent form at the beginning of the season has been largely forgotten, it should be considered how he impressed in the middle of a back four which kept four clean sheets in Rovers’ opening five league fixtures. He also contributed with three goals in the first seven games.

However, Hill’s performances – as well as his on-field behaviour – have deteriorated in recent months, which may suggest the player’s frustrations with his own form is becoming a growing issue. Hill could possibly feel aggrieved with his dismissal on Saturday – his challenge did appear to win the ball – but the two-footed nature of his tackle meant that even manager Grant Murray found it difficult to question referee George Salmond’s decision. Although supporters have made it quite clear they believe that Hill should be dropped for a period of time, Murray’s problem is how to alter things with such a small squad at his disposal – a point illustrated by a substitutes’ bench which features inexperienced teenagers every week. It says a lot about their current predicament that some fans want Murray to pick himself for matches, despite the 37-year-old having played almost no football this season.

It is a quandary which Murray must address immediately. The manager might not have wanted to rest Dougie Hill, but the player’s accumulation of disciplinary points means such a decision has been taken out of his hands for the meantime. SM


3) Ian Murray could be the Manager of the Year

Let us present you with an interesting statistic: had the First Division began on 29 December, Dumbarton would be top of the First Division. Since beating Falkirk 4-3 in Grangemouth before the New Year, the Sons have recorded four victories from five games, perhaps the most remarkable run of form in the SFL this season. The appointment of manager Ian Murray – so far, at least – has been nothing short of a masterstroke and if Dumbarton can maintain their current level of performance, the 32-year-old will be a deserved candidate for Manager of the Year.

Since replacing Alan Adamson, it cannot be understated just how much Murray has improved Dumbarton. Under the previous incumbent, they were a disorganised rabble, offensively naive and defensively shambolic. September’s 3-3 draw with Airdrie United and October’s 3-4 defeat to Hamilton Academical highlighted the glaring deficiencies in the team and suggested that they were incapable of competing within the division. Yet Murray’s clever management has arrested the decline and transformed Dumbarton into a side who can not only contain teams, but also cause them problems.

The weekend’s 2-1 defeat of Airdrie was their most important result of the season, arguably more crucial than the recent victories against Falkirk, Morton or Partick Thistle. The match was a scrappy, ill-tempered affair but it matters little – the three points has brought them level with Saturday’s opponents and with Cowdenbeath. Although still bottom of the table, they have three games in hand over Airdrie and one over Cowden. Games in had do not automatically translate into points, but on current form, Dumbarton should be confident they can move away from tenth place.

And what of the Diamonds? Last week’s 3-1 win at Dunfermline Athletic showed that Jimmy Boyle’s side are capable of producing outstanding results but given the context of the season so far, it appears to have been something of an anomaly. Boyle is coming under increasing criticism from supporters but in truth, his job is probably one of the most difficult in the football league. Unexpectedly promoted into a highly competitive division with a young squad and scant resources to recruit experienced players, the 2012-13 campaign was always likely to be testing – it would have been unrealistic and unfair to expect anything else.

That said, there is still a long way to go for both sides this season. While most attention will surely be on the three-way contest for the championship, the battle to avoid automatic relegation will be equally as fascinating. CGT


4) The name of the father is no longer a hindrance to Nicky Clark

Scottish football’s hottest shot Nicky Clark scored his 26th goal of the season in Queen of the South’s routine victory over Forfar Athletic at the weekend. His strike – Queens’ third of the match – was a characteristically composed finish from the 21-year-old. Clark ran onto Derek Lyle’s perfectly weighted pass before guiding the ball under the advancing Jack Hamilton. Since losing to Alloa Athletic on 11 December, Queen of the South have now won seven matches in a row – Clark has scored nine times during their impressive run.

It was all so different for Clark 12 months ago. Given previous manager Gus MacPherson’s proclivity for deploying physicality rather than flair in attack, the player was uncomfortably shunted into a wide position to accommodate Sam Parkin and Tam Brighton and despite making 23 appearances last term, he only scored once. Furthermore, his father, former Airdrieonians, Rangers and Heart of Midlothian striker Sandy works as a coach with the club having joined at the start of the season, and some supporters believed the young forward would be included in the team for nepotistic reasons rather than on his own merit.

Clark has rubbished any such allegations. The player has been rejuvenated under new manager Allan Johnston and is proving he fully deserved his role within the squad. Leading the line in a far more dynamic side, Clark has become central to the Doonhamers’ inexorable charge towards the Second Division title. However, it would be a mistake to label the forward as a flat-track bully – goals against Hibernian, Rangers and Kilmarnock in cup competitions have shown he is capable of competing against loftier opposition.

He has also been modest enough to recognise the contribution of his teammates including Lyle, Danny Carmichael, Chris Mitchell and Willie Gibson, saying, “The main this is who I am playing alongside up top – these boys just put the chances on a plate […] I have fortunately been in the right place at the right time.”

Arbroath striker Steven Doris recently spent a week on trial with Championship side Birmingham City, but one cannot help but feel the Blues have been looking at the wrong player. Clark’s outstanding scoring record – and the fact his contract is set to expire in the summer – will inevitably attract the attention of bigger clubs as the season progresses. The young striker is certain to play at a higher level next year, but whether or not it will be with Queen of the South remains to be seen. AG


5) Francisco Sandaza is staking a claim to be Rangers’ first-choice striker

Rangers’ 1-0 victory over Peterhead – a turgid, scrappy affair – was secured through Francisco Sandaza’s adroit finish from close range after Graeme Smith failed to handle a Lee Wallace drive. Remarkably, the goal was only Sandaza’s second of the season.

There are, of course, mitigating circumstances behind this. After sustaining a horrific facial injury in the League Cup tie with Motherwell in September – described by Ally McCoist as the worst he’d ever seen in football – the player has only recently returned to contention and, like the majority of his teammates, has slowly adapted to the rigours of the Third Division and is beginning to show glimpses of the same form he displayed with Dundee United and St Johnstone in the SPL.

The 28-year-old’s performances in Rangers’ previous two games have been encouraging. Against Berwick Rangers last weekend, Sandaza did everything but score – the striker showcased his various assets including good hold-up play, an ability to run the channels and a willingness to contest aerial duels. With the lack of creativity on the Rangers squad, he has also been forced to create a lot of his own chances. His mobility was also a major boost to McCoist who has had to rely on the half-fit Lee McCulloch and Kevin Kyle in attack.

With Rangers grinding their way towards the championship, Sandaza will be keen to use the remainder of the season to play on a regular basis, continue to harden to the SFL, and become his side’s first choice striker. RD

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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