1) Ayr United have a defensive crisis
AYR UNITED’S 4-2 reverse against Queen of the South leaves the club – title favourites with some bookmakers at the start of the season – firmly at the bottom of the Second Division with a solitary point.
Why have the Honest Man started the league campaign so poorly? The answer does not require over thinking: Ayr have conceded 14 goals in five matches. Teams are not required to work hard to score against Ayr – Mark Roberts’s description of the goals his side have lost in recent weeks (“cheap”, “ludicrous”, “stupid”) adequately sums up his frustration. Although the manager has bemoaned individual errors, it is a lack of options at centre-back that is proving particularly troublesome.
The heavy League Cup defeat to St Mirren saw centre-back Martyn Campbell removed after just ten minutes through injury. Campbell is beginning to look increasingly fragile and without his presence in defence, 18-year-old Darren Brownlie appears to have suffered a crisis of confidence. A makeshift centre-back partnership of veteran right-back John Robertson and left-back Austin McCann faced the Doonhamers on Saturday.
The pair may have nearly 1000 senior appearances between them, but they lack dominance in the air and the pace to recover from any mistakes in their defensive positioning. McCann in particular has been a disappointment since his summer move from Dunfermline and he has been culpable of allowing attackers to run off him and into space. Repelling set-pieces is another aspect of Ayr’s defensive frailties – all season Ayr have given free headers in the box. It was little surprise that Queens’ first two goals on Saturday came from corners.
How Roberts solves Ayr’s crisis with the players at his disposal is a major concern and unless United can stop conceding easy goals, they are in real danger of being cut adrift at the foot of the table – something unthinkable just six weeks ago. AG
2) Alloa’s midfield is less than the sum of its parts
After their 0-2 home defeat to Stenhousemuir, Paul Hartley described Alloa’s performance as the worst he’d seen during his time at the club. It was difficult to disagree – in a curiously bloodless performance against a patchwork Warriors side (through a combination of injury and suspension, Martyn Corrigan was forced to utilise Iain Thomson in central defence, while Brown Ferguson filled in at right-back), the Wasps capitulated.
The match was a poor spectacle, with neither side truly dominating. The majority of the play was conducted in the middle of the park, and given their experience in the upper echelons of the football league, Darren Young and Stephen Simmons should have been able to take control of the game. Yet throughout the match, and particularly during the second half, they were overrun by Stenhousemuir’s industry.
All too often, the Alloa midfielders looked ponderous in possession and continually surrendered the ball through slack passing. Ross and Ryan McCord also played poorly and on a number of occasions they lost the ball through dallying, allowing the Warriors the opportunity to regain possession.
There also seemed to be a lack of foresight in pressuring some of Stenhousemuir’s more inexperienced players. Ross Brash replaced Bryan Hodge towards the end of the first half but was largely untroubled in central midfield. Alongside the excellent Craig Anderson, Brash was able to shuttle the ball around in an unfussy fashion – Alloa should have done more to pray on the youngster’s callowness. So poor were Simmons and Ross McCord, they were both substituted midway through the second half.
Alloa have enough about them to consolidate their place within the Second Division this season, but any notions of the club securing consecutive promotions seem a little unfounded at the moment. CGT
3) Forfar Athletic are dark horses
At the beginning of the season, observers debated which sides would be likely to challenge for promotion to the First Division. Much of the focus tended to be on Queen of the South, Ayr United, Arbroath and Alloa, while Forfar Athletic were largely overlooked. Few could have imagined Athletic’s remarkable start to the campaign.
So far, the Loons have performed in an excellent manner, winning four of their five matches. They currently sit in second place and given their recent form, it is a position they are likely to remain in for the foreseeable future. Having scored 12 goals (including two exceptional 4-0 victories over Stranraer and Stenhousemuir), Forfar have shown that they are an outstanding attacking side, while Saturday’s result against Brechin was an example of their ability to win without playing well.
For some time, Forfar have been haughtily dismissed as highly attritional cloggers who rely on outdated, Neanderthal tactics. This perhaps is in part of the simple fact that Dick Campbell manages the side. While Campbell is not the most progressive of managers, his shrewd summer signings are a major factor in his team’s tremendous form.
The two players drafted in from Arbroath have been particularly eye-catching. The recruitment of Gavin Swankie was a stellar piece of business while the underrated Keith Gibson has brought class and composure to the midfield.
Although they are an unfancied and unfashionable side, it would be foolish to disregard Forfar on their current form. CGT
4) Peterhead must improve their organisation and discipline
Elgin City ended up as comfortable winners at the weekend, but their 2-0 win over Peterhead was facilitated by the opposition’s lack of organisation and discipline in defence.
The first half of the match ended in a stalemate, which was partly affected by the high wind but also due to both teams cancelling each other out with variations of 3-5-2 formations. There were few clear chances created but there was plenty competitiveness in midfield, with a couple of hands-over-eyes near-misses after late challenges from both sides. The most interesting thing of note was the contrast in the respective defensive shapes: City used a flat back three to pick up Rory McAllister and Martin Bavidge, but Peterhead’s defence was more loose.
The Blue Toon looked to deal with Dennis Wyness’s dropping deep into midfield by specifically man-marking him, which was typically done by Ryan Strachan. That still left Scott Ross and Callum MacDonald to contend with Elgin’s Craig Gunn. The City striker was on the whole ineffective, despite a succession of balls pinged into the channels as an attempt to help him stretch Peterhead’s back-line.
That might sound as if Peterhead seemed defensively organised, but there was one other variable that brought havoc to their defensive shape: the surging runs from midfield by Elgin’s Stuart Leslie. There were hints of Leslie’s forward movements causing problems to Peterhead in the first half, because his midfield counterpart Scott McLaughlin did not know whether to follow him back into defence, or leave him for MacDonald to pick up. McLaughlin, who was drafted in from Queen of the South as an experienced midfield play-maker, was sometimes the deepest of all the Peterhead players, something he was uncomfortable with. Elgin’s best opportunities arrived when McLaughlin attempted to push further into midfield, leaving Leslie unmarked and for MacDonald to come across the defence to cover.
Indeed, things began to unravel in the last half hour as a direct result of Leslie collecting a long pass after driving into the right-hand side of the penalty box and drawing MacDonald towards him. MacDonald – who until then was Peterhead’s best player along with Bavidge – found himself in a desperate situation where he had to try to block, otherwise Leslie was in an excellent opportunity to score. MacDonald’s swipe was careless, felling Leslie without any contact of the ball. Referee Gavin Ross had little choice than to dismiss him. Daniel Moore converted the penalty and Peterhead found themselves down to ten men, with their predicament worsened by having to replace Bavidge with Ross Smith to deputise in defence.
Smith himself had an equally rash tackle at Wyness in the 18-yard box and Moore scored the second penalty. Later in the match, full-back Steven Noble received a second yellow card for simulation, and at the end of the match, Scott Ross kicked out from a prone position leaving Peterhead to finish with eight players on the pitch and Elgin to comfortably keep possession until full-time.
With at least three players suspended in the matches ahead, Jim McInally has an onerous job in shaping a new defence and restoring discipline to his Peterhead side. JAM
5) Queen’s Park’s Andy Robertson can be the new Barry Douglas
During their 1-0 victory over Clyde, Queen’s Park did not play with their usual expansive, fluent football and made hard work of their opposition. While the Spiders used the ball well in midfield (with the tidy David Anderson dictating play), the majority of their build-up came from their wide players, and in particular, through their full-backs.
On the right, Ricky Little adeptly deputised for the absent Paul McGinn, but it was on the opposite flank where Queen’s Park excited the most. Left-back Andy Robertson has made a superb start to the season and the 19-year-old looks a fine prospect, capable of playing at a higher level.
After Darryl Meggat’s defection to Alloa, Robertson has adapted well to the bustle of the Third Division and is developing a solid relationship with Sean Burns on the left flank. Burns’s tendency to drift into central positions, particularly to act as a foil to target man Tony Quinn, allows the full-back to move into the vacant space, something he has done effectively in recent weeks.
Robertson is not the first quality left-back produced by Queen’s Park. Dundee United’s Barry Douglas began his career at Hampden and the full-back has gone on to establish himself in Peter Houston’s starting XI. Robertson attacks the flank in a similar manner to Douglas, and could conceivably perform as comfortably in a more advanced role in midfield.
As well as the impressive Lawrence Shankland and Owen Ronald, Robertson is another outstanding Queen’s Park youngster. The Spiders are arguably cultivating their most promising young players since Paul Cairney, Stuart Kettlewell and David Weatherston of the celebrated side of 2006-07. It should also be noted that the same side won promotion to the Second Division. RD