Name: Kevin Nisbet
Club: East Stirlingshire (on loan from Partick Thistle)
Match: Elgin City 0-0 East Stirlingshire (4/4/2015)
IT was with no little excitement that I looked forward to Saturday’s contest between Elgin City and East Stirlingshire. Not only did the fixture mean a lot to both clubs in their quest to reach the play-offs, it was also an ample opportunity to study Kevin Nisbet’s general performance in some detail. This was Nisbet’s second adventure along the A95 after scoring in his last visit to Borough Briggs in the middle of March. With Elgin aware of what he could do, there would be few surprises and it intrigued me to see how he would cope under more scrutiny.
In the previous match, Nisbet showed great composure in front of goal that defied his youth. His sense of equanimity got the winning goal in the 90th minute and that has been apparent in all of his strikes so far – he has already proved that he has the talent and ability in front of goal to put away clear-cut opportunities when presented.
This match actually turned out to be the ideal circumstance to see how well the rest of Nisbet’s game fared beyond his goals. In a match where the Shire’s best chances fell to the midfielders instead of their forwards, it was an excellent time to focus on Nisbet’s aptitude in the other areas in his game, which he would need just as much as his goals to break into the first team at his parent club Partick Thistle.
Kevin Nisbet was partnered with Max Wright up front in the 3-5-2 formation that was also used in the previous week’s success at home to Arbroath. David McKenna was closer to Nisbet in the Arbroath win than he was in this match, where McKenna spearheaded the central midfield trio. Among McKenna, Neil McCabe and David Greenhill, there was enough creativity in the team, on paper anyway, to create chances for Nisbet and Wright, who are small and slight players relative to Elgin’s centre-backs (Wright being in the region of 5ft 7in and Nisbet probably 5ft 10in). However, there was precious little craft on show by the away side, who persisted with firing long balls towards and beyond the forwards. It turned out to be a frustrating experience for them in a match where they were offered minimal service in dangerous areas. East Stirlingshire have recently proved to be entertaining to watch with a mix of positive attacking players in their side, but against Elgin in this contest they were fundamentally a long-ball team who refused to vary their tactics, even when they weren’t working.
The theory behind the incessant direct passes was to get Elgin’s defenders turned and Nisbet behind the opposition centre-backs. However, very seldom did Nisbet get to chase down any balls facing the opposition goal. Far too often there were aimless punts played forward that failed to play to Wright or Nisbet’s strengths. The tone was set as early as the third minute when a long throw down the left flank by Lloyd Kinnaird looped over Nisbet’s head, instead of into his body, for Jamie Duff to head clear under no pressure.
I counted 11 occasions when the Shire shelled balls forward that Nisbet couldn’t do anything with. Giving away a height and weight advantage, Nisbet had to time his jumps to perfection to get the better of Duff or Ally Gilchrist. Sometimes that happened, but it didn’t occur often. There were too many instances where long balls from defence went straight down the throat of the Elgin rearguard, from which Duff and Gilchrist had ample time to read the trajectory of the pass and boom headers back from whence they came.
Long balls; lost causes
Nisbet won his first aerial duel from a goal kick against Duff as late as the 85th minute. On one hand, that illustrates how Nisbet continued to work until the end, but on the other hand disguises the fact that in the middle third of the match, he quite often just didn’t bother jumping for contests that he clearly wasn’t going to win. When the pass looked like it had enough distance to get behind the defence he would spin the defenders in case the ball fell behind, as you would expect, but those temping balls didn’t arrive often enough and more often than not he looked ill-equipped to deal with two centre-backs marking him when Wright dropped short to link with midfield.
That’s not to say that he didn’t get behind the backline and Nisbet looked dangerous when he got the opportunity to run at the defenders. In the sixth minute, East Stirling launched a ball from just inside their own half into the outside-right channel, that Nisbet was quick to anticipate and chase down. The striker showed he didn’t have enough pace to beat Gilchrist when giving the centre-back a slight head start, but neither did he give up on what seemed to be a lost cause when the defender attempted to shepherd the rolling ball out for a goal kick. Nisbet smartly timed a leg out to nick the ball and knock his marker off-balance at the byline, but Gilchrist recovered just in time to block the incoming cross.
At 27 minutes, Nisbet beat the offside trap with Matthew Cooper failing his team-mates, but the ball over the top of the defence wasn’t accurate enough for the forward to do anything with. Just before the hour mark, McKenna hooked a delightful pass over the top of the centre-backs, but by the time the ball bounced Gilchrist recovered to clear as the referee’s assistant flagged for a marginal offside. The best delivery over the defence in the match was in the 77th minute where Nisbet spun off his marker to race on to a pass that split the centre-backs, with a level of precision that was missing in the rest of the game. It turned out to be too good to be true, with Ross Laidlaw remarkably quick in thought to come out of his box to clear. That just about it, though: Elgin comfortably mopped up every other long ball that was played outwith the reach of the strikers.
However, what Nisbet did when the long balls were weighted correctly was pleasantly surprising. His first touch in the match was a neat cushioned pass on the volley from a long ball that fell into his lap. In the fifth minute, a direct pass bounced low, ten yards in front of him with his back to goal. With his arms out-turned towards Gilchrist and with a slight lean back into his marker, Nisbet held off the defender long enough to lay the ball off for an oncoming midfielder to shoot from 20 yards.
Then, 20 minutes later, 18-year-old left-centre-back David Bates played a rare ground pass 30 yards into Nisbet’s feet. Nisbet backed into Duff momentarily, but with a touch to cushion the pass he turned the centre-back and played McKenna into the box, who feigned brilliantly to engineer a shot that Laidlaw smothered; McKenna wasn’t slow in acknowledging his younger team-mate’s role in the play.
Between those chances, Shane Sutherland missed three excellent opportunities to score for Elgin from his right foot that Nisbet would likely have taken at least one from, judging from recent form. Yet in spite of not having chances himself, Nisbet was still heavily involved in creating East Stirlingshire’s best moments from open play. In addition, he showed a deceptive ability to hold off markers when given good enough service – it was a shame that he didn’t get enough of it to work with.
Despite being dominated by the centre-backs in aerial duels for the majority of the match, when he got his head to balls he normally connected well. What might have been his team’s best chance of the match came about on 31 minutes from the Shire winning the first header at halfway, with Nisbet then finely glancing the second ball behind Duff for Wright to race on to. The reaction to head on from the first header was impressive in its own right, but to have both the vision and craft to play in his team-mate was remarkable for an 18-year-old playing his eighth first-team appearance in senior football.
Nisbet had the skill to make something happen, he just needed a better supply of passes to bring others in play high up the pitch.
Nonetheless, this wasn’t a perfect performance off the ball – Nisbet’s lack of experience was telling in a number of occasions. The teenager has plenty game intelligence, but he needs to continue to learn before he can be regarded as being anywhere near ready to play for Partick Thistle.
There were instances where he would glance headers towards spaces where he thought his team-mate might be, without realising that he was the highest-placed East Stirlingshire player on the pitch. There were numerous moments where his headers didn’t find Wright or vice versa, but that is something that would improve with increased time on the pitch together more likely than not.
More importantly, he didn’t always read the game as quickly as he might. While he was good for offering the option behind the defence (on the rare occasion that his colleagues played balls well enough), and while he could take the ball into his body and create openings for others, he also needed to be aware of where he should be placed as the chief centre-forward when the Shire did work the play more intricately.
The best example was on 37 minutes, where Ross Gilmour and David Greenhill combined on the right flank 40 yards out, where it was obvious that Greenhill’s next move to move the ball further up the pitch into the striker’s feet, to then lay off to an onrushing player. Elgin’s Gilchrist cleared comfortably, however, because Nisbet was ball-watching between defenders rather than getting himself in front of the left-centre-back. It’s a basic error that could happen to any forward at that level but the need to follow passages of play, to be able to link the next pass, is something that managers in a higher division need to take for granted from their players if chances are going to be created.
I wondered if it was just a brief lapse in concentration, but there were other examples of not always being aware of what to do to assist the team in attacks. Two minutes before it, Wright managed to turn Duff 50 yards out and drive at the rest of the defence with the ball at his feet. There were quickly three Elgin players – and Nisbet – in front of Wright and he was soon forced into committing to a shot from around 30 yards that missed its target. It was an ambitious effort but wasn’t something that looked like it would have troubled Laidlaw at that distance. Wright needed to be closer to goal to threaten the goalkeeper, but he couldn’t do so without Nisbet dragging some of the Elgin players away from him. As soon as Wright beat Duff and was on his way, Nisbet needed to realise that he should have been running on the outside of Elgin left-back Darryl McHardy to act as a decoy and stretch Elgin’s shape – instead, Nisbet wanted the through ball in front of him that wasn’t on, because of the number of defenders within the vicinity were always going to block such a pass.
Another instance of Nisbet’s naivety came on 55 minutes, when Wright did well to chest down a long ball, to then drop short which took his marker Gilchrist with him. Wright neatly passed back to McKenna, who perhaps instinctively floated a ball over the defence with his first touch, immediately behind the gap that Gilchrist had vacated. Meanwhile, Nisbet watched on from between Duff and the right-back, as one of his best opportunities to get one-on-one with the goalkeeper was squandered due to him not realising how quickly the space that had opened up beside him – Duff soon stepped over to clear with ease. There were also other times where Nisbet could have gambled at attacking crosses that came into the box, instead of lurking at the far post waiting for the perfect ball to find him. In that respect, there is still a lot to learn.
Some of the above paints a negative picture of the player, but all of this is intended as constructive criticism for areas in which Kevin Nisbet can improve his game in order to be the best player he can be. It is clear that he is a talented striker to be as competitive as he is, to score such stunning goals at he has, and be one of his team’s best players even when the match circumstances don’t suit his style of play.
In terms of what he can do with his technique and composure while finishing, he isn’t worse off than some forwards in the Championship, while his ability to shield the ball under pressure will be the envy of many strikers of his build. He works hard: he helped to steal the ball off defenders a couple of times during this match and threatened to do so throughout. Yet he needs to keep his concentration up so that he can make the most of any half-chance that comes his way, especially in games like against Elgin where clear cut opportunities aren’t fashioned for him.
The blatant long-ball game played by East Stirlingshire in this match would be seen as anathema at Firhill in recent years, but it shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing to Nisbet’s development to have to adapt his play to different circumstances. Given his technical attributes but also his naivety in reading the game, Nisbet will be better served against senior professionals rather than trying to learn from his mistakes in the Development League against callow defenders. To that end, it seems that graduating through the divisions using the loan system could be the best thing for Nisbet in the long term, in the same manner that suited Stevie May. Nisbet has the composure around the box that May didn’t always have, if not the raw aggression, but if the stars align for him and he shows the willingness to learn, there is no reason why Nisbet cannot become a leading striker in his own right by his early 20s.