ALTHOUGH we are only a quarter of the way into the league season, some clear patterns of long-term form are emerging. Partick Thistle and Dunfermline appear to be in a dog fight for promotion to the SPL. The better of the mid-table teams is currently Morton, but any of Raith Rovers, Livingston or even Falkirk could claim that particular bragging right by the end of the season. Cowdenbeath are doing surprisingly well but as winter looms, one can only wonder if they will inevitably fall down the order alongside Airdrie United and the seemingly doomed Dumbarton. Hamilton do not look to have the gumption to make an impression on mid-table and will be fortunate if the part-time teams capitulate to the extent of filling the dreaded relegation play-off place.
Partick Thistle (1st)
Seven wins. One draw. One loss.
More shots in seven matches.
Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly have transformed last season’s occasionally brilliant but often capricious side into a conquering yet stylish team.
For the first seven matches, the Jags seemed invincible. The opening game at home to Falkirk demonstrated clinical precision – although the Bairns enjoyed 60% possession, Thistle scored with all three of their attempts at goal. A cagey but deserved win at Dunfermline preceded emphatic wins (in performance, if not always in scoreline) against Dumbarton, Hamilton, Livingston and Cowdenbeath. A respectable draw away to Raith Rovers was followed by the first loss of the season, away to Greenock Morton, but Thistle responded to that with qualification to the final of the Ramsdens Cup and then a thumping 7-0 win at home to Airdrie United.
What are the reasons to the success? The style of approach must be one. Thistle’s short-passing game from defence through midfield has been something of a revelation among the Scottish lower leagues this season. There has been an inherent trust in having triangle-shaped passing patterns from defence as an attempt to keep the ball, sometimes to an obsessive extent. That can be no bad thing at times – if the other team does not have the ball then they cannot score; if you have the ball yourself, then you can dictate the pace of the game to exactly the tempo you want; and the security of possession can give players the belief to take a risk and make a run out of position to create a chance.
McNamara has instilled a level of calmness and composure to the passing in defence and midfield, allowing defenders to look for the “easy ball”, rather than the aimless punt forward. When it works, they occasionally look like an established and confident top-flight team.
Of course, Thistle are no Barcelona, nor are they Swansea – they’re not even Motherwell. As Thistle move forward, space can be found between the anchor Hugh Murray and the centre-backs; as the full-backs advance to give the team’s only width, quick opposition forwards can counter in the space behind, and as the defenders are pressed on the ball, they will hoof it rather than risk losing the ball.
They are not invincible after all – the acid test will be continuing the same level of success now that opposition managers know how they play, not to mention the inevitable deterioration of the pitches over winter. JAM
Greenock Morton (3rd)
It was not too long ago that Allan Moore would have been wondering if he still have a future at Cappielow. With an insipid 2011-12 season, an above average turnover of players in the summer, and two draws and a defeat from the first three matches, maybe Moore was right to feel the pressure. Public differences in the team strategy made known by the chairman Douglas Rae three matches in (Moore thought some circumstances required a 4-5-1 formation while Rae wanted 4-4-2), and the circumstance looked ominous.
Despite the concept of a formation being entirely neutral (it is the personnel used and the tactics therein which decide whether one is “positive” or “negative” – the loss to Falkirk in August with a 4-5-1 was a match where Morton had one more shot on target than Falkirk), Moore has since opted for a 4-4-2 system almost exclusively, and to some effect.
The return of Fouad Bachirou to partner Michael Tidser in central midfield was a prosperous move in two ways: firstly, it allowed Morton to re-establish a midfield partnership which was at times imperious last season; and secondly, the balance that the midfield gives affords Moore to have an extra forward. Neither midfielder has found the form of the first quarter of last season, but even on the worst of days they can add up to a sum more than their parts.
The presence of an extra forward has made a big difference to the team’s goal-scoring output. Archie Campbell was probably born to live with the clichéd tag “livewire” – he has the technique to score from anywhere, but has recently showed that his acceleration and nimbleness in the penalty area is the best place for him to finish chances. Campbell has climbed to the top of the scorers table, but not without the assistance of Peter Weatherson. The veteran forward recently passed 300 league appearances with Morton and his form is as good as it has been in recent seasons. He acts as the experienced target man to Campbell’s quick devastation. However, the biggest concern will be judging when to revert to three central midfielders and therefore which forward to leave out, as playing with two wingers can mean that even “Tidserou” can be out-matched without back-up. Martin Hardie is certainly a useful option in that respect, to bridge the gap between midfield and defence as a third central midfielder.
Five wins in a row, including credible victories against Raith Rovers and Partick Thistle, have most recently been followed by a draw at Dunfermline. If Morton cannot quite keep up with the pace set by Thistle and the Pars over the whole season, they are certainly good enough to consolidate themselves as “the best of the rest”. JAM
Dunfermline began the season as one of the favourites for the championship, but as Jim Jefferies picked through the wreckage of last term’s inglorious SPL campaign, he was facing a difficult task of securing success whilst reducing costs. Mark Kerr, Martin Hardie, Steven Bell, Paul Burns and Nick Phinn – an entire midfield – were all released. Goalkeeper Chris Smith and defenders Austin McCann and Kevin Ruitkiewicz also left, while Gary Mason retired.
Austerity measures forced Jeffries to recruit from the lower leagues in both Scotland and England, and his signings have generally been a success. Andy Geggan, signed from Ayr United, and former Arbroath playmaker Josh Falkingham have excelled in midfield, while Ryan Wallace and Andrew Barrowman have scored a combined total of 14 goals in all competitions. Goalkeeper Paul Gallacher has so far proved to be a vast upgrade to Smith.
An opening day defeat to Forfar in the Ramsdens Cup suggested the club had failed to shake off the hangover of last season, but the result appears to be nothing more than a blip, while the 1-0 loss to Partick Thistle seems less surprising given the Jags’ outstanding campaign so far. Six consecutive victories temporarily knocked Thistle from the summit, but back-to-back 2-2 draws allowed their rivals to regain first place. In both instances, the Pars came back from two-goal deficits to tie the match.
This never-say-die attitude will play an important role as Dunfermline duke it out with Thistle over the course of the season. Only the Firhill club’s exceptional form has precluded the Pars from leading the division and the battle between the two will perhaps be the most fascinating in the country – if Dunfermline can maintain the form which saw them win 20 points from their opening nine matches, only an exceptional side will prevent them from securing the title. SM