In The Queen’s Defence: A Deconstruction

2) DUNDEE 2 – 1 QUEEN OF THE SOUTH 10/12/2011

Dundee went into this match in third place. They had won their last four matches in a row, with a record extending to five wins in six. At the start of the winning streak, in the first week of November, Dundee were bottom of the First Division. This was was predominantly down to their poor  home form of one draw and four losses.

Dundee’s resurgence at the time can be attributed to a number of factors. One could be Nicky Riley. The right-winger had an excellent first half to the season and was arguably the best winger in the SFL since Dunfermline’s promotion to the SPL in 2010-11 (Dunfermline had Willie Gibson, Joe Cardle and David Graham among others). Riley’s injuries post-Christmas contributed towards Dundee’s erratic form in the latter half of the season.

Another reason for Dundee’s good form was the goal-scoring streak of striker Steven Milne. He scored a hat-trick in the 6-1 win away to Hamilton a week before the visit of Queen of the South (including one of the goals of the season). Milne seemed off-pace at the start of the season, carrying on his form for Ross County in the second half of the 2010-11 campaign.  A succession of starts in the Dundee team – in his favoured position – brought back match-fitness, sharpness and confidence.

Perhaps the most logical explanation for Dundee’s form was the signing of Gavin Rae. The former Scotland international signed a short-term deal from late October in an effort to recover form and fitness (as well as presumably being a favour to an old team-mate, Dundee manager Barry Smith). It was clear that Rae was playing at a level below his talents, despite joining the club as a 33 year old with a history of bad knee injuries. He scored in three league matches in succession in the lead up to the Queens match. The midfielder would leave for Aberdeen at the end of January.

Gavin Rae and Stephen O’Donnell struck a balanced midfield partnership, with Rae providing the thrust from the centre of the park as the ‘runner’. Rae’s role contrasted conveniently with O’Donnell’s more elegant ‘passer’ role. O’Donnell had a strong season and is increasingly one of the most accomplished players in Scotland outwith the SPL, but it was his time alongside Rae that brought his best football and allowed him to dictate the play from a deeper area. It is facile to say that Rae’s greater talents brought out the best of the rest of the team, but O’Donnell simply needs a forward-running, penetrative midfielder whom he can trust to keep possession and allow him to play his own game. At other points in the season – when Rae wasn’t at Dundee – O’Donnell was partnered with Ross Chisolm and/or Kevin McBride in a 4-4-2 and their playing styles would over-lap O’Donnell’s. The balance extended to the flanks too: Riley’s problematic dribbling on the right complimented Ryan Conroy’s more considered crossing and shooting. During Rae’s time at Dundee, the team had a settled line-up with perhaps nine or ten players starting regularly between 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 set-ups.

Queen of the South, to mirror, were sitting third-bottom of the table after a run of inconsistent results. They were unbeaten in three games: a goal-less draw at home to Partick Thistle;  a 2-2 draw away to Morton; and a resolute win at home to Ayr United 4-1. Before their mini-unbeaten run, Queens had only picked up four points in eighteen. The win against Ayr took them to eighth in the table, but they had been bottom of the league for a month before then.

The Dundee match brought Queen of the South’s third change to the back-line in four matches. The draws against Thistle and Morton were built on starting three-man defensive formations, while the win against Ayr came from starting with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 set-up. The goals were scored by the three central midfielders Simmons, McKenna and McLaughlin.

Dundee’s 2-1 victory must be seen as a failure of discipline and organisation in defence on Queen of the South’s part. The return to the three man central defence with wing-backs might nominally make sense against a 4-4-2 formation (such as Dundee’s) but with hindsight, the main advantages were heavily out-weighted by the disadvantages.

Queen of the South’s unorthodox 3-6-1 (or 3-1-4-1-1, or 3-5-1-1, depending on how many ‘bands’ ought to be notated) allowed for extra central midfielders to compete against Dundee. This ought to have given Queens a better protection of their defence while supporting the lone striker Kevin Smith up front.

However, the art of using tactics in any sport or war is of taking the ‘battle’ to where it suits one the most. Just as Ross County had done in the Challenge Cup final towards the end of the 2010-11 season, Dundee made best progress in the wide areas.  Dundee’s full-backs supported the wingers, which helped drag the Queens defenders out of position and allowed the exploiting of space around the sides of the penalty box. The Queens shape allowed more space on the flanks, with inexperienced wing-backs Danny Carmichael and Kevin Holt left to deal with two-on-one situations. Holt, in particular, had a disastrous half hour on the pitch in trying to deal with Riley and the supporting right-back Gary Irvine.

Studying the first goal, it is clear there were a number of organisation issues that were not so apparent under previous management.

The three centre-backs are colour-coded green, to emphasise the lack of shape.  The midfielders and wing-backs are coloured yellow, while Dundee’s players are blue.

This picture illustrates a number of problems:

  • Queens left-wing back Holt felt obliged to follow Riley into the box. Riley’s craft is not exclusive to ‘touching the chalk’ on the out-side; his in-ward diagonal runs often cause the distraction of his marker. In this instance, Holt could have let Riley run off him and have McKenna, inside, pick him up.
  • With Holt having come inside to try to defend against Riley (Riley got past him in any event), Queens left-centre-back Higgins was dragged towards the edge of the box to defend against the immediate cross coming in from Irvine. That left the back three out of shape.
  • McKenna should not have felt that he had to go in to the box to attack the crossed ball, as he so attempted and failed to do. He ought to have been concentrating on tracking Riley’s run. Yet, with Higgins dragged to the left of the pitch, there was a gap to fill.
  • Craig Reid, the ‘spare’ centre-back in the three-man defence, was distracted by Jake Hyde’s run. It was Reid who should have been dominating the box, anticipating the flight of the ball and clearing the cross.
  • With such a large gap in the middle of the box where Dundee forward Jake Hyde ran in to, it was left to Queens’ right-centre-back Steven Black to try to take the responsibility.
  • Queens right-wing-back Carmichael had tried to pass his marker, Milne, on to Black, but the lack of communication meant that Milne was left un-marked between the defenders.
  •  McKenna initially attacked the flighted ball but only made a faint contact. This pulled the trajectory of the cross away from Black, who missed meeting the ball. Milne got a shot in from the bouncing ball, which Queens goal-keeper Chris Robinson saved but only parried. Hyde reacted quicker than Reid to touch the ball beyond Robinson in goal.

There were seven different reasons (excluding the parry to Hyde) why the goal was scored. The lack of organisation was obvious – but what was the reason for that? The changing between three and four-man defences could not have helped. There are few teams in world football that successfully transition between the two systems (Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile and Athletic Bilbao sides are good examples, but closer to home, Partick Thistle under Jackie McNamara are quite adapt at changing between systems during a match, with Scott Robertson’s versatility a key reason for that).

Having to rely on inexperienced defenders might have been another reason (Holt, Black and Carmichael were 19 and 20 years old, respectively). The second goal is good evidence for this, with Holt letting Riley finish with a run beyond the defender’s blind-side. Yet this can only be used in mitigation by Gus MacPherson to a point, because the more experienced Alan Reid was a substitute that day. Reid, in fact, was ready to come on as a substitute, presumably for Holt, just at the time that Holt was sent off.

Queen of the South were two goals and one man down by the end of the first half hour. Had the Reid substitution been made a few minutes earlier, maybe Queen of the South could have drawn the match. Higgins scored with a header from a corner on 55 minutes but even with Nicky Riley being sent off later in the match, Dundee made the better chances and ran out deserved winners.

Gus MacPherson reacted to the result by reverting back to a 4-4-2 formation for the following week’s visit to Falkirk. The Bairns over-powered their visitors in an emphatic 5-1 victory and Queens went on a four-match losing run, including the Dundee defeat. It would take until 28 January 2012 for Queens to win again, with a 2-1 result at home to Morton.

John A Maxwell

John A Maxwell

John is a Ross County supporter whose care for the lower leagues is just as thoroughgoing as when Billy Ferries tore down the wing. His footballing favourites include Fernando Redondo, Gordon Connelly and André Hainault.


  • Reply July 29, 2012

    Ross Donnelly

    Was pointed to this site by a friend and having read all of the articles must say this is a superb site. I have followed your Ross County tactics blog for some time now which has always been a wonderful read, and this site so far is of similar unmatched quality in Scottish sport reporting.

    Felt like posting on this article as it is, in my opinion, one of the most in-depth and informative reads on any aspect of SFL I have seen.

    Keep up the good work and this site will flourish. I look forward to looking back on the Thistle 2012/13 championship winning season!

    • John A Maxwell
      Reply July 30, 2012

      John A Maxwell

      Thank you Ross.

      As you will see on the ‘5 things we learned’ piece, I am fascinated by Thistle’s fluency. I will be keeping an eye on Thistle’s progress through the season.

      Do spread the good word!

      • Reply August 3, 2012

        Ross Donnelly

        No worries John!

        Yeh Thistle have looked really exciting pre-season this year and it is obvious Jackie has a very clear idea of the type of players he wants to play the type football he wants. Our team is composed mainly of technically gifted, fit, younger players but with great experience in Archibald, Murray and Rowson to guide them along.

        We may still be too fragile and inexperienced to win the league but it should be a fun year!

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