In The Queen’s Defence: A Deconstruction

ROSS COUNTY 2 – 1 QUEEN OF THE SOUTH 03/03/2012

Ross County went into the match top of the league, having been there since the middle of October. Ross County were already 21 matches in the league unbeaten, leading up to the third match against Queen of the South.

Queen of the South had fallen again to the bottom of the league table. The Ross County fixture would be the last in a trio of difficult matches after drawing 1-1 at home to Dundee and then losing 0-3 away to Falkirk. When the draw with Dundee saw Queens find themselves in eighth place, the loss to Falkirk co-incided with wins for Ayr and Raith Rovers.

It must be said that it is beyond doubt that Ross County had a significantly larger playing budget to Queen of the South (County had among the largest in the league) but other lessons can be learned.

Ross County’s success could be attributed to a number of factors, including:

  • They had a relatively large, experienced squad for the First Division, with a handful of players who would challenge to start in any other team.
  • They had the returning Derek Adams, a young manager who had his head turned by an assistant manager’s position at Hibernian, before realising at the end of the 2010-11 season that he wanted to manage a first team side of his own accord again.
  • There was a consistency with the match-day squad selection and team strategy. It was possible for Ross County supporters and others to successfully guess the starting eleven almost on a week-to-week basis.

The last of those points above is pertinent when comparing Ross County’s fortunes to Queen of the South’s. Out of a sample of five matches to be covered in this article, Queen of the South’s defence was different in every one of them. The Queens midfield – particularly in the second half of the season – was quite settled, with McLaughlin, McKenna, Johnston and Carmichael starting in most matches. However. the Queens defence seemed to change almost in every match – injuries and suspensions will always play a role during a season, but the profusion of defensive combinations over the course of the league campaign must be seen as an important reason why Queen of the South conceded ‘silly’ goals at inopportune moments.

The pattern of this match was typical of Ross County’s performances at home that season. With both teams playing 4-4-2-based formations, one of the more contrasting patterns of play between the two sides was the involvement of County’s full-backs in their attacking play and creation of chances. Queen of the South, in comparison, had natural centre-backs in full-back positions and they generally kept their position in line with Queens centre-backs. County’s use of their own full-backs for width meant that Paul Lawson could sit behind the midfield zone and play-make without being pressed by Johnston and McKenna (who were reluctant to chase the game higher up the pitch because it may have exposed their defence).

Gus MacPherson surprisingly started with Alan Reid at right-midfield. Reid’s presence there did not amount to much in an attacking sense early on, but an injury to centre-back Potter meant that Higgins tucked in a position to centre-back, with Alan Reid moving to left-back. Daniel Carmichael was the substitute for Potter and filled the vacant right-wing slot, to some success.

Ross County’s early play depended on the sponsors’ man of the match Lawson bringing the full-backs in to play, particularly right-back Gary Miller. Queens’ left-midfielder Scott McLaughlin had tucked in-field, probably because that was a natural tendency for him, but it also could have been a reaction to County’s greater midfield numbers (particularly when Michael Gardyne dropped deep and the full-backs pushed forward). As a result, this only gave Ross County’s right-back more space to get forward. Miller’s over-lapping runs beyond Richard Brittain were a common occurance during the match. Queen of the South’s best chance, in contrast, came from Nicky Clark following a Sam Parkin knock-down from a long ball from the Queens goal-keeper Lee Robinson. Clark seemed to be through on goal but County’s goal-keeper smothered the ball at the penalty spot.

Despite Ross County looking strong when involving their full-backs, it was an elementary error from the next long ball that resulted in their first goal. Fraser’s ball was caught in the breeze, which might be a reason why the ball was allowed to bounce beyond the defence. Gus MacPherson would have wanted either right-back Craig Reid or centre-back Ryan McGuffie to attack the ball with a clearing header. Craig Reid seemed to be distracted by both the trajectory of the ball and County’s left-midfielder Iain Vigurs previously running beyond him. Vigurs half-volleyed the ball across Robinson from the edge of the penalty box to score after twenty-three minutes.

It was Ross County who would dominate the rest of the first half without creating many goal-scoring opportunities. For the third ‘quarter’ of the match which fell after half-time, Queen of the South looked strong on their right flank with Carmichael creating a couple of half-opportunities from the wing. His first was a cross from the bye-line, with the ball passing undefended to the far post where McLaughlin could not connect properly. The second chance was a dangerous ball after skinning Grant Munro (a rare occurance during the season) which was eventually handled well by Fraser. Queens then equalised after a move on the right flank drew a foul. A deep cross was not cleared successfully and a high bounce on the ball allowed Parkin to out-muscle the County defence and cushion a headed pass to McGuffie. The defender timed his left-footed volley to perfection and beat Fraser from twelve yards.

Ross County went on the attack thereafter. On seventy-two minutes, literally a minute before a change was due from Ross County to an attacking 4-2-3-1 with wide forwards, Ross County scored from a goal that – once again – could have been better defended.

Queens’ right-back Craig Reid prevented a throw-in deep in his team’s territory by swinging a clearance forward, deep into Ross County’s half. Sam Parkin had already been replaced by Tom Brighton, probably because he had committed a number of fouls and looked likely to collect a second yellow card. Brighton never challenged Munro in a manner that Parkin had earlier in the match, so Munro had time to control the ball and progress forward five yards. Munro then prodded the ball low over the half-way line towards Michael Gardyne, who had dropped deep to collect. Gardyne was followed by his marker Higgins towards the edge of the centre-circle, while McMenamin and his marker McGuffie were ten yards closer to the Queen of the South goal. Gardyne flicked the ball first-time to McMenamin and turned beyond Higgins. McGuffie mistimed his incerception on McMenamin, which gave the County forward time to take a touch towards the Queens goal and lay the ball off for Gardyne. He was one-on-one with Robinson and finished from the edge of the penalty area.

Higgins and McGuffie together were culpable for letting Gardyne’s chance arise, but it was Higgins in particular who followed his man too high up the pitch. That highlighted an inherent flaw in the 4-4-2 system, with ad-hoc decisions having to be made on who marks the opposition forward dropping between the lines of midfield and attack. In this instance, it might have been prudent to have had Stephen McKenna drop back from midfield pick up Gardyne.

Ross County then went on to pin Queen of the South back for the remaining fifteen minutes, with a ‘broken’ but wide 4-2-3-1 formation.  This allowed County’s full-backs to keep position in defence, while County still threatened on the counter-attack. Even so, Queen of the South will have been disappointed not to have held on to the draw, with the two goals conceded coming from poor defending rather than exceptional attacking play (although, in fairness, the combination between McMenamin and Gardyne for the winning goal was of a high standard).

Queen of the South went on to beat Raith Rovers 1-0 at home in the following round of fixtures but still remained in tenth place for the final quarter of the season. Despite propping up the table, three consecutive draws at the beginning of April gave Queens a fighting chance to avoid automatic relegation, with the last key match falling on the penultimate match of the season.

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.

3 Comments

  • 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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