With the Premiership campaign paused for the international break, Craig Cairns of the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast takes a look at some of the more successful tactical ploys this season.
Motherwell’s front three
Mark McGhee may still have a tendency to come out with the odd tongue-in-cheek comment – be it yearning for the Liverpool job or slapping players around – but he has again shown his ability to improve a struggling club. Over the past few months he has elevated Motherwell from 11th to fifth.
In his first spell as Motherwell boss, McGhee found success with an attacking 4-3-3 system. He adopted a more cautious approach to begin with after arriving back at Fir Park in October before briefly experimenting with a back three. Over the past few weeks however, he has reverted to his preferred three striker system.
And, as Scott McDonald pointed out on BBC Radio Scotland recently, it’s not a 4-5-1 paraded as a 4-3-3 as it contains three central strikers. Marvin Johnson, a winger by trade, has been asked to take up a more central role and his pace, power and dynamism along with McDonald’s intelligence and Louis Moult’s predatory instincts have Motherwell in with a decent chance of taking fourth spot and possible European qualification.
Key to this has been the goalscoring form of Moult. Wes Fletcher may have been preferred at the start of the season but, after Moult’s initial run in the side, which included a stretch of five goals in six matches, he has never looked back. Another stretch of eight goals in nine matches meant that by January, he had already endeared himself to the Motherwell support.
McGhee dropped Moult from the starting line-up for two weeks in February, but this was at a time when the entire side was struggling for any kind of form and his manager was frantically experimenting with different combinations in order to find his best eleven.
Since his return to the side, Moult has found his shooting boots once more and is currently on a run of five goals in five matches, leaving him just two short of his initial target of 20. He continues to sniff out opportunities in the six-yard box, scoring no fewer than eleven of his goals within it. He has a natural instinct to arrive in the six-yard box in time for a tap-in, as evidenced by his winning goal versus Aberdeen (below). Fittingly, that goal involves all three strikers linking up.
Partick Thistle’s defence
Amazingly, Partick Thistle have not conceded a goal from outside the box this season. By contrast, every other side in the Premiership has conceded at least three from outside the area. Not only do Thistle have one of the better goalkeepers in the country – so much so that Hibernian must surely wish he was still there going into their Scottish Cup semi-final minus Mark Oxley – their back four has performed above expectation.
Alan Archibald continues to impress as Thistle manager and continues to fly under the radar while doing so. This season he has predicated their success on a strong defence. In terms of goals conceded, the Jags have the fourth best defence in the Premiership. In terms of clean sheets, they are joint-fourth with Hamilton. They have been especially impressive away from home, conceding just 17 times – only Celtic and Hearts have conceded fewer – including two games in Inverness and a goalless draw at Pittodrie.
Liam Lindsay has developed from promising youngster into one of the first names on the team sheet and is aided by the experienced head Danny Seaborne as his central defensive partner. Callum Booth and Mustapha Dumbuya – even though the latter has missed some time due to injuries – provide more attacking threat than defensive solidity, which is where captain Abdul Osman comes in.
Osman provides cover for the advanced full-backs and showed his defensive capabilities when he dropped to centre-back after Lindsay was injured in the warm up at New Douglas Park recently. He fitted in seamlessly, allowing Ryan Edwards to start in midfield and score the winning goal.
Aberdeen may have come up short in their title challenge last season and, given their most recent result, may just miss out again this season, but their progression under Derek McInnes is undeniable. McInnes took over from Craig Brown almost exactly three years ago after the former Scotland boss had stabilised a perpetually temperamental club.
Not only has McInnes shown ability to recruit players that can fit into a flexible system, he has displayed his tactical nous when adapting that system. Despite this, one characteristic of his Aberdeen team remains their strength in the wide areas and the damage they inflict from crosses. Of their 52 league goals, 21 have come from wide areas in open play and a further 11 have come from corners and free kicks.
When everyone is fit, Aberdeen possess two potent wingers in the shape of Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes. Between them the pair has scored 11 and assisted 20, meaning they are directly responsible for 60% of Aberdeen’s league goals.
Of course, they have Adam Rooney to aim for – one of the most prolific strikers in the country in recent times – and opposition defences have to contend with other top performers like Kenny McLean and Graeme Shinnie, but there is no doubting that Hayes and McGinn have been vital to Aberdeen’s rise over the last few seasons.
This article was written for the SPFL.co.uk and published on 30 March 2016.