Five most interesting storylines this Scottish football weekend

Rangers manager Mark Warburton in training prior to tonight's contest with Hamilton. Picture: SNS
Rangers manager Mark Warburton in training prior to tonight's contest with Hamilton. Picture: SNS
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Here’s what to look out for this weekend in the SPFL.

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Big games for McInnes and Cathro

It’ll be two games into his tenure, so any talk of Cathro being “under pressure” would be ridiculous. However, just because it’s ridiculous, doesn’t mean it won’t be true. Because of the bizarrely impassioned debate that greeted his arrival he’s being scrutinised more than any other non-Old Firm coach in recent history. Failure to beat Partick Thistle, who are bottom of the table, would increase such scrutiny and have the Craig Levein detractors within the Hearts support, of which there are more than you’d think, grumbling about the latest head coach choice.

It’s the same for McInnes but for very different reasons. Where as Cathro has to live with the inherent suspicion and mistrust which comes with change, for McInnes it’s all about familiarity breeding contempt. In the past, writers (including myself) have lauded the Aberdeen boss for his tactical flexibility. However, as one supporter said on my Twitter timeline today, it’s beginning to resemble a tactical tombola, with different shapes and approaches seemingly picked from mid-air. They certainly didn’t like the way the team changed things up at half-time in the recent match with St Johnstone, deciding to go long instead of continuing with a more patient approach.

Away to a resurgent Ross County is a tricky proposition, and with trips to Motherwell and Hearts following in their next four games, things may begin to heat up around the Aberdeen boss. This is an example of supporters having short memories - the club were a perennial bottom six mess in the immediate years before his arrival - but that’s football nowadays.

It’s still great to be bottom

The worrying trend for Cathro to deal with, as pointed out in last week’s article, is that the bottom side in the Scottish Premiership going into the weekend has avoided defeat six times in a row. We had...

Dundee - bottom on 28 October - beat Hamilton (a) 1-0

Dundee - bottom on 4 November - beat Motherwell (h) 2-0

Ross County – bottom on 18 November - beat St Johnstone (a) 4-2

Dundee - bottom on 26 November - beat Inverness (h) 2-1

Partick Thistle - bottom on 2 December - drew at Hamilton (a) 1-1

And now we’ve added...

Inverness CT - bottom on 9 December - drew 1-1 with Hamilton (h)

Obviously, the trend you will notice, other than Dundee being very good when they’re bad, is that Hamilton have played a part in three of these matches. And, with as much respect to Hamilton, it’s a lot tougher going to Tynecastle. However, should they get a result at Tynecastle, it’ll lend credence to the theory that this season’s top flight relegation battle is nothing more than a glamourised game of musical chairs.

Have ICT fixed their defence?

Some thought Richie Foran would struggle in his first gig in management. Others, like this writer, thought he’d be fine because he could call on Josh Meekings and Gary Warren as a centre-back pairing with Ross Draper and Greg Tansey in front of them. It’s a solid unit and should be enough to scrape together the required points for survival. However, Foran has preferred a very expansive, largely pleasing-on-the-eye approach with Draper usually pushed further forward as Iain Vigurs takes up the role of deep-lying playmaker. It’s led to a rather exposed and leaky defence. And even though Inverness CT have had little trouble scoring goals - they’ve netted one fewer than Rangers - they’ve been struggling to win games because they can’t keep them out at the back.

Last week, they were improved in this regard against Hamilton. They still didn’t keep a clean sheet, but that was mainly due to an injured Owain Fon Williams being thrust into the starting XI because there were no other options available and him making an error from an Ali Crawford free-kick. Other than that, they looked sturdier with Draper and Vigurs switching roles. The former used his strength to clog up the centre, while the latter pressed the ball in the opposing half. It’s a small difference, but it could go a long way to improving Inverness’ season.

Have Rangers fixed their attack?

Writing this two hours before they play Hamilton is just asking for trouble, but there has been an added something to Rangers attack in the past two games which suggests a corner has been turned.

Against Hearts, they started the match with an enthusiasm for going direct. It wasn’t aimless balls lumped toward Joe Garner - though that in itself doesn’t look like a bad gameplan - but rather ranging diagonals looking to spring Kenny Miller in behind the defence, which very nearly worked on two occasions before Rangers opened the scoring. Once they realised Hearts had little intention of coming with the same sort of high-press they showed in the game at Tynecastle, they began to knock the ball around in their usual style.

They’ll be put under more pressure tonight but it finally looks like Mark Warburton is giving his players the means to deal with such opposition. Furthermore, the installation of James Tavernier in the centre of the park is an interesting wrinkle that looks like it’ll give more balance to the overall approach. It enables them to be stronger defensively at right back, while adding some much needed power, drive and a scoring threat from the centre. His presence also seemed to free up Jason Holt to work more of his pass-and-move style into the attack.

Will Commons bolster Hibs?

Seeing as Hibs rushed through the signing ahead of the match, and they’ve got a ton of injuries, he will likely play some part, though it’d be foolish to through him straight in when he’s not played a competitive match since April. Therefore, we won’t learn much from this weekend’s match. Despite this, it’ll still feed into one of two narratives, even if does only play 15 minutes or so.

The parallels with Anthony Stokes’ signing last year are there for all to see. While it had an incredibly happy ending - without Stokes’ incredible cup final performance Hibs are left still waiting - it did nothing for their league campaign as the Celtic loanee struggled to mesh with the rest of the Hibs attack. The same could happen with Commons. Then again, he’s a player of such immense quality that it may not matter.

Bonus storyline - Celtic’s pursuit of invincibility

Last week I said the game against Thistle was much tougher than it looked. So, naturally, Celtic won 4-1 without playing particularly well.

This week they face Dundee at Celtic Park. Paul Hartley’s side caused Celtic a few problems during Ronny Deila’s, even getting a few draws, but this is a very different animal. Dundee have been great at staying compact and allowing their back three to head away any cross into the penalty area. Celtic are too savvy to be drawn into that game and will finds the gaps on the larger Celtic Park pitch.

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