LESS than a year after their last heroic trip to northern mainland Europe, St Johnstone are embarking on another continental adventure. And, just like last year, there is no easy bedding in period for the Scottish Cup winners who have been drawn against Swiss side FC Luzern.
The bookmakers make the hosts 4/7 favourites going into the first leg, indicating that Saints don’t stand much of a chance. Having been written off against Rosenborg, however, it’s doubtful that Tommy Wright and his players are listening to the cynics. They’ll believe in themselves and there are certainly a few tactical wrinkles which could help them pull off another upset.
Respect the threat from the wing
Usually preferring to start with one up front (in either a 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3), Luzern earn their crust on the flanks. Jahmir Hyka (left wing) and Adrian Winter (right wing) are each entering their fourth season with the club and more than capable of causing any visiting team problems. Fortunately for St Johnstone, full-back is one of the starting eleven’s stronger areas with ever-dependable Dave Mackay on the right and the underrated Brian Easton patrolling the left. Even if Mackay will have to move inside to cover the loss of Steven Anderson through injury, Gary Miller is a more than capable back-up. It’s a stronger calibre of player they’ll be going up against, but if they can repeat the performances of the Scottish Cup semis and final, where they neutralised the threat from two expansive teams, then they’ll have a chance.
Capitalise on Luzern’s transition
With the exception of adding young striker Kyle Lander, St Johnstone haven’t made any moves in the transfer market yet this summer. The rumoured reason for this is that contract negotiations are still ongoing between the club and Stevie May and they want this deal tied up before assessing the rest of their available budget. While they will undoubtedly want to strengthen the squad, no truly important player left during the summer - James Dunne, who was a regular starter after January, was the most notable - and that unity might give them an edge going into this match. In Kaja Rogulj, Thierry Doubai and Marco Schneuwly, Luzern have three new signings in each area of the field. It’s not a huge amount of upheaval, though this is still the first game of the campaign and any sort of unfamiliarity could cost them. Particularly when you consider that St Johnstone, May aside, are a disciplined and cohesive unit who are greater than the sum of their parts.
Stay tight at the back; win it at home
Rumours are swirling that May is a doubt for the first leg in Switzerland. If St Johnstone’s worst fears do come true then expect Wright to completely shut up shop and use set-pieces to try and nick something, similar to their approach in Rosenborg last year. They prefer to line-up in a 4-4-2 but a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Steven MacLean leading the attack, will give them the best chance of implementing such an approach.
MacLean doesn’t have many physical attributes associated with intimidating forwards. What he does possess is incredible intelligence at the top flight level in Scotland and he will truly understand that his role, first and foremost, is to win possession in the opposing half and ease the pressure off the defence.
Further back, Chris Millar will likely be partnered by youngster Scott Brown at the base of the midfield, while Wright may go with David Wotherspoon in the centre to complete the trio, depending on how adventurous he wants his side to be. Wotherspoon will likely start regardless of where he plays since his set-piece capabilities may provide the team with the best opportunity to score.
Once they’ve escaped Switzerland unharmed, Wright will be praying that is top goalscorer is fit for the return leg and they can unleash May on an unsuspecting opponent.
Let him loose
Assuming he is fit, St Johnstone’s best chance lies in the shooting of May and, more specifically, in how he shoots the football. One of the weaker points of Luzern is their goalkeeper, David Ziboung. He’s the type who repels a football firing squad one weak and then lets a trickler run through his legs the next; a goalkeeper who lacks concentration and can cost his team as many points as he saves over the course of a campaign.
May likes to shoot. A lot! Sometimes it’s maddening when he cuts inside from 40 yards and just thinks ‘I’m having this’. He’s like an immature but more rounded Jermain Defoe - in the context of their respective leagues, of course. However, it’s that same eagerness to fire the ball towards goal which holds him in good stead closer to the penalty area. Goalkeepers sense danger when May’s on the ball but often aren’t given the time to react to those impulses because the shot is already on its way.
A good example of this is his second goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen. On first glance it looks like a mistake from Jamie Langfield, but on further viewing you can see that the Aberdeen keeper is given little chance. Where as most forwards would adjust their body to give themselves a more refined angle on the ball, burning crucial time in the process, May pretty much toe-bashes it. Because he hits it low, hard and fast, the keeper has no time to set himself and can’t get down quickly enough. If May can have a similar impact on the shaky Ziboung then it could swing the balance of power in St Johnstone’s favour.
Thanks to Giannis Kyriazis for providing the information on FC Luzern.