With Celtic running away with the Ladbrokes Premiership at Roadrunner pace it has been left to Aberdeen and Rangers to fight it out for the runners-up spot. It’s a battle which is going to go down to the wire as both teams try and outfox each other.
Everything went according to plan for the two sides at the weekend as they each resumed league action in a professional manner following the winter break. Aberdeen overcame a slow start before sweeping past a hapless Dundee. Rangers had a harder time of it at Fir Park, but they deservedly won through 2-0 after a hard-fought encounter.
Trying to separate the sides is an increasingly difficult task.
Derek McInnes appeared to spend large parts of the first half of the season trying to unearth his strongest XI. And yet, it had been staring him in the face all along.
Adam Rooney didn’t have to play wide, Andrew Considine didn’t have to play centre-back, Kenny McLean didn’t have to play in a deep midfield position. Jayden Stockley didn’t have to play.
Following the Dons’ 2-1 defeat at Ross County they’ve won five on the bounce, playing the same side in each victory. Starting that loss in Dingwall were Wes Burns, Stockley and the mercurial James Maddison, while Considine was in the centre of defence and McLean played at the base of the midfield.
This was McInnes overcomplicating matters and it coming back to hurt. Since Ryan Dow netted the winner for the Staggies, the Dons boss simplified matters.
Two goals have been conceded in 470 minutes of football as players have been situated in familiar positions, alongside familiar team-mates as part of a familiar system.
There are a couple of caveats to this. Graeme Shinnie is playing in the centre of midfield when his best position is at left-back, but such is his flexibility and quality he slots in there with consummate ease.
Secondly, the upturn in form has arrived at the same time Ash Taylor and Mark Reynolds have been partnered together in the centre of defence. Along with the imperious Joe Lewis between the sticks, Anthony O’Connor has been a signing which has improved the quality of the side. Yet, he has had to make way.
There is still that pressing concern that the current centre-back duo will combine to produce something disastrous. As of yet little has happened, and they had little to fear against a listless and undermanned Dundee.
Once Aberdeen took control they never let-up. The Dons targeted Dundee’s right-hand side. Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn took it in turns to torment Mark O’Hara and Julen Etxabeguren. Hayes has been one of the players of the season in the league, but it was McGinn who stole the show.
The Northern Irishman has showed signs of gradual regression since an exemplary performance in September 2015 against Hearts. He still recorded good numbers and went to the European Championships, performed well and scored. But with little rest he has looked fatigued.
He seemed to be getting back to his jinking, elusive best even before the break. McInnes gave him a couple of weeks off and he has came back with four goals in two games, including a brace on Friday night, making it seven goals in his last eight.
If McGinn and Hayes are both on form Aberdeen verge on unstoppable. They continue to break down defences through pace, skill and crossing ability. Defences have to be prepared for a shelling with the ball being fired into dangerous areas. Again and again. McInnes may have tried to refine the team’s overall play but Aberdeen are best when simplicity is sought.
Ryan Christie has come in to replace Maddison. While the Englishman has a higher level in terms of potential, Christie is closer to the finished product and has experience of the league. He can score and break down obdurate defences, and Adam Rooney must be rubbing his hands together at the prospect of the chances that are going to be created for him.
Add that to a nonporous defence and it is difficult to look past the Dons. Especially when you analyse the statistics. Aberdeen have scored more because they hit the target more despite taking less shots than their rivals from Govan. They also concede less goals because they concede less shots.
While Rangers have come in for criticism they sit second for a reason. They have perhaps the most embedded system, ingrained in them through their manager’s dogmatic beliefs in how the game is to be played. It can lead to some sticky situations, but when it works they are arguably the most exhilarating team to watch.
Question marks are raised when games become tough, when they have to battle for three points, especially away from home - they’ve won less than half of their away games.
It looked like it may be another awkward away game at Fir Park when the ineffectual Michael O’Halloran was given his marching orders after four minutes. Motherwell took the initiative and pushed forward.
There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Warburton’s men survived the pressure by playing their way through it. Rather than sit deep and compact they invited Motherwell forward by playing the ball short then pushing both full-backs high.
By doing so they gave up chances to Motherwell, yet they got a foothold in the game and dominated possession in a 10-15 minute spell before Scott McDonald’s reckless challenge evened up the numbers.
Quite rightly Warburton has been judged on the faith he puts in his plan A. But there are admirable qualities when he tries to win and entertain. However, the make-up of his squad sees performances fluctuate drastically, even within the same game.
They can be ponderous, slow and predictable, taking far too long to shift the opposition. This results in the ball moving side to side with little penetration before using Andy Halliday as an easy out-ball far too often. Five minutes later they can be rampaging through defences with quick, incisive one-touch football, movement and what Marcelo Bielsa refers to as ‘verticality’.
There was much more of the latter on Saturday with Emerson Hyndman replacing Jason Holt in midfield. Holt is an endearing talent but one who continues to be unsure of his effervescent ability. There is a timidness, a lack of trust in his passing.
Hyndman has no such insecurities. The 20-year-old cut open the Motherwell defence on his debut in the Scottish Cup with an assist for Kenny Miller’s winning goal. He was highly involved throughout at Fir Park. He took it upon himself to drive his new team forward on his young shoulders. He completed all 53 of his passes and gave Rangers direction with and without the ball.
The American has shown early but bright signs of a relationship between himself and Miller. The two linked constantly and were key, along with Lee Wallace’s marauding runs, in unlocking the Steelmen’s defence.
And talking of Miller. Like an 80s action figure he gets more valuable with age. You would be hard-pressed to find a more in form player in Scotland than the 37-year-old.
Issues still exist. Just as McInnes has settled on his best XI, Warburton doesn’t appear to be set on his. Martyn Waghorn has been in and out, James Tavernier has played in midfield and it is not easy to guess the trio of central midfielders. Then there is Rob Kiernan. A defender in the Taylor and Reynolds mould of ‘bloody hell, I’m not sure what he is going to do at any given moment’.
Both teams have a lot to be positive about for the remainder of the season. And both teams face tricky away games on Wednesday. Rangers travel to the scene of their worst performance of the season, Tynecastle. Aberdeen are at Celtic Park. It should be more interesting watching the battle for second rather than witnessing Celtic speed off into the distance.