Which players shone brightest and who had a week to forget from the past seven days in Scottish football?
Apologies to any regular readers of this weekly column for it appearing a day late, hopefully a slow-mo video of Martin Boyle’s screamer makes up for it.
James Tavernier (Rangers)
It was fitting the goal that secured Rangers’ passage into the top flight came via the boot of their marauding right back. More than any other player, he typifies the complete change in football culture Rangers have experienced from last season to the current campaign. From dull, uninspiring, back-to-front play to a progressive, fluid and attacking style, it’s been so much easier on the eye covering events at Ibrox this term. You can’t help but admire a system which allows a full back to score 13 goals, most of which come from inside the penalty area.
Yes, Tavernier and his team have achieved these accomplishments against lower level opponents with a much bigger budget than their competition, but this was also true last season and look where it got them. Besides, Callum Paterson is a very good, goalscoring right back who played on a thoroughly dominant Championship team and even he couldn’t break double figures. People think Tavernier will be “found out” in the top flight. I say write him off at your peril.
Martin Boyle (Hibs)
Ooft! What a hit! That’s got to be one of the best goals Easter Road has seen in many a year.
Not only did ‘Squirrel’ (annoying referred to as “The Squirrel” on Sportsound) forever etch himself in the minds of the 7,000 supporters who witnessed the match-winning thunderbolt, he massively influenced Hibs turnaround on the night after his introduction as a substitute. His presence really gave Hibs a lift and earned the Man of the Match award at the end of the contest. This was despite him only playing the final 22 minutes!
Boyle is a funny player in that he’ll go long periods, sometimes even months, without doing much of note and then a switch is flicked as he plays a starring role in a victory. He’s not a top class talent even by Scottish Championship standards, but he provides great pace, energy and enthusiasm, and that’s the sort of thing you want when your team is mired in a funk as bad as Hibs were before last night.
Patrick Roberts (Celtic)
He was Celtic’s best player in the win over Hearts on Saturday, which he underlined with a pair of terrifically well taken goals.
If last night’s draw with Dundee is anything to go by, that performance has shot him up from being on the squad rotation conveyor belt alongside the likes of Scott Allan and Ryan Christie to a vital cog in Ronny Deila’s system. Not only did Roberts earn another start at Dens Park, he was pretty much the only attacking player showing any impetus in the game, though that was aided by his team-mates seemingly seeking him out at every opportunity.
He may not be Celtic’s player, but if he’s as good as advertised he will still be a terrific asset for them next season, and Celtic will be happy if, in his 18 months, he can contribute to winning a couple of titles, two or three cups and getting them back into the Champions League group stages. Mostly in Scottish football a truly great player only sticks around for a year or two anyway.
Greg Stewart (Dundee)
I wanted to do a separate piece looking at this, but unfortunately there aren’t enough hours in the day to make all the random ideas I have become actual finished articles, so a truncated version in W&L will have to do.
For most of this season, Paul Hartley has tried, and to a large extent failed, to get all of Kane Hemmings, Greg Stewart and Rory Loy into the starting XI and have things work smoothly. They combined tremendously well on the opening day in the 4-0 defeat of Kilmarnock, which is perhaps why Hartley kept persisting with this approach despite the trio rarely combining fluidly.
The team would often become too disjointed. If it was a 4-2-3-1, it meant at least one of the strikers was out of position. If it was a 4-4-2, it didn’t give the midfield enough protection and would often leave the unit in a lopsided shape as Stewart, typically on the right of a midfield four, needed license to roam.
The absence of Gary Harkins prior to Saturday’s match against Ross County presented Hartley with a choice. The Dundee boss had been trialling a new three-at-the-back system with Harkins as the playmaker behind Stewart and Hemmings. He could have switched out of the system, which wasn’t really bringing much of an improvement in terms of results prior to the County clash, or he could give the aforementioned trio another go. He opted for the latter and wow, wow, wow, wow. It was Dundee’s best attacking performance since the Harkins-inspired hammering of Partick Thistle after the New Year and probably their third best attacking display of the season.
The system enabled Dundee to have all three in the team and not completely lose their shape. By sitting in the No.10 role, Stewart could do as he pleased without being detrimental to the shape of the side, while Hemmings and Loy looked a cohesive partnership ahead of him.
They were helped out by Ross County playing right into their hands. The visitors’ 4-4-2 system meant there was no-one assigned to the role of tracking Stewart and he basically had the freedom of Dens Park in the first half. The visitors moved to a three-at-the-back system of their own shortly before the break and tasked Stewart Murdoch with the job of following Stewart, which kept him fairly quiet until the closing exchanges where the game got stretched and he was able to play a significant role in the final two goals - creating one and netting the other. Other teams would likely have a recognised defensive midfielder when they line up against Hartley’s side, so it’ll be interesting to see how they adapt to this.
They did play Celtic last night, but when you’re examining tactical trends of the other 11 top flight clubs you may as well discount games against the league leaders. Clubs approach them in a different manner than with any other side.
Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
An Aberdeen fan Twitter account, gloriously entitled Stats and Miniskirts, said it best about Hayes’ after Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Hamilton. “The wing play from Hayes epitomises everything that he adds to the team. Great hassling, pace and final ball,” they said, and I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The evolution of Hayes as a player has been a joy to behold these past few years. He started life at Inverness CT as an exciting but orthodox winger, someone tasked with running at defenders and putting balls into the box. He still does that, of course, but now he’s so much more, demonstrated by his ability to perform at such a high level even when he plays at left back or in the sitting midfield position. He displays great technique, creativity, industrious, tenacity and the ability to strike from distance. Aberdeen fans “dream of a team of Jonny Hayes” and it’s easy to see why.
Alan Mannus (St Johnstone)
I can’t help but feel concern for the future prospects of the Saints stopper. For the past three seasons he’s been among the best three goalkeepers in the league. In fact, other than Craig Gordon and Fraser Forster, he’s arguably been the best in Scotland over that time period. By comparison, this season has not gone so well. He’s failed to pull off the type of eye-catching stops by which he’s become known for, while he’s also gifted goals to opponents with a far greater frequency. The latest of which came in Saturday’s loss to Dundee United.
It’s now got to the point where Saints fans are seriously debating whether he’s still the best goalkeeper at the club. Zander Clark was terrific at Queen of the South last season and, instead of letting him have another prolonged stay in Dumfries, Tommy Wright decided to recall the youngster so he could back-up Mannus this season. With the current incumbent struggling, Wright is going to have to make a decision soon. Clark has been patient so far but that patience is going to wear ever thinner the more Mannus fluffs his lines.
Owain Fon Williams (Inverness CT)
This past weekend was just terrific for hilarious defensive errors and few stood out more than the Welsh goalkeeper’s impression of Cammy Bell in a play-off final when trying to save Lionel Ainsworth’s bizarre effort. He then compounded that error to come drifting out into no-man’s land to try and close down Marvin Johnson at Motherwell’s winner, allowing his opponent the simple task of passing beyond a goalkeeper who couldn’t use his hands into an empty net.
A number of people have wondered what’s happened to Inverness CT this season. While John Hughes has made some questionable choices, as every manager will, the loss of three key players last summer along with a lengthy injury list has really restricted what the ICT boss can do. Case in point, Fon Williams is the second best goalkeeper at the club. Go on, admit it, you forgot Dean Brill still existed, didn’t you?
Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
His performance at Celtic Park last night was indicative of his recent form. Every player goes through bad spells and Griffiths has more than enough credit in the bank to remain in the side through this one. Besides, who would actually replace him? Carlton Colzim-Richards? (Sorry.)
That’s the main problem for Deila right now. Winning the league is not going to be enough to save him. The team need to be defeating opponents with a bit of style, something to indicate to the Celtic Park board that things are actually getting better and he’s trustworthy in terms of leading the team next year. It’s a helluva bad time to have your most valuable player going through a slump.
Robbie Neilson (Hearts)
This was a tough week for Robbie as he witnessed his side losing 3-1 a couple of days before each member of his squad became glued to their respective toilet seats.
Those in the Hearts support who like to lend credence to the deranged ramblings of the ‘Neilson out’ brigade tend to cite his “negative tactics”. Well, against Celtic they weren’t negative at all. He set them out in a 3-5-2 variation that saw the left and right centre backs split far wide, while the wing-backs were instructed to get high up the park. Unfortunately they were a bit exposed defensively and lost 3-1, which wouldn’t have sat well with the naysayers, especially as some of them really don’t like Celtic - if you catch my drift.
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