Jonny Hayes’ 88th minute equaliser earned a late, though well deserved, first leg draw for Aberdeen against Slovenian side Maribor.
Here’s everything we learned from a hard fought 90 minutes for last season’s Ladbrokes Premiership runners-up.
Aberdeen have every chance of going through
There was no doubt the home side were the better team on the night, particularly during a frustrating first half where they did everything but score. Maribor will have chances of their own in the away leg - they squandered a couple of great ones themselves during an entertaining first 45 minutes - but will have to shore themselves up at the back a little if they’re going to keep a clean sheet next Thursday. If Aberdeen can strike first then expect to see the whole team defending for their lives, while in Adam Rooney, Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes they have an abundance of threats on the counter-attack.
Questions remain over Aberdeen’s centre-back partnership
Aberdeen supporters wanted to see their side strengthen at the heart of the defence this summer, but thus far Derek McInnes has kept faith in Ash Taylor and Mark Reynolds. For most of last season the pair were well off form and the manager seems to be gambling on them rediscovering their 2014/15 best, when they developed into one of the country’s best centre-back partnerships. So far it’s not looked to hopeful. Taylor was at fault for the goal last night, and doesn’t appear to have shaken off his propensity for committing the odd howler in the European campaign, while Reynolds probably shouldn’t have stepped up in that situation and left his partner on an island against scorer Milivoje Novakovic. Aberdeen’s plan was to press Maribor all over the pitch, including the back four, so as not to let the visitors utilise their superior technical abilities. But when Aleks Pihler received the ball and squared himself to Reynolds, who was still 20 yards, the Aberdeen defender should have recognised where the danger was and stayed alongside Taylor, providing insurance in case anything went wrong, which it did.
Aberdeen have flexibility in their approach
In terms of formation, Aberdeen have always shown great versatility. During a home win over Ross County last season, McInnes altered the shape of the side no fewer than four times. However, regardless of who’s standing where, they often tend to go with the same style and approach, built around keeping possession and getting the ball to McGinn and Hayes on the wings. Against Maribor, they were different. They were direct. Often they would play quick, long(ish) balls up towards the strikeforce of Adam Rooney and Jayden Stockley. After conceding, with Stockley having been replaced with the slighter Wes Burns, they went back to the approach with Taylor going up top and through this source they found their equaliser. Even though they only scored once, it was a highly effective tactic for creating chances against Maribor’s defence. It’ll be a conundrum for McInnes next week. Does he try it again or sacrifice one of the strikers for another centre midfielder, thereby giving the defence greater protection in what’s sure to be a tougher contest away from home?
Maribor’s defence can be exposed
Marko Šuler and Rodrigo Defendi (nominative determinism at its best) were an experienced centre back partnership for the visitors, though neither covered themselves in glory against Rooney and Stockley. Šuler, in particular, struggled with all aspects of his game. It could be viewed as a bad day at the office for the Slovenian international, who’s been capped 39 times by his country. Or it could be an example of an ageing defender struggling to deal with a pair of troublesome opponents. Regardless of how the Dons line up in Maribor, expect them to put the 33-year-old under some early pressure in a bid to throw him off stride again.
Ryan Jack may be returning to his best
The 2015/16 campaign was the poorest Jack has suffered since McInnes took over at Aberdeen. After starting the season excellently, including a tremendous performance in the 3-1 win over Hearts that stretched the Dons’ winning start to seven league games, his form soon slipped and he wasn’t even first choice towards the end of the campaign, a damning indictment for a club captain. Everyone knows there’s a talent there and the Maribor match provided hope he’ll return to that level. Rather than shirking back as part of the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, Aberdeen’s 4-4-2 system called on the two centre midfielders (Graeme Shinnie being the other) to tireless run up and down the park, supporting the attack at one end and getting in the faces of opponents at the other. Jack rose to the challenge and will look to use this as a springboard for the season ahead.