The runners-up in the Ladbrokes Premiership from each of the last two seasons are in position to do so again. Craig Fowler looks at the recent up-turn in form and whether they can keep it going
On 17 December, in their 17th game of the league season, Aberdeen lost to ten-man Ross County. The defeat was their fourth in the previous five matches. It was a run that saw them lose the Betfred Cup final to Celtic, fall to Rangers at Ibrox and drop seven points behind Mark Warburton’s men in the battle for second place.
For some supporters enough was enough. Derek McInnes had done an excellent job in rebuilding the club, turning Aberdeen from a perennial laughing stock to a side that routinely qualified for Europe, but they felt he wasn’t the man to take the next step and challenge for further honours. Despite keeping their core squad together and adding to in the summer, Aberdeen were no better off. In fact, they were noticeable worse.
Two months on and things could scarcely be any different. Aberdeen have ripped off a nine-game sequence where they’ve won eight, kept five clean sheets, and scored 23 goals. They’ve advanced to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup and, most importantly for Dons fans, opened up a three-point gap in second place above Rangers. The only blip was a narrow 1-0 defeat against Celtic, but in limiting the Champions-elect to one shot on target - which, typically, Celtic scored from - they fared much better than most.
This surge hit a crescendo on Wednesday night with the 7(S-E-V-E-N)- 2 hammering of Motherwell. Aberdeen played with urgency, determination and ruthlessness, all the things you would expect from a team with sky high confidence. The visitors may have done a terrible job of trying to throw their red-hot hosts off-stride, often passively standing off in defence, but the speed and accuracy of the home side’s passing would have given any opponent nightmares.
McInnes has re-energised his squad to the point where they are now favourites ahead of Rangers to take second spot and the bragging rights that go with such an accomplishment. He’s done so by going back to basics, in a manner of speaking.
Two problems which prevented Aberdeen from winning the title last season, or at least taking the challenge down to the wire, were the lack of depth in reserve and a tendency to get bullied by tougher opponents. McInnes would often wait until the final ten minutes of matches to make substitutions, if at all, while Aberdeen picked up fewer points against each of St Johnstone and Hearts than they did against Celtic. In response, a number of players were recruited to strengthen the squad, in every sense of the term.
Unfortunately, aside from goalkeeper Joe Lewis, none of the imports improved the starting XI. McInnes, going completely against character, quickly went from trusting the same players every week to using his shiny new talents in the manner of an overexcited child at Christmas. He must have thought it was a case of “damned if you, damned if you don’t” when he received criticism for the new approach, and when Aberdeen went into the 23 December meeting with Motherwell he reverted to what he knew best.
Through the first 26 games of the campaign, McInnes made 49 changes to his starting XI. Through the last nine games he’s made one - an enforced change on Wednesday night which saw Ryan Christie replace the suspended Graeme Shinnie.
It’s exactly the same starting XI we saw throughout last season: back four of Shay Logan, Ash Taylor, Mark Reynolds and Andrew Considine; midfield three of Graeme Shinnie, Ryan Jack and Kenny McLean; and a trio of attackers with Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes flanking Adam Rooney. The only difference now is that they have a better goalkeeper.
In fairness to McInnes, it’s not all been needless tinkering. McGinn is such an important player to Aberdeen and, even by his inconsistent standards, he really didn’t perform until December. Since then he’s been on fire. The same goes for the centre-back duo of Reynolds and Taylor, who were so poor at the beginning of this campaign they each lost their place in the starting XI. In midfield, Jack is once again living up to the kind of potential which saw him installed as club captain at the beginning of last season, while Hayes has gotten over an early season injury and is at the peak of his game.
Europe played a factor too. The early start (Aberdeen began pre-season with McGinn still at the Euros) created a need to shuffle the pack to keep players fresh. This perhaps influenced McInnes to a greater extent than he may have realised, as he began over-thinking matters by changing up a winning starting XI.
Over this run he’s shown more confidence in the players, as evidenced by the recent 2-0 victory over Partick Thistle. In the match at Pittodrie, the starting XI wasn’t getting the job done, so a drastic alteration was made with the team going to a 3-5-2, which worked out perfectly as they netted twice in the final 20 minutes. Earlier in the season the impact subs, Christie and Jayden Stockley in this case, would have started the next match. Instead, McInnes kept faith and Aberdeen defeated Ross County in the Scottish Cup the following Saturday.
Fans should feel confident the good times can keep on rolling. With the exception of Kilmarnock this weekend - who Aberdeen have beaten in their last ELEVEN matches - they don’t play a top six side in the next five fixtures, including a Scottish Cup quarter-final tie at home to Partick Thistle.
They’ll have to keep McGinn and Hayes playing as they are. While everyone in the Aberdeen XI is in some degree of good form, those two have scored or assisted 17 of the club’s last 24 goals. An injury to either of those two could be devastating to hopes of finishing second and returning to a Hampden final. That being said, the strength in depth is now there, and with McInnes using them as the supplemental pieces, there’s little reason the team can’t overcome a significant blow and keep going in second place until they reach the finishing line.