Partick Thistle’s fortunes have changed as they went unbeaten in the month of October, thanks in large part to a system change built around the summer signing from Portsmouth, writes Craig Fowler
THOSE tasked with deciding the Player of the Month awards can often overlook deserving candidates from bottom six clubs, but on this occasion they’ve got the winner absolutely spot on.
Adam Barton did not arrive in Scottish football on transfer deadline day to much fanfare, but his signing piqued the interest of Thistle fans right from the off. In the post-Bosman era, it’s unusual for our clubs outside of Celtic or Rangers to pay a transfer fee for any player, and yet that’s what Thistle did to capture the 25-year-old from Portsmouth, snapping him up for an undisclosed amount described as a “good transfer fee” by Pompey manager Paul Cook.
He was characterised as a midfielder who could play in defence, though it was the latter role which excited Thistle fans. Liam Lindsay and Danny Devine had struggled as the first choice centre-back pairing to start the season. At 20 and 23 years old, respectively, it was quickly deduced they were a little too inexperienced to form a rock-solid pairing. The mistakes mounted up in the middle of the Thistle rearguard, and the club went winless in nine after starting off the campaign with a 2-0 triumph over Inverness.
Fans eager for Barton’s arrival in the backline were forced to be patient. After remaining on the sidelines for the first two games, the 25-year-old found himself positioned in midfield alongside Adbul Osman for the 1-1 draw with Motherwell, before being knocked back to the bench once more when Alan Archibald’s side lost at Ibrox. As he’d played for Portsmouth earlier this season, it was assumed fitness was not an issue, leading many to worry the club had spent money on a dud.
After he started again in midfield in the 2-2 draw with Hamilton, things finally began to take shape the following week against Ross County when Archibald moved away from his favoured system. The Jags boss has been dogmatic in his use of the 4-2-3-1 since the club entered the top flight, but in order to halt the skid, he switched to a 3-5-2 with Barton at the heart of the back three. It didn’t immediately bring the desired result, as County left with a point thanks to Chris Burke’s injury-time equaliser, though there was enough in the performance to suggest the experiment was worth sticking with. Archibald kept the faith and was rewarded with successive victories, away from home, no less, to Dundee and St Johnstone.
Barton plays centre-back like you’d imagine a midfielder would. He has poise and class on the ball, holding his head up at all times and moving the play quickly, intelligently and accurately around the defence. He’s also capable of striding out from the back whenever space opens up in front of him. Basically, he’s a modern-day sweeper. On the defensive side he expertly tidies up behind Devine and Lindsay, while his commanding presence has really helped his team-mates settle into the campaign. He’s only a year-and-a-half older than Devine, but he carries himself with such composure that it’s easy to see why he’s brought a sense of leadership to the defence. Devine, in particular, is a completely changed player. The Northern Irishman now looks a solid acquisition having been plagued by errors in the early days following his summer move from Inverness CT.
When Osman and Barton both played in front of the back four against Hamilton, there was too much emphasis on solidity at the base of the midfield, which hindered their advances in attack. Now, having the pair in the team allows wing-backs Christie Elliott and Callum Booth to push further forward, as Osman drops deeper, almost alongside Barton, to offer another option when Thistle look to pass it out from the back. Once in midfield, the central midfield two of Ryan Edwards and Sean Welsh link with the wing-backs to create passing triangles as the side move efficiently up the park. In attack, both Kris Doolan and Ade Azeez can link with midfield and stretch opponents in behind, while the latter also gives Thistle the option of going back-to-front. He routinely showed his battling qualities to make hopeful, long-balls stick against the notoriously stubborn St Johnstone defence, which was key in the surprise 2-1 win.
Thistle came back down to earth against Aberdeen last Friday, losing 2-1. Archibald responded to a half-time deficit by moving Barton into midfield again. Though Barton would equalise, heading home a Welsh corner, there’s little doubt the hosts lost their solidity at the back as Aberdeen quickly retook the lead and could have added to the advantage.
Having been so loyal to a four-man defence throughout his Thistle tenure, it’ll be interesting to see what Archibald does now. The recognition of Barton’s performances over the last month, which largely came as part of a three-man back-line, may convince Archibald the newly discovered battle plan is worth persevering with for a while yet.