Lost in the discussion of how bad their opponents were, and the overall narrative of Aberdeen all but handing the title to Celtic, was the strong showing of St Johnstone in the meeting between the sides on Friday night.
There’s no doubt that the visitors were a complete shell of themselves. However, on other days they may have been able to fight through and pull out a result if they didn’t come up against a highly charged Saints side.
While Aberdeen were undoubtedly bad, the hosts were very good themselves and, even if the away side had performed to their capabilities, it’s still easy to envision the same result occurring though perhaps not the same emphatic score-line.
St Johnstone’s approach to the match was simple: work harder the other side; run harder, cover more ground and battle for every ball. Where they executed this attitude better than anywhere else was in the midfield area.
The trendy tactic in football at the highest level over the last decade has been the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 formation. It places emphasis on winning the possession battle, protecting the back four with not one but two minders, and allowing four attacking players (plus the full-backs) to go at opposing sides. However, in the last couple of years, the 4-4-2 is making a comeback, at least in Scotland anyway.
To make the formation work in the modern age, you usually need four midfielders who are able and willing to work themselves into the ground. That’s because they need to do two jobs at once. They need to protect their defence and support the attack. That used to be the definition of a midfielder, but the modern day split between defensive and attacking midfielders has blurred those lines.
Thankfully for St Johnstone their squad is made up of selfless players willing to graft for the team. Against Aberdeen the midfield four – (from left to right) Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Chris Millar and David Wotherspoon – effectively played their roles, cutting off supply to the Aberdeen attack and then turning straight around, racing up the field and supporting their own front-line.
This was something they needed to do rather quickly, since the general attacking approach was built around direct balls to the front two of Steven MacLean and Graham Cummins.
In the era of tiki-taka, direct play is often wrongly criticised. There’s a massive difference between getting the ball forward quickly with purpose and just shelling long balls in the general direction of the opposing penalty area. St Johnstone expertly indulged in the former.
The target wasn’t so much for McLean and Cummins to win flick-ons, rather to cause problems in the opposing back-line and allow the midfield four to come up and feast on the scraps. The two strikers gave the Aberdeen defenders a torrid time as both put in excellent battling performances.
The best example the tactic’s effectiveness came at the third goal. Image One shows the midfield four pushing forward as a unit in what’s almost a perfect straight line as the ball goes forward from Darnell Fisher – incidentally, he’s really came on to a game in the last couple of months after fans were unsure about him due to his lack of solidity in defence – until when Barry Robson gets it under control.
Robson has nowhere to go forward with the ball, so he turns and gives it to Ryan Jack, who’s dropped into the back-line to cover for Mark Reynolds when the defender went to contest the ball. As you’ll see in Image Two, the midfield four start to retreat immediately with Aberdeen in possession, leaving the front two to pressure Jack. However, Millar and Wotherspoon keep their eye on the situation and spring forward when they realise Jack is in trouble but is still going to try and pass his way out of it.
When the ball goes back to Robson, Millar is right on him, dispossessing the veteran midfielder and allowing MacLean to switch it out left to the incoming Craig. As you can see, only Davidson is out of the attack having assumed Jack was going to thump it down the park and retreated hastily. Craig comfortably controls MacLean’s pass and fires past Scott Brown to seal a richly deserved three points.