With the transfer window opening in Scotland on New Year’s Day, Craig Fowler looks at where each Scottish Premiership side could look to strengthen...
Top priority - An attacking left-back
Initially this selection was going to be a No.10. Ever since it became apparent that Chris Forrester, arguably the club’s most impressive summer signing on paper, was not going to meet the levels required to compete in the Ladbrokes Premiership, Dons fans have called for the signing of a central attacking playmaker in the January window. Kenny McLean’s creativity from those areas had not been replaced and Aberdeen became a tough watch for the Pittodrie faithful, which would have been fine if the consistency of previous seasons remained, but they frequently bounced between top and bottom six as clubs like Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock shared the positive non-Old Firm headlines.
However, McInnes has since managed to find a way around this problem. In recent weeks the manager has used, to good effect, an attacking 4-4-2 formation. Along with two forwards, he’s deployed natural wingers Niall McGinn and youngster Connor McLennan on the flanks. While 4-4-2 has made a bit of a resurgence in recent years, it’s still highly unusual to see this version of the once ubiquitous system. Often one of the wide players in the midfield four will be a central midfielder tucking in, so as not to lose the midfield battle against opponents that line up with three central players.
It’s worked so well for two reasons: (1) Sam Cosgrove and Stevie May have blossomed as a partnership with the former finding his scoring touch; (2) Ferguson and Shinnie can do the work of three men in the centre.
Why would McInnes try to fix what isn’t broken? They could still use a No.10 in the squad, but it may no longer be the top priority. Instead, the head coach should really look at getting a replacement left-back with Max Lowe set to depart. The Derby County defender’s loan deal expires in January and McInnes has admitted that the Championship side want their player back. The full-backs - with Shay Logan on the other side - have worked well in tandem with the wingers, giving Aberdeen real menace on the flanks. With converted centre-backs Andrew Considine and Tommie Hoban (who’s injured) the natural cover, the Dons are set to lose that additional threat when Lowe leaves.
Where else could they strengthen? No.10, striker and right-back cover.
Top priority - Striker
Regardless of whether Leigh Griffiths is able to quickly sort out his off-field issues and return to the team in January, Celtic could still really do with adding another prolific weapon to their arsenal. It’s been well over a year since we’ve seen the best of Scotland’s leading No.9, while £9 million summer buy Odsonne Edouard is prone to bouts of inconsistency amid sparkling play. With Brendan Rodgers looking to advance his side on the continent and ensure the challenge from Rangers doesn’t last into the spring months, it’s important that he recruits a striker that can both press home their dominance in Scotland and nick them a goal in games where they’re under pressure.
Where else could they strengthen? Right-back
Top priority - Striker
Jim McIntyre likes his teams to play 4-4-2 and he likes his wide players to get the ball into the penalty area. At Ross County he managed to turn Scottish Premiership also-ran Liam Boyce into a Championship-level talent through this method. The Northern Irishman feasted on high balls into the box and finding someone similar for Dundee would really boost their hopes of staying in the division. Kenny Miller has been great in recent weeks - McIntyre’s biggest achievement to date has been the turnaround in a player who was, to be quite frank, dreadful at the beginning of his Dundee career - but the manager will want more options and avoid relying on a 39-year-old.
Where else could they strengthen? Winger, centre-midfield, defence (anywhere really, Dundee are not good)
Top priority - Creative midfielder
Last season Accies had David Templeton. Though he could drift out of games for prolonged spells, even weeks at a time, he was always capable of producing a bit of quality to win them points. In the end he was a vitally important factor in the club remaining in the division without the need for a play-off battle. In addition to Templeton they had Greg Docherty in the first half of the campaign and Lewis Ferguson in the second.
Each of them would provide an additional burst from deep, helping them to win matches in the final third.
This season they don’t have any of that. None of the central midfielders have impressed all that much and while Mikael Miller and James Keatings can add a bit of attacking quality to the team from deeper areas (namely, the wing) they’re both at the best playing through the centre.
Where else could they strengthen? Winger and striker.
Top priority - Left-back
Craig Levein has said the club will not be conducting any business in the January transfer window.
However, he also said Hearts would recruit “7 to 10” players in the summer and ended up signing 18, so expect at least eight new faces in Gorgie next month.
Despite the extensive recruitment drive there are still holes that need plugged in this Hearts side, the biggest of which appears to be left-back. The Tynecastle side have notably struggled at the position ever since Danny Grainger departed in the summer of 2012, but those problems appeared to be in their rear-view mirror when they brought back Demetri Mitchell following a successful loan spell last season to compete with Ben Garuccio, who’d impressed in the early part of this campaign. Unfortunately for the club, Mitchell has been a shadow of his former self and increasingly looks like he doesn’t possess the defensive nous to play in the deeper role (having been a natural winger) while Garuccio’s sporadic appearances in the starting XI would indicate his manager may not rate him all that highly.
Where else could they strengthen? Pacey wide players with a bit of quality.
Top priority - Scott Allan
Would all of Hibs’ problems be solved by signing just one player? Quite possibly. Pedestrian midfield play has been a problem for Hibs during their recent poor form, while strikers Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren (once the darlings of the support) have struggled for most of this season without the service they enjoyed last term. Getting Allan in would, on paper at least, immediately improves those two areas.
Maclaren, especially, has missed the reverse through balls that Allan has a gift for spotting and a penchant for playing.
Of course, football is never that simple and it would be interesting to see how Allan would perform at the tip of the midfield without the industry of John McGinn and the ball-hogging retentive skills of Dylan McGeouch behind him.
A midfield including both Allan and Stevie Mallan, regardless of the third wheel, would perhaps struggle with the physicality of some of the league’s better sides. Nevertheless, Hibs have been at their best this season when the most advanced central midfielder, either Mallan, Emerson Hyndman or Daryl Horgan, has played well. The problem is that they’ve lacked consistent production from those three. Allan would be an improvement on all of them.
Where else could they strengthen? A physical No.8 and striker.
Top priority - Centre-midfield depth
What do you get the man who has everything? Steve Clarke’s ability to improve just about any player he comes into contact with has meant that Killie are bursting with talent throughout the squad. Even Ross Millen, a surprise signing after failing to make the cut at Championship level, has performed well when called upon.
They do require a bit of cover in the centre of the park, especially the deeper areas, after Jack Byrne’s abrupt departure due to personal reasons. The 22-year-old had impressed in the odd appearances he was granted, and even though it would be highly difficult for anyone coming in to dislodge any of Gary Dicker, Aaron Tshibola or permanent-man-of-the-match-award-winner Alan Power from their place in the pecking order, a similarly promising younger talent would strengthen the squad as a whole.
Where else could they strengthen? Left-back depth and another option up front.
Top priority - Wing-back
With several clubs sniffing around captain Craig Halkett, who remains out of contract this summer, a new centre-back and leader of the backline may be required if Livingston decide to cash in on their brightest star.
But for the meantime let’s assume that Halkett remains in Almondvale throughout next month.
Again, similar to Kilmarnock, Livingston have been aided by a significant percentage of their first-team squad playing well above their pay grade, which has helped them recruit quality cover across the park.
They did, however, lose Egli Kaja earlier this month after the player returned to AFC Wimbledon when his loan deal was cut short. A Kenny Miller signing, the Albanian had only played four times under Gary Holt but still represented a decent attacking option in the wide areas coming off the bench.
Where else could they strengthen? Long-term replacement for Halkett
Top priority - Left-wing back
Richard Tait is in his third season at Motherwell and the natural right-back is still seeing significant playing time at left wing-back. It’s incredible that he remains the best option out there when the Steelmen play a 3-5-2.
Elliott Frear, once the preferred option, is finding his appearances becoming increasingly sporadic. The 28-year-old is a terrific crosser of the ball and does so with impressive regularity. Regrettably he is not trusted by Stephen Robinson to play the position, due to both his frailties as a defender and his perceived lack of fight.
There’s also Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, who was signed to fix the issue. The summer addition previously starred in the top flight at Partick Thistle as a staggeringly adventurous full-back, but it seems he’s returned to Scottish football a shell of his former self. With Chris Cadden having missed a significant chunk of the season through injury and Tait playing on the opposite side, it’s contributed to Motherwell’s significant drop in crosses and aerial chances, something that was a significant part of their approach last season.
Where else could they strengthen? Another striker if Ryan Bowman or Conor Sammon can be jettisoned
Top priority - No.10
Though the general consensus is that Rangers need a creative attacking midfielder - in the mould of a Tom Rogic, Ryan Christie or Callum McGregor - it was very tempting to opt for a target-man striker here. That’s because a lot of Rangers’ play is funnelled through the wide areas: James Tavernier, Daniel Candeias and Borna Barisic are all in the top five for the number of cross balls attempted in the entire league - with the latter barely even playing due to injury. There’s also Glenn Middleton, who is second in the per-90-minutes table for crosses (behind only Barisic). Two of them are sitting at just over 30 per cent for accuracy (decent), while Tavernier is over 40 per cent (brilliant).
The problem is that they don’t really have a recognised aerial threat. Kyle Lafferty is often assumed to be one because of his height, but he’s never been particularly good at heading the ball. Alfredo Morelos is actually better, but that’s mainly down to his movement in the final third and ability to get himself free. If they were to sign, for example, a Mark Hateley type, then it would be a valuable plan B in the many matches we’ve watched this season where Steven Gerrard’s approach becomes a little predictable.
However, while that would help, it wouldn’t strengthen their starting XI, which still needs improving. It also wouldn’t do much for the betterment of their best player - Morelos. What would help take the Colombian take his game up another level would be the addition of a proper creative No.10 playing behind him; constantly feeding through balls and giving him even more chances in front of goal than he’s managed so far this season. Of the current squad, Scott Arfield represents a hard-working option, Ryan Kent and Glenn Middleton can provide a bit of guile but lack the physicality in tight spaces. They need to get themselves the total package.
Where else could they strengthen? Target man striker and long-term centre-back
Top priority - Winger
Saints lost the impressive Drey Wright for the season after the former Colchester United man sustained a knee ligament injury. Meanwhile, on the other flank, Matty Kennedy has been successfully moved from a hug-the-touchline winger to a goal-scoring, elusive second striker mainly playing off Tony Watt. It’s a credit to Tommy Wright’s side this season that Sexy St Johnstone’s form has held up despite Wright’s loss and the move into a much more narrow 4-4-2 system with centre-midfielders Blair Alston and David Wotherspoon manning the flanks. Despite this, and the versatility of Liam Craig and Danny Swanson, both of whom can cover on the left of midfield, it would still be beneficial if they can attract another out-and-out wide man in the January window to provide balance.
Where else could they strengthen? Forward, centre-back depth and left-back depth.
Top priority - Winger
Ryan Edwards (centre-midfielder) Lee Hodson and Paul McGinn (both full-backs) have all spent time playing either wide midfield or wing-back at times this season as the St Mirren squad badly screams out for someone, anyone to play competently in that area.
That one was a little too easy so let’s look at another area of the team that could be improved despite having sufficient numbers: the middle of the park. The Buddies have plenty of players who will run a million miles for the cause. But even though this is quite handy in a relegation battle, you still need that little bit of poise to control matches and keep the opposition on the back foot. Stephen McGinn was excellent doing this at the Championship level but that has yet to translate to the top flight. The 30-year-old, like fellow second-tier star Cammy Smith, may still be trying to get his momentum back after the disastrous Alan Stubbs’ tenure and the flood of inferior signings who bloated and worsened a title-winning squad. Nevertheless, even if McGinn comes good they could still do with someone else of his ilk, either to compete with or play alongside in the engine room.
Where else could they strengthen? Ball-playing centre-midfielder (as mentioned above) and forward