The final international break of the year has been endured, and now the league enters a busy period before the winter break. While the inquests and investigations are under way to solve the inextricable Rubik’s cube that is Scottish football, focus switches to the domestic game.
It is clear Celtic will stroll to their sixth successive league title. After all, some bookmakers are offering an enticing 1/200 for the Hoops to be victorious. However, the rest of the league is separated by 10 points, the same difference between Celtic and second-placed Aberdeen.
With a third of the season gone it is a good time to take stock and analyse the tactics which have shaped the league so far.
Three at the back
The most prevalent and recognisable trend this season has been the popularity of the three-man defence. Five teams have tried a trio of centre-backs so far this season to varied success.
Ross County lined up with Andrew Davies, Jay McEvely and Paul Quinn on the first day of the season. Due to a lack of compatibility, and the 3-1 home defeat to Dundee, it was a short-lived experiment. The players simply didn’t complement each other.
Dundee started the season with a back four, but with a lack of width and a toothless attack, as well as the signing of the impressive Kevin Gomis (on paper at least) it persuaded Paul Hartley to look for solutions. The energy and pace of Cammy Kerr and Danny Williams were tailor made for wing-backs positions, and Hartley has a number of options at centre-back. It allowed him to go with a two-man strike-force. With a number of industrious options in the centre of midfield, none of whom were specialists, the strategy looked good, again on paper. Their most recent result suggests the team are beginning to get the hang of it.
Two teams who have become accustomed to the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system during their time in the Premiership, Hamilton Academical and Partick Thistle, began the season in similar fashion with little in the way of productivity. Both try to play an aesthetically pleasing brand of football but there were clear signs of staleness at New Douglas Park and Firhill.
Freshness was required and both took a comparable approach to the issue, dropping physical, albeit slow, passers into the middle. Massimo Donati at Hamilton and Adam Barton at Thistle have given their respective teams a base to build from the back, direct and reliable passing into midfield, while allowing their fellow centre-backs to concentrate on defending. As a result both teams have looked more comfortable.
A team whose alteration that has gone under the radar is Celtic who have opted for a lop-sided back three system. It has been a pleasant change for Celtic fans who had to suffer Ronny Deila’s obstinate 4-2-3-1. The reasons for the change will be discussed further down.
Since the ‘Barcelonafication’ of football, a two-man attack has been anathema to coaches who want to appear modern and forward-thinking. The noughties witnessed the rise and widespread use of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations.
However, in the last couple of years, thanks in part to Atletico Madrid’s success, and more recently Leicester City, the strike partnership has underwent a resurgence. If teams are organised and well-drilled they can be sent out in a Mike Bassett FOUR-FOUR-F*****G-TWO, without fear of being overrun.
Of the 12 Premiership teams only Rangers and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have yet to operate with two strikers. Richie Foran has a number of good midfield options and not a lot to choose from in attack, while Mark Warburton is wedded to his 4-3-3.
Otherwise each team have operated with two strikers. For some, this is due to their switch to a back three. Doing so has allowed Thistle and Hamilton to add an extra man in attack. Hamilton have lacked a consistent and reliable striker since their return to the top-flight, so by adding a second it is alleviating the responsibility of Ali Crawford and his midfield cohorts to score the goals to keep them in the division.
Meanwhile, Thistle have been stringent in their use of a lone-striker. This season is the first time Alan Archibald has given Kris Doolan and a partner a sustained run in the team. And it has worked. Ade Azeez offers different qualities, with his pace, power and ability to stretch play and run the flanks, while Doolan can work within the confines of the box.
Elsewhere, the options available in attack to Motherwell, Aberdeen, Heart of Midlothian, Ross County and Kilmarnock has urged the managers of these sides to configure a system which allows them to play more than one. Yet it is not quite a 4-4-2 revolution with each of the aforementioned sides going with the default 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations at times over the season.
However, the increase use of two strikers has not had the desired effect in front of goal, with only three sides improving their conversion rate from last season.
Flexibility or Indecision?
Another noticeable aspect of the systems and personnel used in the Premiership is the tinkering undertaken by a number of managers. A fine line has been tread so far between flexibility and indecision.
Paul Hartley has used a back four then a back three, back to a four-man defence and then three again. Mark McGhee has fluctuated between a 4-4-2 that suits the players at his disposal and his preferred 4-3-3. Robbie Neilson has mainly stuck with 4-4-2 but has used 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 at times, including a bizarre experiment with Conor Sammon on the right-wing. Lee Clark attempted 4-4-2 until latterly moving to a 4-2-3-1 with top goal scorer Souleymane Coulibaly playing from the right. Derek McInnes has done . . . everything.
It is good to see managers experimenting and trying new things to keep the team fresh and opposition managers second guessing. It has feed into the unpredictability of the league below Celtic. It is hard to predict the line-ups from week to week for most teams.
McInnes is one of the most switched-on in-game managers, always looking to stay a step ahead of the opposition by reacting to any changes they make. However, that could be one of the issues to the lack of consistency among teams. They are setting up to stop the opposition rather than trusting their own strengths.
Pressing . . . or lack off
One of the most important facets of modern-football is pressing or ‘gegenpressing’, essentially winning the ball back as quickly as possible once it has been lost. The English Premier League is chalk full of managers whose key tenet is pressing.
Apart from Celtic, no team appears to have an effective and concerted pressing plan. For many managers it is a buzzword as that’s what they think fans want to hear. For example, at Hearts players talk about the team looking to press opponents high up the pitch, in reality it isn’t a recognisable area of their play.
Scottish football is often harum-scarum, and that is one of the most positive aspects of our game. There is a lot of energy expanded and time can be very precious for the man on the ball. But there is no team, minus Celtic, who you can look at and admire the structure which enables them to press.
The reason Celtic’s use of the back three is to give the team balance as well as being fluid. Brendan Rodgers has reinvented Mikael Lustig from an orthodox right-back into a centre-back as part of Celtic’s ‘two-and-a-half man central defence’.
The Swede has tucked in on the right, causing a domino effect which has pushed the centre backs to the left and Kieran Tierney, until injury, higher up the pitch. This move takes advantage of Tierney’s crossing ability and allows Scott Sinclair to move infield to terrorise defences. On the opposite wing James Forrest has been revitalised as a touchline-hugging winger.
At the start of the season Leigh Griffiths and Sinclair struck up an early partnership with Sinclair ghosting between full-back and centre-back. Now he acts as a second striker alongside Moussa Dembele. Tom Rogic feeds both from his number 10 position, while Stuart Armstrong and Scott Brown can dovetail in the centre of midfield.
At Aberdeen, McInnes has added to his attacking arsenal and continued his preference of not having players in fixed positions. Niall McGinn, Wes Burns, Jonny Hayes et al have chopped and changed. When it works it is a nightmare for opposition defences, but sometimes it becomes chaotic.
At Fir Park, McGhee tried to continue the good form of last season, when Marvin Johnson, Scott MacDonald and Louis Moult forged a balanced attacking triumvirate. The loss of Johnson however made it difficult for McGhee to continue such fluidity, with the attacking not striking the same notes and it having a negative effect on the midfield.
No change in Perth. Still one of the most organised and disciplined teams under the shrewd-management of Tommy Wright, St Johnstone simply continued their good work of previous seasons.
Danny Swanson has taken on a leading role within the side. His ability and versatility has allowed him to play as wide man in a 4-4-2 or a second striker in a 4-4-1-1. When played as a wide man, Wright shores up the opposite side of the midfield to give him freedom to move infield and play between the lines.
St Johnstone are the model club for continuation and consistency. As individuals and as a group they are reliable and trustworthy. Opposition teams know exactly what they are going to come up against but still continue to struggle. Testament to the work carried out by Wright and his management staff.