Craig Fowler looks at the rise of the Jags, a team that were struggling in the relegation battle at the turn of the year and have now confirmed their highest league finish in 36 years
Alan Archibald has become more tactically flexible
While the fans were fully behind Alan Archibald prior to this season, they did have one minor gripe about his stewardship, which was a tendency to stick to the 4-2-3-1 formation regardless of form or opponent.
This campaign has been different. When Thistle struggled to get out of the blocks, Archibald changed his system and things started improving for the better. In order to settle a jittery defence and accommodate the goalscoring prowess of Kris Doolan with the blunted Swiss Army knife that is Ade Azeez, the Jags boss switched to a 3-5-2.
This gave the side a temporary boost in results and, although he’s returned to the 4-2-3-1 when the situation has called for it, he’s been more receptive to experimenting with his team.
When injuries robbed him of any available full-backs for a Scottish Cup tie with St Johnstone in February, Archibald altered things again, going to a defensively robust 3-4-3 which produced a 1-0 victory and their first appearance in the quarter-finals in almost a decade.
Recently he’s been using all three when the situation has called for it, something which bodes well for Partick Thistle’s future. Archibald has shown himself capable of personal development and, as evidenced by his rejection of Shrewsbury Town earlier this season, he’s in no hurry to leave Maryhill.
The signing of Adam Barton
While Moussa Dembele will literally earn Celtic a truckload of money, the most important signing of the Scottish Premiership season is between one of two players: Marcus Haber at Dundee and Adam Barton of Partick Thistle.
It’s an understatement to say Thistle got off to a poor start this season. After defeating Inverness CT on opening day they then went nine matches without a win, including a Betfred Cup exit to Dundee United. In the midst of this terrible run came the man signed from Portsmouth.
Barton - or “the good Barton” as he should be known in Scottish football circles - originally started in the centre of the park before moving into a back three. Though he was only a couple of years older than Danny Devine and five years older than Liam Lindsay, he very much became a leader for the young unit who were struggling to gel in the opening months. His calm exterior, composure on the football and laid-back playing style brought out the best in those around him. So much so that when Archibald moved in him back into midfield later in the campaign, Devine and Lindsay were both confident enough to deal with his absence.
Whether it’s in defence or at the base of midfield, Thistle fans absolutely adore Barton and it’s tough to imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t convinced him to travel north last summer.
The improvement of the defence (and Liam Lindsay in particular)
Speaking of the defence, thanks to Barton and the improvement of the other players, Thistle have gone from leaking goals left, right and centre to becoming one of the stingiest defences in the league.
Up until the 3-1 victory over Ross County on 23 December, Thistle had conceded 28 goals in 18 league games, lost exactly half of those and sat bottom of the table. Since then they’ve conceded eight goals in 14, lost only twice and now sit in the top six. In addition, they are owners of the longest current unbeaten streak in the league outside of Celtic and the best defensive record outside of the top three.
The rapid development of Liam Lindsay has been key to their success. The 21-year-old went from promising prospect to already being rated among the best five centre-backs in the Ladbrokes Premiership. He also happens to be a menace in the opposing penalty area, scoring seven times. Thistle fans talk of a seven-figure fee for the defender when he eventually goes and those demands seem less fanciful by the week.
There’s also been the improvement of Devine, who looked terrified during his opening couple of months but has since become a reliable centre-back, and the signing of Niall Keown. Son of Arsenal hero Martin Keown, the 22-year-old has been highly impressive since arriving on loan from Reading, which unfortunately may hinder the club’s chances of getting him back next term.
Kris Doolan doing Kris Doolan things
Prior to mid-February, Doolan had only scored six goals in 30 games. Though he’s never been a prolific scorer in the Leigh Griffiths sense, he’s always someone who you can rely on to hit double-figures in a season. Fans kept their patience despite his slow start, recognising Doolan as the streaky scorer he is, and it’s been rewarded with seven goals in the club’s last nine games, propelling the team into the top six.
It was put to the striker on Monday’s Sportsound that the reason for his recent goalscoring exploits was him finally get the chance to start up front, with Ade Azeez having played a more prominent role earlier in the campaign. In actuality, Doolan has started 25 of his 31 league games, and two of his most recent substitute appearances have come within the last eight fixtures, where he started his scoring run.
Throughout the season, despite his striker going through a dry patch for significant spells, Alan Archibald remained confident the player was still the club’s most likely source of goals. Azeez has been preferred on occasion, but mostly it’s been the tougher assigns (he’s started away in both trips to Celtic Park, for example) where more is needed than a penalty box threat. The two players compliment each other well and have even played up front together on occasion.
Strength in depth
Next time a manager moans about injuries, just point to the problems Partick Thistle have faced this season. Neither Gary Fraser nor Stuart Bannigan have played a single game this campaign. While the latter would be viewed as something of a squad player, Bannigan is consistent starter when fit.
Furthermore, right-back Mustapha Dumbuya, a huge player from last season, didn’t play a league game until February after injuring his Achilles kicking the ball about with his mates, while goalkeeper Tomas Cerny started the season carrying an injury before missing three months between September and December.
It really helps to have guys like Sean Welsh, Christie Elliott and Ryan Edwards, the epitome of hard-working, honest pros who are capable of covering in a variety of positions.