Craig Fowler reviews the weekend’s action from the Scottish top flight.
Olivier Ntcham (Celtic)
The midfielder felt the wrath of his own fans on Saturday after he posted an Instagram message in support of his friend Moussa Dembele following the latter’s move to Lyon. Perfectly harmless, of course, but poorly timed given how hurt the support were by the manner of their previous favourite’s departure. One fan even asked: “wit ye dain ya mad rocket?”
Fortunately for Ntcham, actions speak louder than words and he was able to put this little misdemeanour to bed with a controlling performance in Sunday’s Old Firm derby victory over Rangers. Not only did he sparkle in the centre of the park, he also added the winning goal, sprinting past a daydreaming Ovie Ejaria and running on to James Forrest’s terrifically picked out cross.
Scott Pittman (Livingston)
Just about everyone involved with Livingston has enjoyed a meteoric rise over recent years, but none more so than Pittman, who netted the winning goal as the Lions moved on to seven points from four games in their return to the top flight.
Until February 2015, the midfielder was in junior football, playing for Bo’ness United. On Saturday he proved that he belonged among the elite of this country as he continually hounded his Hibernian counterparts and troubled the away defence.
In addition to his strike, which saw him beat two defenders before emphatically finishing beyond Adam Bogdan, he also brought out a full-stretch stop from the goalkeeper, missed a great chance at the start of the second period and had another mazy run to the heart of the away penalty box denied by a last-ditch challenge from Steven Whittaker.
As for Livingston, doing everything the wrong way appears to be working just fine. They’ve 1) failed to keep the manager who got them promoted, 2) spent too long trying to appoint a successor before plumping for a current player with little experience, and 3) got rid of said player when it turned out he wanted to keep playing. They should be a shambles on -14 goal difference at the bottom of the table. Instead they’re fourth!
Steven Naismith (Hearts)
A hat-trick and an assist, not a bad 45 minutes from the veteran attacker as Hearts ran over St Mirren to remain top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Prior to Saturday, it was interesting to see how manager Craig Levein - still picking the team from his sickbed - would use Demetri Mitchell after the Manchester United youngster joined on loan. In some of the previous matches, including the final half-hour in the 1-0 win over Kilmarnock last week, Naismith took up residence on the left flank, where he would drift inside to link with team-mates and almost act as a second supporting forward alongside Steven MacLean and behind leading man Uche Ikpeazu.
Clearly fond of this tactic, Levein merely shifted it over to the other side as Mitchell lined up at left-midfield. Safe to say St Mirren couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of attacking options in the Hearts ranks, as the aforementioned foursome, along with the other goalscorer, Olly Lee, charged forward at will.
Hearts are one of the most attack-minded teams in the league right now. Yes, that’s right! Craig Levein’s Hearts are one of the most attack-minded teams in the league right now.
Kilmarnock’s new strike-force
Kris Boyd dropped to the bench this past weekend as Stevie Clarke went with a brand new strike-force for his side’s trip to Aberdeen. Having arrived the mid-week previous on a loan deal from Birmingham, Greg Stewart went straight into the starting XI as he played alongside Eamonn Brophy.
It’s early days but the duo appear to have the making of a fruitful partnership. Stewart helped the visitors (who were also aided by an early red card) dictate possession as he continually dropped deep and linked with supporting midfielders, including the always dangerous Jordan Jones coming in from the left. Brophy, meanwhile, looked to stretch the opposition in behind and was his usual combative self at the head of the attack.
Each of them found the back of the net in the 2-0 victory, including a 50-yard dash and sumptuous finish from Stewart. That said, he could have been a ‘loser’ for his attempts at not celebrating against the club he spent last season with. He tried to put his hands in the air to “apologise” for the goal, but was quickly swallowed up by his delighted team-mates. One of whom, Kirk Broadfoot, then ‘shushed’ the Aberdeen fans behind the goal as boos rained down from the stands. Safe to say, it didn’t go according to plan.
Rangers’ hype train
Steven Gerrard is Schrödinger’s manager. He is simultaneously great and poor, depending on which results you focus on. On the one hand he’s done what many considered unthinkable in the summer and led his club to the Europa League group stages. On the other hand he’s overseen the worst start to a league season by any Rangers team since the late 1980s.
The Liverpool legend appears to have come to Scotland with the determination to fix the Ibrox defence. And while he’s still to solve that particular puzzle, he does appear to have made significant strides. Being more pragmatic in tougher games than some of his predecessors has certainly helped, but it may not have been the right way to go about things at Celtic Park on Sunday.
This was the optimal time to play Celtic under Brendan Rodgers. They’ve been knocked out of the Champions League, have already tasted defeat in the Scottish Premiership, and sold striker Moussa Dembele before the transfer deadline without a replacement being sought. But instead of going for the jugular, Rangers sat off and invited Celtic to have the ball. The hosts were able to play through any jitters they may have had and completely dominated the game.
The gruelling trip to Russia may have played a part, but with Gerrard resistant to make any changes until the final ten minutes, it’s difficult to put too much emphasis on fatigue.
Stephen Gleeson (Aberdeen)
The midfielder provided a wildcard answer to the ‘what’s-the-most-humiliating-substitution?’ question at the weekend. Forget being taken off before the half-time whistle. Forget being taken off after getting subbed on yourself. No, the new answer is finding yourself hauled off after only five minutes.
That’s what happened to Gleeson as Mikey Devlin’s soft red card encouraged Derek McInnes into making an immediate change as Dominic Ball, more suited to the centre-back role, came on in place of the summer signing from Ipswich.
It’s all 20-20 hindsight, but the Dons manager may regret that decision. The 30-year-old is adept at dictating play in front of the defence, which would’ve come in handy with the home side still looking to control aspects of the game despite their one-man disadvantage.
Kenny Miller enthusiasts
Scottish football is not short of Miller enthusiasts. Despite diminishing returns, he’s continually talked up as one of the better forwards in the country.
While there’s no doubt he was a terrific player at his peak, and still adds something as a hardworking squad player with a veteran’s presence, he’s only netted six goals in his last 31 games. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he failed to lift Dundee out of their funk during his league debut, as Neil McCann’s side went down 3-1 at home to Motherwell.
In fairness to Miller, and his supporters, he was played on the right of midfield. At this stage of his career, it’s not a bad idea to use him from the wing. It would give him the freedom to sprint around the park a little more, link with other attackers and provide a greater goal threat from that position than you’d expect from traditional wide players. However, with Dundee desperate for a goalscorer and Miller still advertised as one, it was strange not to see him start through the middle.
Also, even if Miller had provided that attacking spark, it’s difficult to win games when your defence and goalkeeper is hellbent on sabotaging your chances. Do yourself a favour and check out the highlights. All three goals are lessons in how not to defend.
Alan Stubbs’ St Mirren career
It already looks like it could be the end of the road for the St Mirren boss after his side conceded four goals in the first half at Tynecastle en route to a 4-1 defeat. Though it’s a stunningly short amount of time to be in a job, even by modern football standards, rumoured splits in the dressing room may just necessitate his departure before things go from bad to worse. Still, for the new man coming in (thought to be Jim McIntyre) it will still be a tremendously tough job with the summer recruitment having fallen well below standard to this point.