Joel Sked looks back at the winners and losers from the Ladbrokes Premiership weekend.
With two assists and a goal, Leigh Griffiths made a strong claim for his place in the Celtic team. While Moussa Dembele found himself on the bench following one goal in his previous six matches, Griffiths got to work on the Partick Thistle backline.
If anyone had forgotten the qualities which brought the striker 40 goals last season Griffiths, was quick to remind them. As a football player he has a exploratory mind, searching for space and probing for weak points in opposition defences.
His preferred movement was peeling to the left, into space behind Ziggy Gordon, and it was Gordon he expertly beat to set up Stuart Armstrong for Celtic’s opening goal. It was the inspiration the team needed as they toiled to break the Jags down barely 72 hours after playing Manchester City. He took a pass from Scott Brown into his stride, held off the Thistle defender before sending a cross skating along the corridor of uncertainty.
Griffiths is a player who tends to feel his way into a game. He often has a couple of ‘markers’ before finding the net. We have witnessed, in games against Lithuania and Slovakia for Scotland, and against City on Tuesday, Griffiths gets good chances off the bench but doesn’t quite have the sharpness to score. With minutes under his belt against Thistle he was not going to pass up the chance to get the goal his play deserved.
He was sharp to read Adam Barton’s intentions of trying to control and play out from the back. He spun away with a fine touch, opened his body and made no mistake.
“I try and stretch teams, I try and link play as much as I can, dart in behind and most importantly get goals,” Griffiths told BBC post-match.
He is a different prospect to Dembele, who prefers the ball into his feet rather than running in behind. Brendan Rodgers has two different but excellent options, and there is certainly a case to be made that Griffiths may be more adequate in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Interestingly, however, Rodgers said “I’ve nothing in my contract that says I have to play Leigh Griffiths.”
With plenty of games coming in the next 18 days we’ll likely see both doing their damnedest to outshine, and outscore, the other.
Highlights here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsyEMEockwE&t=53s
When the fixture list comes out you would forgive Derek McInnes for bypassing games against Rangers, Celtic, Hearts, Dundee Uni . . . and looking for the meetings with St Johnstone.
The Saints are not Aberdeen’s favoured opponents. In the last four games the Dons have breached the St Johnstone backline only once. Contrast the performance with the 5-1 thumping of Kilmarnock and it is night and day. Whereas Hayes and co were able to break the lines and get in behind with ease, that was not the case on Saturday.
Wright’s St Johnstone are one of the most difficult teams to play against, especially when they are away from home. Organised, structured and tireless in their work, they are fantastic at retaining their shape, while putting pressure on opponents at the same time.
Zander Clark had a quiet afternoon at Pittodrie, testament to the bodies St Johnstone can get behind the ball, making sure opponents don’t get the time or space to get clean efforts at goal. Aberdeen were limited to efforts from the edge of the box and McInnes was forced to change shape for the second half.
They frustrate opponents and the longer it stay levels the more the home side push forward, giving Saints more space on the counter-attack. They were the more likely team to pick up the three points which would have moved them to within two of Heart of Midlothian.
Highlights here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBVeZQRrTAQ
Four points is all that separates the bottom seven teams, making it increasingly difficult to select weekend coupons and to predict who’ll feature most prominently in the relegation battle.
In terms of quality, balance and squad depth there is little between the sides. However, one team perhaps edges it in all three categories: Ross County. Following a run of 10 without a win, the Staggies have now gone five unbeaten, although that includes four draws.
They were unfortunate not to earn the win against Dundee which would have taken them into the top six. Liam Boyce had a goal ruled out correctly, Alex Schalk was denied by a fine Scott Bain save and Christopher Routis was unable to get the necessary curve on a shot to finish a good team move.
What will please Jim McIntyre is that the team recorded their first clean sheet since September, albeit they do owe a small thanks to Marcus Haber (more on that later).
County now have a settled line-up, options on the bench, a reliable goal scorer and a midfield partnership in Routis and Tim Chow which is beginning to ease the pain of Jackson Irvine’s departure.
Highlights here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlaG0Zq18Wg
First of all, let’s praise Barrie McKay. He was the best player on the pitch. There was great skill, direct wing play, incisive passing and a goal. It was a performance that was being delivered on a consistent basis in the Championship, leading to an international call-up.
He has now set himself a standard.
As for Garner, there was no goal, no real incision, but there was a presence. It was baffling that he was left out of the meeting between the two teams at Tynecastle. With the small pitch, tense atmosphere and high-tempo approach from the home side, having an option to hit with a long ball made sense. Instead, Mark Warburton opted for Joe Dodoo.
The mistake wasn’t repeated as the roles reversed, with Rangers putting in one of their best performances of the season. They played with a better intensity and aggression. A lot of that was set by Garner who ruffled the Hearts backline. It was no easy afternoon for Igor Rossi and John Souttar as individual and collective errors were made.
Garner’s approach to how he plays resonates with fans. It’s aggressive and with little respect. Fans relate to it. An incident in the second half summed up his game. He chased down the ball, put Rossi under pressure and left a little bit on Rossi when the ball was played. The defender took exception to Garner’s niggle and pushed him. Garner got the reaction he craved.
Highlights here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzxnuRkzKiw
Motherwell v Kilmarnock will not live long in the memory. In fact, for most, the game will have been forgotten by the time they had the first sip of their post-match pint.
Having conceded nine between them in their previous match, a clean sheet will have been most welcome. Such was the dogged defending neither goalkeeper was overly tested.
Looking deeper at the set up of each side, Kilmarnock lined up in a 4-3-3 with Gary Dicker at the base and Stevie Smith and Rory McKenzie ahead as number 8s. McKenzie had started the season at the tip of the midfield as a number 10. However, playing deeper suits him much more.
He broke into the Kilmarnock team as a winger before being moved infield. But as a forward thinking midfielder he didn’t contribute the numbers and creativity he perhaps should. In four seasons in the first team he netted seven league goals.
He is a mobile, energetic player who is comfortable on the ball. As an 8 he has more of the game in front of him, more space to attack from deep and the legs to get about the pitch, giving more solidity to the Killie midfield.
He was the Rugby Park side’s main threat in the opening period, with late runs from deep to meet cut-backs and lay-offs on the edge of the box.
He has netted twice this month: supporting the attack to score a consolation in the defeat to Aberdeen, and running onto a loose ball on the edge of the box against Dundee.
Highlights here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5sHsEw5VCI
Six games, three 0-0s, four draws, Celtic and Rangers the only teams winning. Both BBC Alba games were 0-0.
The fans (2)
Anyone who tuned into Sportscene on Sunday evening will have been introduced to a new concept - CSI: Sportscene.
We’ve had trial by Sportscene now we have the latest spin-off in the CSI franchise. Jonathan Sutherland as Gil Grissom or Horatio Cane. Michael Stewart as the temperamental and experienced investigator with a controversial past. Steven Thompson as the handsome trainee investigator, always positive and always has the right words for victims’ families. Then we have the zany, madcap crime lab technician: Pat Nevin.
Actually, should we put this in the winners?
Owain Fon Williams
The Welsh goalkeeper should be commended. He was a major doubt to face Hamilton Academical and required round-the-clock treatment. Otherwise Richie Foran may have had to place his faith in a 16-year-old goalkeeper, or stick Brian Rice in the sticks.
However, injury does not prevent a lack of organisational skills. The Accies goal came from a crafty Ali Crawford free-kick, but it was made easy for him. Fon Williams positioned himself too near his far post, giving him too much space to cover towards the front post. It wouldn’t have been such an issue if he had two men in the wall, but from such a dangerous position Crawford was only faced by a one-man wall.
Fon Williams redeemed himself with a couple of impressive stops. But it is these fine margins which are going to be the difference at the bottom of such a tight league.
Highlights here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nIavtK67rs
Despite reservations from certain areas, the signing of Canadian Marcus Haber has been a hit for Paul Hartley and Dundee. They’ve picked up 10 of their 16 points since his arrival.
Yet, he has only scored one goal. It is his overall play which has stood out, providing the side with a focal point, a point of reference.
The big chance for Dundee fell to him on Saturday. His finish was that of a striker who is not a regular scorer of goals. This specific type of striker often finds a place in Scottish football.
Highlights here - https://youtu.be/IlaG0Zq18Wg?t=83
The Northern Irishman scored in the 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock and was rewarded with a second successive start for the first time since October. However, he disappointed as Aberdeen struggled, lasting only 45 minutes as Derek McInnes changed it up at half-time.
While Jonny Hayes has been a constant threat for the Dons, McGinn has faltered, struggling to put together a run of consistent performances. Whether it is a long European Championship hangover or something more complex, it has been a frustrating time for the 29-year-old.
The opening couple of months of the season were marked with substandard crossing and has found himself falling down the pecking order, missing out on big matches in the past few weeks.