How Aberdeen transformed from 12 months ago, emerged as 'best of the rest' and fascinating Hearts battle
After a difficult settling-in period having replaced Glass, the remit for Jim Goodwin was clear coming into the new campaign. To steer the team up the table, doing so with a more exciting brand of football. The expectation and pressure was not something which was shirked. After all, the Irishman was well backed by chairman Dave Cormack and the club’s board in the summer with substantial investment to make the team younger, quicker, more dynamic, capable of playing a more entertaining, high tempo style.
That made Saturday evening's clash with Dundee United at Pittodrie a pivotal one so early in the season. The Dons approached the encounter knowing Hearts and Hibs had dropped points and a win would lift the team into third spot above Livingston. There was added significance with the league breaking for the World Cup. The 1-0 success, thanks to Bojan Miovski’s penalty, ensured that happened and, while there is still plenty of football still to be played, the optics of it are important. It is a clear marker that the team have improved greatly, perhaps silenced any doubts which remained following last season regarding Goodwin and is a clear sign to the board, the management team, the players and most importantly the fans that while the team are far from perfect they are heading in the right direction.
It was the second pivotal moment for Aberdeen when facing United this season. Going into the match at Tannadice in October the home side had picked up one point since the opening day of the season, yet they ran out 4-0 winners. The Dons put in a desperate performance and it was one which left plenty of fans asking various questions of Goodwin and his players. The manager had to respond, which he did with a system tweak.
“We have the flexibility to play a number of different systems,” Goodwin said back in June. “I do like playing a back four and that’s what I played here when I arrived. I played a four and a three at St Mirren, so can be flexible and we will work on various things in the coming weeks.”
The following fixture, at home to Hearts, saw Goodwin change to a back three. Aberdeen won 2-0 and have won four of their last six Premiership matches since the switch. It is a move which has provided a better balance to the team. Anthony Stewart, who was excellent in the win over United on Saturday, has more mobility either side of him with Liam Scales and Ross McCrorie. There is greater protection for the wing-backs who can get more freedom to attack. Most importantly, however, it allows Goodwin to fit three central midfielders into a team, while also pairing Bojan Miovski and Duk together in attack. There is an impressive flexibility in the team, whether it is formations or personnel. A difficult first-half performance at Livingston recently prompted a return to a back four and the team dominated the second half.
During the Premier Sports Cup group stage the focus was on the team's attacking strategy so perhaps the defensive side of the game is still catching up but there can be few complaints about the team going forward. Only Celtic have got a better shot conversion record. Miovski has certainly earned the headlines with being joint-top scorer and reported interest from France but it is Duk who really elevates the team in the final third, providing the team with a player who is quick, strong and sharp. In the most difficult circumstances you can chuck the ball up to him and he would make it difficult for defences. An individual and a team player, no one has won more penalties in the league than him. He is a bundle of fun and energy.
Duk is just one of a number of additions who have played a very important role. Goalkeeper Kelle Roos has been solid between the sticks. He has the second highest save percentage in the top flight with 67.6 per cent, an improvement on Joe Lewis last campaign who was under 60 per cent. The midfield has benefited from the experience and solidity of Ylber Ramadani. He has provided the team, especially Connor Barron and Leighton Clarkson, with a strong base to play from. Of the 11 summer recruits, only Callum Roberts and Shayden Morris have yet to make an impact. A commendable ratio, owing to the work the club’s recruitment team have done across the past year. They have given Goodwin the team he wants, younger and more dynamic. Aberdeen have the youngest average in the Premiership at 25, more than two years younger than last season.
There are, however, areas to improve and Goodwin spoke of “elements of frustration” after the United win. Hearts will come back from the winter break refreshed and reinvigorated. Robbie Neilson has a very strong squad, no European distraction and is well versed in leading a team to third in the Premiership having done it twice previously. The Dons will have to get better away from Pittodrie which they are developing into a fortress, helped by the Red Shed and Ultras Aberdeen. Both will be wanting to be more frugal at the back with the bottom three the only teams to have conceded more.
It is set to be a fascinating battle, not discounting the likes of a very good Livingston side, but at the moment it is Aberdeen who have laid a marker down, a far cry from the Dons of 12 months ago.
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