After watching the final match between the second and third best sides in the top flight, Craig Fowler looks ahead to this summer and where both of Aberdeen and Hearts will look to strengthen.
A new goalkeeper is top of Aberdeen’s shopping list
We knew Aberdeen would be pursuing a new No.1 this summer. Even still, it made sense that Derek McInnes would try out on loan stopper Adam Collin in these last three games. Scott Brown had fumbled away a good few points and, with nothing to lose, the manager wanted to have a look at his deputy to see if the answer was right there under his nose. After all, Collin is out of contract in the summer and could be snapped up on a free if McInness liked what he saw.
It’s safe to say he probably didn’t. The goalkeeper’s kicking was poor, he had to be bailed out by the referee’s whistle after dropping a routine high ball and, to top it off, he could only push Alim Ozturk’s free-kick right into the path of Abiola Dauda to score the games only goal.
Hearts should be after more than one striker
Abiola Dauda replaced Osman Sow and we’ve always known that someone was required in the summer to replace Dauda since it was made clear he’d be returning to Vitesse pretty much right from the get go. However, looking at the play of the other Hearts strikers these past few weeks, you have to figure Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson are on the hunt for more than one hitman. The starting XIs against Ross County and Aberdeen provide strong evidence this is exactly their thinking.
Even though Dauda’s not going to be around next season he still started both games, one in place of Juanma, one in place of Gavin Reilly. The latter two have barely played together as a pair and, if he had much faith in them to do so, you’d think Neilson would try to see if they can form a formidable partnership. Continuing to pick Dauda suggests he knows all he needs to know.
Both of have shown this season that they can add to the team, though neither have done it consistently enough. Hearts tend to play better when Reilly starts as he stretches opponents, but four goals is a meagre return for any striker. As for Juanma, well, his last two games against Aberdeen summarise his entire season: dominant in one, non-existent in another.
Since the new era arrived after the conclusion of 2013/14, the club have been ruthless in discarding underperforming talents. Don’t be too surprise if either of Juanma or Reilly are told they’re surplus to requirements this summer.
Aberdeen are right to continue their Simon Church pursuit
The news of Jayden Stockley’s capture came as a bit of a surprise. Rumours had circled the day before that Aberdeen were poised to make a move for the Bournemouth striker, though it seemed at odds with Aberdeen’s attempts to sign Church on a permanent deal after his impressive loan spell from MK Dons. With Adam Rooney and the returning Lawrence Shankland, on loan at St Mirren, also on the books, such an embarrassment of riches would appear excessive for a team that usually prefers one up front. However, tonight’s game, where Kenny McLean was pushed into a false 9 role, would indicate that Aberdeen need more depth at the position. McLean linked up well in the first half but you could see from his movement when the home side got the ball into wide areas that he lacked the instinct of a Rooney or Church. Besides, we don’t know, and likely neither does McInnes, whether Shankland is ready for regular first-team action.
Another reason Dons could be looking to stock up on strikers is a potential change of formation. McInnes often prefers the 4-2-3-1 but Aberdeen have, at times, failed to turn their possession into goals. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, there is a lack of depth behind Jonny Hayes, Niall McGinn and McLean at the attacking midfield positions, especially with Peter Pawlett having severely regressed this season, meaning McInnes can’t change things up when the trio are frustrated by stubborn opponets. Also, they don’t get many goals from elsewhere in the side - Graeme Shinnie, Ryan Jack, Craig Storie and Willo Flood combined for exactly one strike this term - meaning the burden falls on Rooney and the supporting three, and the trio aren’t as deadly as you may think. Hayes has six, McLean has nine but three of those came in the Europa League and another two have been penalties, while McGinn leads the group with 12. That’s a solid number for your second top striker, especially if you’re a provincial club, but it’s not going to win any titles, as Aberdeen will be aiming for next season.
Having the capability to play two up front effectively - and with three of Graeme Shinnie, Kenny McLean and Ryan Jack in the centre of the park they will certainly have that ability - can give the Dons both tactical flexibility and stronger depth in reserve.
Another No.10 may be required at Hearts
For most of their life in the Championship, Neilson preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation that was build around a patient, passing attack. In order to deal with the physicality of the top flight, he’s since turned them into a tough, organised unit that’s mainly played 4-4-2. It’s not been as good to watch but it’s got the results, and Neilson’s flexibility as manager should be considered a real strength. Many gaffers, even some of the best, only know how to use one system. He’s adapted to the changes in his squad. One must wonder, though, whether he wants to sign the type of players capable of moving back to the formation he preferred in his debut season.
In truth, he’s not far away with his current group. Perry Kitchen is precisely the type of sitting midfielder you want in the formation, while Arnaud Djoum and Prince Buaben, whether neither being perfect fits, are the kind of hybrids that suit playing alongside a spoiler. Djoum’s trickery and scoring threat would get him the nod when Neilson wants to attack, while Buaben’s industry and physicality would see him start in tougher matches. Ahead of them, completing the central trio, would be Jamie Walker. With a full pre-season under his belt, expect the playmaker to have a breakout campaign next time around. He’s a multi-tooled weapon at the position, capable of scoring and creating while still working hard for the team.
There’s so much required from the lone striker in a 4-5-1 variation that Neilson probably doesn’t trust Juanma to bring the consistency required at present, but that may change with the addition of another striker. Although, the real problem right now may be the lack of depth behind Walker and the inability to rely on the midfielder’s fitness. There’s nobody else as suited to the role currently at the club.
McInnes may look to bring in another centre back
Mark Reynolds remaining on the bench while young defender Scott McKenna got the start alongside Ash Taylor could be looked at from one of two ways: either the manager is simply giving a young player a chance in order to boost his confidence or encourage him to keep up the good work, or he’s indicating the Reynolds-Taylor partnership may not be first choice next season.
The terrific run Aberdeen went on at the midway point of last season owed as much to the stellar play of their defence as it did the likes of Rooney and McGinn. After displaying all the bombscare tendencies you don’t want in a centre back in the first two months following his signing from Tranmere, Taylor really settled down and became the perfect, brute force foil to the undersized, but speedy and dependable, Reynolds.
It was expected they’d carry that good work into this season, but it’s really not worked out that way. Reynolds has fallen off big time. The injury in July, which kept him out for over three months, may have played its part by knocking him off stride, but he’s looked a shadow of the player many Dons fans were calling to be inserted into the Scotland starting XI a year ago.
McInnes may gamble on a full pre-season getting Reynolds back to his best, though his drop off has been so alarming that his manager will likely dip into the transfer market.