Why St Johnstone's attacking problems are sending the team down path marked 'relegation battle'

It's hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for St Johnstone boss Callum Davidson and the position the Perth Saints find themselves in this season.

Ali McCann has been a huge loss in the centre of midfield. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Ali McCann has been a huge loss in the centre of midfield. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

The job the McDiarmid Park legend did last season will go down in the annals of Scottish football. As will his topless belly side in the Hampden park changing rooms to celebrate the Scottish Cup final win over Hibs.

At the weekend, however, the same opponents emerged with a 2-1 win in Perth. But of more immediate concern is the direction the club find themselves heading towards. One marked ‘relegation battle’, sitting just four points off the bottom with those teams behind them picking up points on a more regular basis.

Saturday's fixture was another difficult one to endure for Saints fans. While they took a first-half lead, there was an inevitability about the outcome once Craig Bryson had been shown a second yellow card before the interval.

St Johnstone have struggled to score goals this season. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

As his experienced midfielder trotted off, Davidson could have been forgiven for thinking everything that could go wrong, is going wrong.

He's already without a host of players due to an increasing injury situation, while the loss of two of his best and most influential players from last season to transfers towards the end of the window is still being felt as we head into December.

Take Ali McCann. He was a generational talent. Preston North End got him for a bargain price and will make some serious cash on the Northern Ireland international. Cammy MacPherson and Ali Crawford are good players in their own right. But they aren’t Ali McCann.

He could do the job of three midfielders. A Swiss-Army knife. No matter which club you are in Scotland, when you lose someone so influential it is nigh-on impossible to replace without spending money the club doesn’t have.

Callum Davidson recently signed a new deal until 2025. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Attacking headache

That, however, is not unique to St Johnstone. Teams lose players to transfers, lose players to injury and players lose form. But when all three occur at the same time it is the sort of concoction which only has one effect: disaster.

Earlier in the campaign there was a concern about the defence with eight players – Jason Kerr, Jamie McCart, Liam Gordon, Efe Ambrose, Hayden Muller, Lars Dendoncker, Shuan Rooney and James Brown – starting in the back three in the first eight league games.

European qualifiers, which brought the draw in Galatasaray, and the transfer situation brought a flux within the starting XI. There was little continuity.

Even within a system which seemed to be second nature to the squad, difficulties have emerged. It has transpired that defensively the team are not just fine but very good – no team outside the top two has a better record. The major issue has been at the other end.

As fans, you go to games to be entertained, hoping to get those moments of celebration when the ball hits the back of the net. In the league, St Johnstone have scored just nine goals from 14 matches.

When teams are scoring so few attention will turn to the forwards. Chris Kane and Stevie May have four goals between them but both are out injured. A bigger issue is at play. The team are struggling to score from open play, they are struggling to create meaningful chances.

St Johnstone have the worst shots on target per match record in the league with just 2.4. No team has created fewer big chances than St Johnstone with five across 14 matches.

Lack of control

Even before Ryan Porteous’ own goal that put the side in front, the Hibs backline were barely tested. There was one moment when Shaun Rooney charged forward and Eetu Vertainen made a movement in behind but the wing-back had made a pass to feet, handing possession back to Hibs. It was emblematic of disjointed attacking play.

Decision making, keeping the ball, controlling games. There have been issues all season. The team have simply not been good enough with the ball. No team loses the ball as frequently as St Johnstone in the Premiership while they average fewer than three passes per possession.

An inability to string possessions of play together makes it harder to get men up the park, ahead of the ball, providing more passing and attacking options in the final third.

Therefore, as a team, if you don't have a lot of the ball, you need to be able to move forward quickly and pose a counter-attacking threat. That’s not something they have done consistently. So you can see why they have problems.

It’s a big issue to correct, but correct it and Saints should fly up the table due to their defensive solidity. But if Davidson doesn't correct it soon, the second half of the campaign could become very stressful.

Next up are games against Dundee and Ross County, two teams below them.

If the team pick up fewer than three points from those two fixtures then sympathy for Davidson amongst the Saints ranks will be in short supply.

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