St Mirren: No ball desire, savvy recruitment, hardest team to play - Buddies are the Premiership's team of the season

With Saturday's 2-1 win over Livingston, coupled with Hearts’ 4-0 home defeat to Rangers, St Mirren sit best of the rest in the Scottish Premiership. Eight games in, they are third, ahead of Hibs, Aberdeen and Hearts.

Not so long ago – 2019, in fact – club legend Tony Fitzpatrick, chief executive at the time, claimed the Buddies were a top-four club.

“I get a lot of stick when I say that and people say my head is in the clouds, but I would rather that than settle for second bottom," Fitzpatrick said.

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There were raised eyebrows, but you have to say fair play to the eternal optimist. He has since stepped away from his role as chief executive, replaced by Keith Lasley. But with the Buddies third, you have to believe he has his sights set on the next target.

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Each day, Lasley gets the same phone call. No chit-chat, just Fitzpatrick playing the Champions League theme song, which he has made his ringtone, down the line.

While the former St Mirren player and manager represents the dreamer in us all, Buddies boss Stephen Robinson could well represent the realist.

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“Together you can achieve good things but we are only at the start of that process," was the message after the team's win over Livingston last weekend.

It would be remiss to view this as the very start of the process. The nascent stages of Robinson's reign were filled with doubt and criticism. When the former Motherwell manager took over from Jim Goodwin in February, St Mirren sat seventh in the league, a point behind Hibs, Dundee United and Motherwell with a game in hand.

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St Mirren went third with a 2-1 win over Livingston. (Photo by Roddy Scott / SNS Group)

They lost six of seven between Robinson being appointed and the split. Concern grew when the team failed to reach the knockout stages of the Premier Sports Cup. Even more so when the manager spoke of how the League Cup was set up against the full-time top-flight sides.

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Alarm bells were ringing at such an excuse.

However, he also said this: “You have so much possession of the ball. That’s not an excuse, it’s just not how we’ll play. We will be a team that’s hard to break down hopefully and a team that maybe plays on the counter as well.”

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No ball, no problem

St Mirren manager Stephen Robinson has built a very effective side with an identity. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
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Lo and behold they have been hugely effective. Averaging just over 36 per cent of the ball with a 61 per cent success rate, it’s what makes them so special.

The 47-year-old has implemented a strategy and identity. It is one of defending deep, being competitive, combative and energetic. One of playing quickly, counter-attacking, turning defences and playing percentages. It may not be one for the purists but they are different, they can be fun and it works. Despite the lack of possession only Celtic, Rangers and Hibs give up fewer shots per 90 minutes, while they are third for the fewest number of passes it takes to have a shot.

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With more than 21 per cent of their passes deemed ‘long’ by Wyscout, the front men Curtis Main and Jonah Ayunga are both in the top ten for aerial duels per 90 minutes. Those two play such a valuable role because the way St Mirren operate under Robinson is it is a collective effort, defensively and offensively. Main and Ayunga chase and hunt, make it difficult for defenders and compete for everything. In possession they hold the ball up, relieve pressure and allow the team to squeeze. Out of it, they are the first line of defence. Think if Gordon Bombay was a football manager and he decided to play the Bash Brothers as a striker pairing.

One high-profile Premiership star recently spoke of how difficult it is to play against them once they get in front. Livingston were the first team to get on level terms this season in the league after St Mirren had opened the scoring. The mark of their grit and determination, despite being down to ten men, they dug in to win.

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St Mirren are accentuating Declan Gallagher's qualities. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

They are a team deserving of respect and getting it. Livingston changed to a back three for their trip to Paisley, an extra defender required to defend against the front two, albeit Greg Kiltie replaced the injured Main.

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Savvy recruitment

While St Mirren have a formidable spine, starting with Trevor Carson – no goalkeeper has prevented more goals – between the sticks, Declan Gallagher in the centre of defence, the effervescent and tireless midfield trio of Keanu Baccus, Ethan Erhahon and Mark O‘Hara then the duo in attack, there is also depth. The excellent Ryan Strain was only fit for the bench after his international exploits with Australia. Richard Tait and Eamonn Brophy weren't in the squad, while Alex Greive, Ryan Flynn and Joe Shaughnessy were all used off the bench.

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The club’s recruitment has been faultless this summer. Very much quality over quantity and with each addition you can see how they fit into Robinson's game plan and identity.

After his struggles with Aberdeen, Gallagher has replaced Shaughnessy at the heart of the defence. A brave decision, but one which has worked with the Scotland centre-back required to just defend his box with two mobile defenders either side.

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Strain and Baccus, both recently called up to the Australia national team, have been two of the best signings anywhere in Scotland; great fun to watch, can run all day and have plenty of quality. Baccus, despite flying back from Auckland, started and scored with a late run into the box against Livi, which is becoming a key part of his and St Mirren’s game.

It has all added up to making St Mirren the team of the Premiership season so far and the fans are getting behind their side. They have encouragingly taken back a stand when the Old Firm visit, with more than 5,000 home fans regularly in attendance. They have already defeated Celtic on their own patch, although an acid test of their credentials will come this Saturday when they face Rangers at Ibrox.

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Nevertheless, the early indication is that this will finally be the season they finish in the top six. After that ...

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