In the aftermath of the League Cup final, man-of-the-match Jackson Irvine hailed the bravery of manager Jim McIntyre for some fearless tactical alterations that helped win Ross County the first ever trophy in their history.
Having shipped in three goals on three separate occasions - two to Dundee United, once to Hearts, all at home - within the last month, there was a question mark over how County would line up against a Hibs side that had yet to be beaten by Ladbrokes Premiership opposition this season.
Injuries to key midfielders Dylan McGeouch and Fraser Fyvie opened up the possibility of Hibs reverting to a 3-5-2, though the general consensus was that Alan Stubbs was likely to stick with his preferred 4-4-2 narrow diamond, and so it proved.
While Stubbs was predictable in his selection - quite rightly so, given Hibs’ performances in big games prior to Sunday - McIntyre was anything but. A 4-4-2 side for almost the entire campaign, it initially looked like McIntyre had kept faith with his tried and trusted method despite inconsistent form of late. However, once the match started it became clear County were operating in a 3-5-2 with right back Marcus Fraser as an auxiliary centre back and Richard Foster pushed up high on the left wing.
Ian McShane sat in front of the three defenders, and with either Alex Schalk or Liam Boyce dropping deep to help out the midfield, it enabled County to match up man-for-man in the centre of the park with Hibs. This gave much greater protection to the defence and allowed them to keep two up front, both of which contributed to the pre-match underdogs taking a 1-0 lead despite some strong pressure from Hibs.
“You’ve got to give the manager some credit. He’s tweaked the shape, gone three at the back. It’s something we haven’t done and it’s a brave decision to do it on this stage and this occasion, to make such a drastic sort of change,” said Irvine.
“Everyone knows we’re a 4-4-2 team and in this system he got to keep his two strikers. It was tough for the wider players but you’ve got to give the manager credit for making a decision like that on a day like today. It can either win you trophies or it can backfire.”
The new system still might have backfired had McIntyre not been brave again and changed things up in the second half. The longer the opening 45 minutes went on, the more Hibs dominated and it wasn’t a surprise to see them equalise through Liam Fontaine. Hibs’ right back, David Gray, was pushing high up the park and pinning Foster deep in his own half, thereby robbing County of a much needed out-ball at times.
When the second half started in much the same vein, McIntyre decided to change things up. Some managers would have been content to keep their backs to the wall and look to nick another goal on the break, but he felt his side should have been looking to win the game on their own merit. While the winning goal came on a counter-attack, it was indicative of the way the match was swinging after Brian Graham replaced the ineffective Liam Boyce.
A like-for-like swap on paper, Graham took up residence on the left of a front three, joined by Schalk and Michael Gardyne. The substitute proved himself to be more capable than Boyce of holding up play and dragging his under pressure team-mates up the park. He should have scored after being caught just offside, then will feel harshly treated to have been whistled for a foul after winning an aerial challenge with Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley.
Finally the move paid dividends in the 90th minute as all three front players played important parts in the goal. Graham won the ball from a combination of Gray and Marvin Bartley, quickly playing it on to Schalk who moved it wide to Gardyne. The run of Graham to the back post occupied Fontaine, which meant Darren McGregor was caught in no man’s land, unsure of whether to close down the cross or cover Schalk, whose pace kept him clear of the retreating Gray. In the end, McGregor did neither and when Fontaine could only knock the cross intended for Graham into the path of Schalk, the Dutchman couldn’t miss.
It was fittingly that Irvine sang the praises of his boss afterwards. His performance and effective shackling of John McGinn was another aspect of the County display that really stood out. Irvine’s form has been a little inconsistent over the past few months, and a big reason for that has been his deployment in the side. He doesn’t mesh all that well when playing with Martin Woods in the centre, as Irvine ends up doing most of the graft, and he’s not looked entirely comfortable on the right of midfield in a 4-4-2 either. Bringing him back into his natural position and giving him the extra support of a two partners in a three-man midfield paid off hugely for McIntyre and County, as evidenced by the man-of-the-match award granted to the Australian after the full-time whistle.
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