Stuart Armstrong’s off the ball movement
The Brendan Rodgers effect has been wide-reaching. He’s reinvigorated the fans, attracted the quality of Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure, and introduced a new Scott Brown to Scottish football.
Brown has not been the only success story. James Forrest and Stuart Armstrong have earned and retained their place in the Celtic team. Both were excellent in the Betfred Cup final as the Hoops swept aside Aberdeen. The former scored and won a penalty, while the latter’s off the ball runs helped make both.
Forrest, playing from the left, saw space in the middle of the park and darted inside, taking Shay Logan with him. Armstrong spotted what was developing and made the opposite run. His run confused Kenny McLean and Logan as they both tried to sort out who to mark and who to follow. By the time their chin-wag was finished, Forrest was already on his way, bursting into the box and, showing unexpected accuracy and composure, scoring into the far-bottom corner.
Rodgers has made little secret that he has been influenced by Pep Guardiola. He wants the pitch covered so that players are not working in the same zones, which we see in Celtic’s movement. Even without the ball, the running of Armstrong asked questions of the Aberdeen defence.
There were two fine goals scored at Tynecastle on Saturday involving Arnaud Djoum. He slipped a perfectly weighted through-ball to Bjorn Johnsen, who floored Craig Samson with some snakehips before tapping home. That was followed in the second half by another fine pass to find the run of Jamie Walker, who clinically finished the counter-attack which he started.
Yet, despite Heart of Midlothian’s dominance and deserving three points, the Gorgie side’s defenders were still required to clear the ball off the goal-line four times in the second half. John Souttar acrobatically hooked Lionel Ainsworth’s effort away, which was sandwiched between three (THREE!?) goal-saving clearances from Faycal Rherras.
As any ‘good football man’ would observe, that’s the benefit of having men on the posts - of course, they would fail to recognise that Ainsworth was on the post and made an abhorrent attempt to prevent Johnsen’s header from crossing the line. However, there was no disputing the alertness of Rherras, each clearance getting better than the previous one.
The first saw him volley away Scott McDonald’s header. ‘Ha! Is that all you’ve got?!’
The second made him work a bit more. The mummified Ben Heneghan sent a header goalwards, only for Rherras to leap and divert the looping effort away before falling into the net. He ran away celebrating like a batsman rounding the bases having just sent a ball into the bleachers.
The third was spectacular. If Scottish football was a bit more inventive with their awards he would be the leading candidate for the Bobo Balde Clearance of the Season award. Louis Moult thought he had recorded a consolation, only for Rherras’s inner Bruce Lee to emerge and kick the ball away. This time he turned round to the crowd with a smile and gesture which suggested that he was done and for a fork to be stuck in him.
Marcus Haber sparks Dundee upturn
Not a specific moment as such, but Marcus Haber’s all-round play in Dundee’s 2-1 defeat of Inverness Caledonian Thistle was efficacious.
He has given Paul Hartley’s side what they have been missing all season: a reference. For large spells the home side were under incessant pressure, especially in the first half, but with him in attack, supplemented by the wiry Craig Wighton, Dundee always had an out-ball.
Signed in October until the end of the season, the 27-year-old Canadian has been pivotal in Dundee’s turnaround in recent weeks. His arrival as a starting forward has coincided with three wins in four.
Graham Spiers effectively labelled him as hopeless following his debut off the bench in a 2-0 defeat to Partick Thistle, despite not actually being at the match. But Hartley talked about him offering a “different dimension”, and he has done just that.
He is tall, athletic, quick and strong. He challenged both Gary Warren and Josh Meekings – as robust as Premiership centre-back partnerships come. He won headers, ran in behind and brought Dundee up the pitch.
Hartley has been criticised for some of his recruitment but he looks like he may have just pulled a rabbit out the hat when he needed one. A rabbit which can run, fight, head and play football.
Miller’s increasing influence
Kenny Miller’s Indian summer shows no sign of slowing. As Rangers toiled at Firhill, their away day blues looking like continuing. They needed a source of inspiration. The source was the 36-year-old forward.
Joe Garner offered plenty of sweat but little substance, Harry Forrester was dangerous in flashes, while off the bench Michael O’Halloran did little and Barrie McKay simply frustrated the travelling support. Trailing 1-0 to a Kris Doolan goal, Rangers needed something, or someone. That someone was Miller.
He was involved in most of Rangers’ positive play. While he should have stuck his header past Thistle’s German goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann, he is more to his side than just a goalscorer. He drops deep and moves wide, searching for the ball and combinations with team mates. He’s eagle-eyed; recognising space, seeing gaps.
At the equaliser, Ziggy Gordon dropped a yard too deep, enough for Miller to show for the ball and clip it up and over to Joe Dodoo. So often ineffectual, the Englishman never lost focus as the ball dropped on to his right foot, sending a perfect volley past Stuckmann.
Deep into stoppage time, Miller dropped back into midfield, rounded Abdul Osman as the Ghanian slipped on the turf, and played in Dodoo to complete the comeback.
Ali’s ambition returns
Hamilton Academical’s talisman provided an early contender for moment of the season when he nutmegged Joey Barton, prompting an avalanche of vines, videos and GIFs, What may be forgotten is that he scored Hamilton’s goal in the 1-1 draw with a fine finish.
He would go on to score three more in September, but that month was also the beginning of a waning influence as the 25-year-old entered a fallow period. Even as Hamilton played well his impact was negligible. During his time in the Premiership viewers have become so accustomed to him bursting into the box or firing shots off with both feet from any distance.
That Crawford returned last Monday as he sent a free-kick into the Hearts net before adding a second. The former Hearts youngster enjoys playing against the capital side, and their presence appears to have jump-started his season.
He was back to doing what he does best in Dingwall on Saturday. Another curling free-kick was dispatched before he almost nicked the three points for Accies with a swerving shot from an ambitious range. A perked up Crawford will be essential in the relegation battle - which doubles up as a battle for a place in the top-six.
BOTTOM 5 PLAYS OF THE WEEKEND
Bain of his life
What exactly was Scott Bain doing? The most basic of headers from Carl Tremarco found its way past him and gave Inverness a sniff of getting a result.
His attempt at a dive was that of someone consigned to a strait-jacket. He may have thought his defenders were going to deal with the cross but that is a flimsy excuse.
More Jester than King
Judging Billy King solely on his performances since the loan move from Hearts to Inverness, it is unlikely that is contract will be getting extended at Tynecastle.
He started the season well for ICT, especially in the Betfred Cup, but as the campaign has progressed he has become increasingly frustrating and unproductive. At Dens Park he was both of these, the poorest display in what was a good all-round team performance.
Unsurprisingly he was hooked in the second half, but not before he conceded the free-kick which allowed Dundee to increase their lead. Rather than force Cammy Kerr down the flank, he dived in, giving the referee and linesman an easy decision.
McGhee’s muddled Motherwell
Motherwell continued with their 3-5-2 formation at Tynecastle. It lasted 45 minutes and provided little barrier in stopping Hearts.
The midfield trio were out-thought and out-fought, while the defensive three were unable to track the runs and movement of Jamie Walker and Bjorn Johnsen. What will frustrate McGhee most is the lack of cohesion between both. Hearts were often able to get Djoum in possession in space behind the midfield without any of the defensive three coming out to put pressure on the ball.
Shinnie showed the way
Graeme Shinnie is one of the most consistent performers in the league, and often to a high standard. There is a reason why Aberdeen fans are so aghast at his constant omission from Scotland squads, yet he did not cover himself in glory in front of Gordon Strachan at Hampden Park on Sunday.
Playing in midfield, he found himself at the left-back position as Tom Rogic collected possession on the edge of the box in the 16th minute. He should have shown Rogic down the line, on to his right foot. He had the pace to match the Aussie. Instead, he allowed Rogic to step inside on to that left foot with consummate ease. The Celtic man curled his effort past Joe Lewis and the game was all but done.
Halliday ball watches
With Danny Wilson dragged out of position, due to Lee Wallace having been high up the pitch, there was a gap in the middle of the Rangers defence. Recognising this, Sean Welsh ventured into the box expecting a cross. Having glanced around, Halliday should have been aware of the Thistle midfielder.
Instead of following him, Halliday moved back slowly, continuing to watch Ryan Edwards in possession on the wing. It meant he had to rush back as the ball was diverted towards Welsh, who’d got himself into the six-yard box. His late attempt at challenging would be in vain as Welsh put the ball back into the middle for Kris Doolan to net.