When Alan Muir blew the full-time whistle at a deserted Dens Park, minus the boisterous away support, Celtic were still waiting to be confirmed champions. Aberdeen had put on an emphatic and, at times, electric, display against a wretched Dundee to win 7-0.
Celtic’s march to the title has been inevitable for a long time. Aberdeen have won 11 of their last 13 league games, giving them a ten point lead over third-placed Rangers, not to forget a 20 point lead over Heart of Midlothian, who have played a game less. However, they have been unable to draw in the Parkhead side, who held a 25 point lead prior to Friday night’s encounter.
The seven-goal thumping of Paul Hartley’s side confirmed what was evident in the previous dozen games: Aberdeen are the second best side in the country. Yet, at one point this season questions were being asked of Derek McInnes.
There were cases to be made on both sides of the argument. Two second-placed finishes, a third-place and a League Cup victory. On the other hand, how much further could he take the Dons? Plus queries over his constant tinkering.
The League Cup final defeat was the season’s low-point. There was no disgrace at getting beat by this current Celtic crop, but it was the manner in which they surrendered. Aberdeen simply weren’t competitive enough, brushed aside with ease.
However, the defeat did not prompt a turning point. That came the following month. Jayden Stockley, Wes Burns and James Maddison all started in attack for the Dandies at Ross County in December. Only Maddison finished the game. Substitute Niall McGinn appeared to rescue a point, only for Ryan Dow to grab a late winner.
At that point in the season Aberdeen sat third on 28 points. They were level with Hearts and seven behind Rangers, albeit they held a game in hand over both. Few, even McInnes and assistant Tony Docherty, would have foreseen the change that was on the horizon. It commenced less than a week later when Aberdeen made the trip to Motherwell.
Four changes were made. The line-up read: Lewis, Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Considine, Jack, Shinnie, McGinn, McLean, Hayes, Rooney. The deserved 3-1 win was the first of 11 in the run of 13 games in the league, not to forget advancing to the semi-final of the Scottish Cup.
The reason for highlighting the line-up is simple, it would become the bedrock of Aberdeen’s upturn in form. For the first half of the season McInnes’ team selection was inscrutable. Not only was it difficult to predict but it was difficult to fathom system and shape. The meddling was proving detrimental to his team, proven by what has followed since the change in tack.
McInnes went six games without changing the starting line-up. Since the defeat of Motherwell McInnes has made only seven changes to his starting XI for league games. This approach has been propitious as the Dons have grasped hold of second place.
It just leaves that question often asked by football fans: what if?
What if McInnes had this settled line-up from the start of the season, tweaking when required rather than overcomplicating matters with a range of changes from one week to the next? While it kept opponents second guessing, there is little possibility of team-mates building relationships and partnerships.
The settled line-up has proved fruitful collectively and individually. Jonny Hayes has continued his flying form and Niall McGinn hasn’t looked back since starring at Fir Park in December. The midfield triumvirate, Kenny McLean, Ryan Jack and Graham Shinnie, have reached top form, leading to calls to be included in the national side.
Confidence and a measure of arrogance as flown through the team. They’ve approached games with a mindset and attitude only really seen from teams called Rangers and Celtic. Home and away. There has been an intensity and bravery to Aberdeen’s play that has scared opponents. Every side they have played in the run of 13, barring Celtic, have had to suffer. At times the pressure is asphyxiating. Only Hamilton have been able to survive it in a bizarre encounter at New Douglas Park.
At Kilmarnock the pressure eventually told. At Dens Park Aberdeen wasted no time. It could be seen in the Dons second goal. Aberdeen had a throw-in deep in Dundee’s half. The play was surrounded by all three central midfielders. If Dundee were winning possession there was no way out. They didn’t. Aberdeen had Dundee outnumbered which meant Shay Logan was able to cross the ball with no pressure.
This is not to say Aberdeen would be challenging at the top. But if their recent form is extrapolated over the season they would be a bridge between Celtic and the rest of the league.
In the first 17 league games Aberdeen averaged 1.65 points per game, scoring 29 and conceding 17. In the last 13 games the Dons have averaged 2.54 points per game, scoring 31, conceding a mere seven.
Take the latter form over 30 games and it brings Aberdeen to 76 points. A seven point gap to Celtic. Twenty five points ahead of Rangers!
Short-term, it strengthens the feeling that if any team are to stop Celtic’s treble it will be Aberdeen. Their approach to games may not mean they will go toe-to-toe with Brendan Rodgers side but should allow the Dandies to go into a potential Scottish Cup final without fear.
Longer-term, McInnes will be looking to take on the chalice of reining Celtic in next season. However, McGinn appears to be moving on in the summer, while other important players see their contract expire at the end of the season.
As the season reaches its climax Pittodrie is shrouded in positivity, but there may be mixed feelings below the surface. They’ve been immaculate in the second half of the season and could win their first Scottish Cup since. But there is the lingering question of ‘what if?’. And now, ‘what next?’.