Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Talking Points

Rangers are only the third or fourth best team in Scotland
According to the score line this was a huge improvement from Rangers on the feeble performance at Celtic Park last month, but it was clear to everyone watching that the gap between the sides remains significant.

The biggest difference between the two games was Celtic’s finishing rather than any great improvement by Rangers.  Celtic looked threatening almost every time they attacked, and had it not been for Matt Gilks channeling his inner Andy Goram, another thrashing could well have been on the cards.  Apart from one howler that presented a chance to Rogic that even the Australian couldn’t believe, the veteran goalkeeper more than justified his inclusion ahead of regular number one Wes Foderingham.

The Rangers back four played well enough, but they received next to no protection from the midfield rendering them pretty helpless against wave after wave of Celtic attack.  James Tavernier seemed to be playing an even more attacking role that usual, but he was ineffectual going forward while leaving plenty of space for Scott Sinclair to exploit behind.

Sure, Rangers worked hard and showed a resilience that was lacking in the previous Old Firm game, but the lack of threat going forward is a huge concern given that the team looked to have been set up to take the game to their Glasgow rivals.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone.  Rangers are probably the third or fourth best team in Scotland just now, and the gap between Celtic and second is already huge.  If the rate of progress at Ibrox continues to be this glacial, it will be a long time before they’re in a position to properly challenge Celtic’s domination of Scottish football. IM

Job done for the Dons
From the first few minutes of this match it looked as if Aberdeen were going to blow away Morton.  James Maddison got numerous opportunities to practice his corner kick deliveries to the near post - Kenny McLean had a volley blocked from one such effort, an from the ensuing corner Jonny Hayes headed off the crossbar.  Yet, despite continuing to have their expected dominance of possession, their goal threat dissipated.  The best chance of the half fell to Morton, when Jai Quitongo managed to get goal side of Mark Reynolds and force a save from Joe Lewis.

If anything, Ton looked more threatening as the second have wore on, with Quitongo - an Aberdeen youth team product back in the day - himself threatening to inflict another cup embarrassment upon his former employer.  The McInnes-era Dons, though, have far greater resolve that many of their predecessors.  Jim Duffy is justified in feeling hard done by; Adam Rooney's opener came from an offside position - albeit it probably didn't seem that way at the time as by the time Andy Considine's knock back came to Rooney he was nodding his looping header over the backtracking Gavin Gunning, and no Morton players seemed to claim offside in the immediate aftermath.  Andy McNeil was then very unlucky when he managed to save a late Niall McGinn shot across the face of goal, only for Kenny McLean to kill the tie off on the rebound.

So although there would be no dancing in the streets of Morton that night, the players would return to Greenock with heads held high. For Aberdeen, it wasn't pretty but they got the job done. Most Dons fans will be happy to settle for that. MI

Outstanding Swanson shows that Saints have style
Another weekend, another great performance from Danny Swanson, who is doing his best to put paid to the longstanding belief that St. Johnstone have no style.  The wideman scored his fourth goal in the league this season, and was Dundee's chief tormentor.  Add in his League Cup goal glut and he has a remarkable nine for the campaign already.  Not quite Moussa Dembele, but still...

It's great to see Swanson doing so well; bear in mind that he played well enough for Dundee United that he earned a Scotland call-up five years ago, before a move south that didn't work out particularly well.  And while he impressed on loan at Saints in the second half of the 2014-15 season (scoring a stunning winner at Celtic Park) he made the dreadful mistake of turning down a permanent deal that summer to join Hearts...where Robbie Neilson wasted him by playing him through the middle and then not at all.

Thankfully Tommy Wright didn't hold it against him and Swanson returned to Perth in January, and hasn't looked back since.  Whilst the chances of a cap have surely gone, the 30 year old is playing some of the best football of his career, and he might do well to see out the rest of it at McDiarmid Park. LS

Three at the back doesn't solve Partick's problems
Alan Archibald attempted to fix Partick Thistle's defensive frailties with a shift to a back three, with Adam Barton dropping into defence.  It certainly led to an improved performance for the first 70 minutes against Ross County; the visitors' 4-4-2 left them outnumbered and physically outmatched in the centre of midfield, and the busy but diminutive strike duo of Craig Curran and Alex Schalk - Liam Boyce is still injured - couldn't get any joy from pressing high up the pitch; nor did they have any hope of winning high balls.  Thistle deserved more for their efforts than just Sean Welsh's converted penalty.

Jim McIntyre eventually switched things around so County had three at the back as well, but it's unclear if that triggered their late revival, or whether it was down to the inevitable nerves of the home side.  With Thistle dropping deeper and becoming ragged, a tricky winger like Chris Burke is an ideal weapon - and so it proved as the veteran substitute grabbed the equalizer.

Thistle move a whole point clear of Dundee at the bottom ahead of their clash at Dens Park on Wednesday night.  I'm not convinced these tactical changes are their best long term option; confidence is the crucial factor here. LS

The least crap team will finish sixth
Caley Thistle's 1-1 draw against Kilmarnock in the Highlands extended their undefeated league run against the Ayrshire side to 10 games after a late goal from Lousana Doumbouya cancelled out a penalty from Souleymane Coulibaly which put Killie ahead in the first half.

In a game largely low on quality there were still decent chances for both sides so a draw was perhaps a fair result.  Coulibaly could have had a first half hat trick but opportunities also fell to Aaron Doran, Liam Polworth and Doumbouya at the other end, all of which went astray before the equaliser arrived.

Richie Foran claimed he wants more passion from his side and that they’ve looked jaded after games against Rangers and Celtic.  Whilst there could well be an element of truth in this it’s hard not to look at the recent win against Dundee which saw the most polished performance of the season from ICT in the league.  Yet Foran tweaked a winning team, and continues to play Liam Polwqrth out of position (this time on the left flank!)to accommodate the ineffectual Iain Vigurs...which we've discussed at length previously.

Inverness have stuttered through their next three games against Hamilton and Rangers after reverting to this line up.  Their best period of the game on Saturday came when playing with more natural widemen, although too often they cut inside into a congested middle of the pitch and couldn't find a way through the well drilled Killie defence who were able to comfortably handle the majority of the home attacks and kick start often threatening counter attacks.

There wasn’t much between the sides on Saturday and in general there seems to be little to separate any of the clubs below St. Johnstone in the league.  With no side in the bottom seven seemingly capable of putting a decent run of form together it could well be a very competitive fight for sixth spot over the next few months. Both Caley Thistle are likely to be in with a shout of securing that spot however it’s more likely to be down to other sides being equally poor rather than being any great shakes themselves. AS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Dundee are bottom
Defeat at Tynecastle, combined with other results, dropped Dundee to the foot of the table for the first time since they returned to the top flight in the summer of 2014.  It'll be interesting to see how they respond.  On the one hand, they were quite excellent for much of the second half against Hearts and created lots of chances despite being away from home against a side who are second in the table.  Remarkably they hit the woodwork three times after half-time with the score still nil-nil.  If one of those goes in, there's a decent chance that they at least get a draw, if not a win.

On the other hand, they lost.  They were also grateful to Scott Bain for a number of saves in the opening period.  They were bludgeoned in the final quarter of an hour.  They still can't defend crosses.  And they failed to score.  They haven't won since opening day.

It's not ideal.  Next up is a tricky trip to Perth, followed by games versus Partick and Accies.  If Dundee are still bottom at that point, it's time to panic. LS

Hayes just gets better and better
I had the privilege of watching Jonny Hayes at Inverness for three years.  When he arrived, he was a very raw winger, but his incredible pace made him a huge threat and a potential diamond.

Six years on, that diamond looks rather polished.  The Irishman, who won his first cap in the spring, has got better year on year, first under Terry Butcher at Caley Thistle and then under Derek McInnes at Aberdeen.  Hayes' best attributes have always been a willingness to learn and a complete selflessness - no flashy tricks or flashy celebrations from him, and he always passes to a teammate who is in a better position than him.

Hayes scored a great goal against Ross County by driving in from his natural left flank, but over the course of the match he also turned up at various times on the right wing, both full-back positions and central midfield - all roles he looks comfortable in and he wouldn't dream of complaining about being moved about the park.

His versatility will also hold him in good stead once the legs slow a bit - he is 29 now.  Aberdeen are very lucky to have a player with this talent and this attitude at his peak. LS

At last some luck for Scott Boyd
Scott Boyd has had a rough year or two.  A stalwart in three divisions for Ross County and their record appearance holder, he was demoted to the fringes of their squad last season and frozen out altogether by Jim McIntyre this summer, despite it being the start of his testimonial year.  He wasn't even in the team photo, with the club claiming he was 'ill'.  His wife had just had a baby too.

Still under contract for another year in Dingwall, Boyd had found something of a lifeline with a loan move to Kilmarnock on deadline day but he looked rusty to say the least.  His first four starts at centre-back led to a combined loss of 13 goals and he was dropped to the bench in Perth for the returning Miles Addison.

However an early injury to Jonathan Burn meant Boyd was called upon again and whilst his clean sheet was more down to Jamie McDonald and some profligate St. Johnstone finishing, he won the game with his close range finish.  It was his first goal since January 2014.

Whether Boyd has much to offer at this level beyond being a solid backup is unclear.  But he's a decent bloke and he deserves a bit of good fortune more than most. LS

Same old Thistle, same old Accies
Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies; two teams with dreadful defences and atrocious attacks.  Was this going to be a goalfest or a dour affair?  In the end we got a 2-2 draw, where one forward (Eamonn Brophy) got on the scoresheet with a late equalizer that the visitors completely deserved.

It was more of the same for both sides though.  Accies took the lead for the eighth time in nine league games this season, but they've only won one of those.  Their defence was 'bolstered' for this one by new arrival Lennard Sowah, but the German defender had a dreadful debut. Hamilton fans will recall Martin Canning's previous record with players signed on short-term deals (Kemy Agustien, Oumar Diaby, Christopher Mandiangu) and wince.

Meanwhile, Thistle conceded a late equalizer for the third time in four games.  And whilst they scored twice, neither goal came from a forward.  Centre-back Liam Lindsay, who continues to struggle at the other end, is now their top league scorer with three goals.  Dropping him might improve the defence, but also weaken their goal threat further!

And all the strikes in this match were defensive catastrophes; Abdul Osman's dreadful marking of Massimo Donati; pinball between Accies defenders in their six yard box to give Ryan Edwards a tap-in; Lindsay's free header six yards out; the way Brophy got in behind so easily.

Worryingly, neither side seems to have taken advantage of the international break to get organized.  The evidence still suggests they will be both fighting to avoid the drop. LS

Craig Gordon is back in favour
All in all, it was a pretty straightforward day at the office for Celtic.  Brendan Rodgers was so confident that he rotated his side ahead of Champions League action, with Liam Henderson a particular beneficiary.  While it took until late on for Moussa Dembele to seal the victory, Motherwell - who were so short on numbers that they gave debuts to 18 year old Jack McMillan and 17 year old Jake Hastie, both of whom were still in nappies when teammate Keith Lasley made his debut - never looked remotely dangerous.

About the only thing we can read into this Celtic selection is that Craig Gordon appears to be back in favour.  The Scottish international had very little to do, but appears to have won back the gloves from Dorus De Vries for the time being.  Rodgers' previous claims that Gordon needed to learn how to play the ball out better never washed with me - I saw him do an impressive set of keepy-ups and passes whilst warming up at half-time at Inverness recently.  What Gordon really needed was a week or two out of the firing line after a few errors.  In the long run, Rodgers may fancy that he can get a better goalie than either of his current options.  In the short term - starting with Moenchengladbach - Gordon is his best bet. LS

Vigurs is becoming a liability for Inverness
Rangers were pretty comfortable after Kenny Miller's opener at Inverness, although they created little despite monopolizing possession.  Caley Thistle's failure to consistently press high up the pitch or to win the ball back in the own half was their undoing; while they defended very well, with Carl Tremarco a standout, they had few chances themselves apart from sitters from Lonsana Doumbouya and Alex Fisher which bookended the match.

Richie Foran's decision to go with three ball-playing midfielders was a mistake.  Liam Polworth, again left out to dry on the right flank, at least went looking for the ball, while Greg Tansey showed plenty of willing even if he is out of form.  But Iain Vigurs' poor performance stood out.  Always a threat in an attacking sense, Vigurs is a liability defensively and playing him in front of the back four in a match where ICT wouldn't see much quality possession was an odd move.  Barrie McKay in particular took advantage, causing plenty of trouble between the lines.

Vigurs' outstanding start to the season feels like a while ago, and came when he was used in a far more advanced role.  Maybe he needs to be shunted back there.  Certainly Polworth is far more deserving, and far more suited, to playing in Vigurs' current role. LS

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Talking points from the Lithuania game

Lithuania show up Scotland's lack of preparation
Lithuania came to Hampden with a plan.  Sure, it was a depressing plan to park the bus, frustrate Scotland and maybe nick a goal on the break, but they executed it really well and were good value for their clean sheet right up till James McArthur's shoulder saved the home side from total humiliation.

In contrast, Scotland went with exactly the same lineup who started in Malta, with the only change a positional swap between Oliver Burke and Robert Snodgrass.  This seemed like a nod to the old adage 'don't change a winning team' rather than a tactical decision, as there was no apparent strategy prepared for the opponent.  The clearest indicator of this was Andrew Robertson's performance; the left-back was our outstanding player and wreaked havoc in the second half when given licence to bomb forward.  Yet he was far more conservative in the opening period despite having next-to-no defensive responsibility - clearly the likelihood of this hadn't been identified beforehand.  With a month between games to prepare (and plenty of time before that to scout), Gordon Strachan basically picked what he considered his best eleven and trusted in them to get the job done without much input from him.  That's at best risky, and at worst negligent from an international manager.

Picking Chris Martin was stubborn and stupid
Look up 'stubborn' in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of Strachan.  That's been the case for his whole career, but his attitude towards the press this week was particularly rude and condescending.  The subject of who to play at centre-forward has been a particularly tetchy one.  Chris Martin hasn't scored in his last twenty club matches, yet was preferred to Steven Fletcher (three goals in his last six games for Sheffield Wednesday) and Leigh Griffiths, who has scored for fun for the last 18 months...against teams who tend to pack their defence.

Strachan's post-match claim that Martin was "outstanding" left everyone open-mouthed.  The striker wasn't hopeless - he did well to come so close to scoring with the two difficult chances he had - but his link-up play was poor (as it was against Malta) and he was only slightly more mobile than a wheelie-bin.  The world and his dog knows that he had no right to start this match, and Strachan only picked him out of sheer bloody-mindedness, because starting with Fletcher or Griffiths would have been an admission that the media and fans were right.

Midfield blues exacerbated by Fletcher injury
Darren Fletcher's departure at half-time with a thigh strain was a big blow, more so than I think folk realized at the time.  The skipper still has plenty of energy even at 32, and could be seen gesticulating at his teammates - particularly the centre-backs - to up the tempo.  James McArthur is a more than adequate replacement, but there was a complete lack of leadership after Fletcher went off.

The other central midfielder, Barry Bannan, was completely ineffectual.  His performance was reminiscent of Wayne Rooney in a deep-lying role for England; always keen to get on the ball, a few Hollywood passes to either wing, and ultimately very little impact on the match.  Like Chris Martin, Bannan is another Strachan favourite who hasn't done nearly enough for club or country to justify such faith.

Burke is being set up to fail
Oliver Burke showed only some fleeting glimpses of his enormous potential, but his willingness to get on the ball and run at defenders was welcoming and he got more joy on the right flank as the first half went on...only for Strachan to then switch him to the other side just before the break and then sub him early in the second half.  Burke had barely touched the ball after half-time, but he was getting no service.  In hindsight, sticking him in the centre, where his physical presence and running could have offered a foil to Martin, would have been wiser.  It would also have allowed Robert Snodgrass into his favoured wide position where he could have had more time and space to operate.

Strachan seemed to think James Forrest was a like-for-like replacement just because of his seering pace, but Forrest is always better on the counter-attack with space to run into and isn't a great crosser of the ball; he missed one very good opportunity and offered zilch otherwise.

Are we out already?
To have a shot at second place, we always had to win this game, whatever guff the manager came out with beforehand.  The situation can be rectified with a win in Bratislava, but how confident would you be of that?  Defeat finishes us off, and it should be the end of Strachan.  But in truth the boss feels like a lame duck already.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Polworth dilemma

Caley Thistle had every reason to be confident going into this weekend’s fixture against Hamilton Accies. With seven wins in eight in this fixture away from home, Inverness hoped to build on last week’s systematic demolition of Dundee but instead had to settle for a barely deserved point as Liam Polworth struck right at the death to cancel out the opener from D’Acol.

Hamilton have opened the scoring in seven of their league games so far this campaign but have struggled to hold on to those leads winning just one of the games they take the lead in coming against Ross County. It was a familiar tale for the home supporters as they failed to take advantage of an out of sorts Inverness who bagged another late goal, their fourth already this season in the last fifteen minutes, to extend their unbeaten run to five games.

Richie Foran's team selection was a puzzler.  Last week, ICT had turned in their best performance of the season, so most expected an unchanged lineup, with Polworth, who scored against Dundee, continuing in a central role where he could greatly influence the game.  The midfielder has played a number of matches in recent months wide on the right, where he looks far less comfortable.

Instead, Polworth was shunted out wide again to accommodate the returning Iain Vigurs.  It was no surprise that the former struggled to get into the game to the same effect as he had done the previous week.  It spoke volumes that when Polworth did find himself playing more through the middle in the latter stages of the match he was much more effective and grabbed a late goal.  Interestingly, the tactical switch that allowed this was the substitution of Greg Tansey, usually the man Caley Thistle turn to for finesse in the centre of the pitch.

It’s now crystal clear where Polworth is most effective - in the centre of the pitch playing either just behind the striker or in a holding midfield two.  Playing him out wide tends to result in him having less influence on a game.  Inverness do have natural wide players in Jake Mulraney and Billy King, but both are weak defensively; this may be why Polworth is used in this role.  In addition, Foran is clearly trying to shoehorn four central midfielders - Polworth, Tansey, Vigurs and Ross Draper - into the team.

Whilst this might be an approach that’s worth adopting against the likes of Celtic or Aberdeen, for more winnable games Foran should be gambling on his wingers, playing Polworth where he is at his best, and leave Vigurs (or, on recent form, Tansey!) on the bench.

Andrew Sutherland (AS) is our Caley Thistle Correspondent.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  He occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Maddison's moment of glory
Although I was privileged enough to see James Maddison's late free kick , I will admit that I was also keen to relive the moment on television afterwards and couldn't help but be amused at the contrast in the immediate reactions between the hyperbole of the live commentary on Sky Sports by Ian Crocker - "A phenomenal free kick!" - and the understated delivery by Liam McLeod on the Sportscene highlights - "It's not bad!"

It was Maddison's moment; a peach of goal that earned Aberdeen a win over Rangers that, in all honesty, they scarcely deserved.  It was telling that Derek McInnes mentioned in his post-match interview that, during the first half, he was annoyed that "we didn't commit to our pressing"; it was clear that this related to a tactical plan that McInnes had devised for the game - explained succinctly by fellow Narey's Toepoker blogger Stuart Taylor, the idea was for Aberdeen's forwards to press the Rangers central defenders in an attempt to stop them splitting, while also stopping their full backs from getting forward.  

It is perhaps, slightly unfair to attribute this to a lack of commitment by the players - more accurately, it was the Rangers players who fully committed to their own passing game and made an exerted effort to run into spaces and make themselves available for outlet passes; in turn, the Aberdeen pressing game soon began to look more reactive than proactive, their players not quick enough to respond to the movement in front of them.

The home support have grown accustomed to watching a team that dominates possession in the first half without creating any clear goalscoring opportunities, just not normally by the away side.  For all of the play they had in the opposition half, the closest they came to scoring was a shot from Joe Garner that deflected wildly off Shay Logan and forced Joe Lewis to scramble across the face of his goal to divert the ball away for a corner.

For all of the good passing football that Rangers had played in the first half, Aberdeen took barely a minute of the second half to open the scoring with the 'route one' approach - Lewis humped the ball up the park and Adam Rooney managed to head-flick it forward for Jonny Hayes to flash past an almost stationery back four and coolly finish past Wes Foderingham.

Mark Warburton later replaced the largely ineffective Garner and with veteran striker Kenny Miller, and it was the substitute who finally produced a creative spark by playing Lee Wallace in behind the Dons defence; Hayes was tugging his shirt as he ran into the box, Wallace hit the deck and Rangers were duly awarded a penalty that was calmly dispatched by Andy Halliday - a player who, incidentally, exerted more influence in this one game than Joey Barton has (and probably ever will) in his entire Rangers career.

Yet, give Aberdeen credit where it's due, they once again managed to produce a winning goal in the final minutes.  Warburton was clearly aggrieved about the free kick awarded by referee John Beaton; to be honest, the Dandies in my immediate vicinity within the South Stand didn't think it was a free kick either, although it is a risk that defenders take when they attempt to tackle players from behind that if they make contact with the attacker in the process of making contact with the ball they are always taking a chance that a foul will be called against them.  Regardless of the merit of the refereeing decision, the merit of the winning goal that resulted from it was beyond doubt. MI

Dundee are in trouble
Perhaps Paul Hartley can take solace from the fact that, a month ago, Caley Thistle were in crisis.  And look where they are now.

However, the bottom line is that Dundee were very comfortably beaten by an opponent that didn't get out of third gear...and didn't need to.  And Nicky Low's late free-kick made the scoreline look a bit better; had Jake Mulraney not spurned a sitter for the home side, the scoreline would have been a crushing 4-0.  How much pressure would that have put on Hartley?

Sure, Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart are practically irreplaceable for a team at this level, but that doesn't explain the ongoing defensive woes.  The absence of the suspended Kevin Gomis didn't help, but the way that Lonsana Doumbouya - apparently called 'the big man' by his teammates, who can't pronounce his surname - bullied Darren O'Dea and Julen Etxabeguren was extremely worrying.  The latter gave away a daft penalty which effectively killed the game after less than twenty minutes.  Left-back Kevin Holt gifted Mulraney his gilt-edged chance for a goal, while on the other flank Tom Hateley looked dreadfully out of shape.

Further up the pitch, it remains unclear what Hartley is trying to do.  With Mark O'Hara missing, there was a distinct lack of energy; Paul McGowan tried his best in a more advanced role, but spent most of his time taking the ball sideways.  With Inverness' back four sitting deep there was no space in behind for Faissal El Bakhtaoui, while Michael Duffy kept trying to come in from the left flank, leaving them lacking in width.  And deploying a midfield trio of McGowan, Low and Nick Ross meant that the physical battle in the centre of the park was a canter for the Highlanders.

Even the subs were weird - Rory Loy and Jordi Teijsse were thrown on, giving Dundee three strikers all operating in the same area, and no supply line for them.

So now the Dark Blues are winless since opening day.  Go back to last season, and they have just four league wins since mid-February.  That, along with this woeful performance, go someway to explaining why Hartley is the bookies' favourite to be the first Premiership manager for the chop. LS

It doesn't matter who Celtic play in goal or up front
I could watch that Souleymane Coulibaly goal all day long.  Sadly for Kilmarnock, it just seemed to jolt the champions into action.  After last week's draw at Inverness I predicted that many a team would be on the end of a thumping from Celtic...and Kilmarnock won't be the last.  Killie didn't do themselves any favours by playing two strikers with a combined age of 37 (hence they weren't pressing the opposition much) and Coulibaly, another striker, on the wing.  But the quality of Celtic's attacking play was such that had Lee Clark parked the bus they might have shipped six goals anyway.

It was curious that one of the first questions asked of Brendan Rodgers after a 6-1 win was about his goalkeeper - you'd think the focus would be on the forwards and particularly the battle between Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths for a starting spot.  But instead he was grilled on whether he was happy with Dorus De Vries.  I have some sympathy with the Dutch keeper; his starting position for Coulibaly's goal was okay (Rodgers - "If anything I prefer my goalkeeper to be a little further out of goal), while last week I thought he did well to even get a hand to Billy King's strike for Inverness, but because he got a hand on it people seemed to think he should have kept it out.

Perhaps there's a wee bit of loyalty, from both fans and the media, to his Scottish rival, Craig Gordon.  And I don't believe Gordon is an inferior keeper at all, though he has certainly not had a brilliant 2016.  To an extent, the debate is moot.  Celtic's choice of keeper will not affect their domestic challenge.  Nor will it improve their chances of getting a point in the Champions League.  Ditto their choice of centre-forward.  Regardless, they'll thump everyone in Scotland, and be thumped by everyone in Europe. LS

Thistle play well again...and fail to win again
A point against Motherwell keeps Partick Thistle bottom and will have done little to relieve fears of a relegation battle.  It's been the same story at Firhill all season; a defence that can't keep a clean sheet, and an attack that can't score goals.  Whilst they largely dominated against Motherwell, they did benefit from two huge slices of good fortune - Steven Hammell's blunder that gifted Chris Erskine the opener, and the terrible decision to disallow a Scott McDonald header at the other end when he was well onside.

As Alan Archibald bemoaned after the match, "to win a game, it almost looks like we need two goals...we don't look like keeping a clean sheet".  Unfortunately his central defenders let him down for the umpteenth week in a row, allowing McDonald to drift in unmarked to score a late equalizer.   Unfortunately, whilst Danny Devine and Liam Lindsay are not a Premiership-quality pairing, Archibald has no other centre-back aged over 20 available.  Either he pitches teenager David Syme in, moves Ziggy Gordon inside (leaving him short of a decent right-back with Mustapha Dumbuya out long-term), or muddles on.  None of these options are palatable.

And at the other end, Thistle couldn't get that second goal they needed.  Ade Azeez's decent link-up play can in no way make up for squandering two very decent chances.  He, like the other centre forward in the squad, Kris Doolan, is still without a league goal this season, and neither look likely to break their duck any time soon.  Next up is Rangers away, and then it's Accies at home after the international break.  If the Jags are bottom after that, it's time for a bit of panic. LS

Ross County are difficult to beat again
The uncertainty over the future of Andrew Davies did Ross County a lot of harm at the start of the season.  When he announced his intention to leave, Jim McIntyre immediately moved for Jay McEveley as a replacement; Davies' change of heart left County with three experienced central defenders (Paul Quinn being the other) who expected to play every week.  McIntyre tried to shoehorn them all in by changing to a 3-5-2 which his squad was totally ill-equipped for (too many chiefs, not enough indians, according to writer John A Maxwell); after a shellacking by Dundee on opening day, he went back to a back four with McEveley shunted out to left-back, which was better, but not much.

McEveley's discomfort was exposed by Motherwell a fortnight ago, where he picked up two yellows.  His suspension seems to have coincided with a drastic improvement in County's defending.  Kenny Van Der Weg has come in at left-back; the Dutchman offers nothing going forward, but is a relative rarity in this league in that he is a full-back who can actually defend.  With Davies now back to his best form - he was imperious again at Tynecastle and actually came close to nicking a winner for the Staggies - County are once more difficult to beat.  Their success last season was built on these sort of foundations, and back-to-back clean sheets against Rangers and Hearts bode well going forward...for everyone except McEveley, perhaps. LS

Donati's no prima-donna
To be fair, a Hamilton v St. Johnstone match isn't going to give many folk palpitations.  Scheduling it for Sunday afternoon made it even easier to forget that it was even happening.  Much like for Partick Thistle, Accies did enough to win this but conceded a late equalizer because their defence just isn't solid enough.

With Michael Devlin and Darren Lyon added to the injury list, Martin Canning stuck with the back three that impressed in the second half at Motherwell last week, which required Massimo Donati to step back into defence.  Nine years ago, the Italian under-21 international was scoring for Celtic in the Champions League.  Now he's a makeshift centre back for Hamilton.  The 35 year old is clearly up for the challenge though; he broke his nose at Fir Park but played on.  Then, having been told it can't be reset till next week because of swelling, he decided to play another 90 minutes with it against the Perth Saints.

Not that Donati was particularly great in this match; he looks like a midfielder playing out of position, and his passing from the back was a disappointment.  But it says a lot about his attitude that he is willing to end up looking like Steve Bruce just to help Hamilton out. LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Celtic's accounts raise concerns...for Rangers

Maybe Celtic should sue Ronny Deila for lost earnings?  Say, about £10million?

The club has announced a return to profit for 2015/16, £500k in the black compared to a £3.9m loss the previous season.  The caveats?  Firstly, the period encompasses season ticket sales up to the end of June 2016, which increased dramatically following the arrival of Brendan Rodgers and the prospect of two home games against Rangers (edit - Graeme Hutchings on Twitter has pointed out that season ticket sales for 2016/17 will be treated as deferred income).  Secondly, as the club freely admitted, player sales were a significant factor - more than £12m of income, in fact.

The conclusion?  Celtic run at a loss of about £5m a year if they don't make the Champions League, in which case they have to sell a top player for big money to balance the books.  Last season it was Virgil Van Dijk.  The year before that it was Fraser Forster.   Had they shipped just one more goal in Israel against Hapoel Beer-Sheva, one wonders whether they had anyone left who would command an eight figure transfer fee?

But it couldn't be more clear that the powerbrokers at Parkhead needed to punt Deila and bring in a competent manager.  Because Celtic's presence in the 2016/17 Champions League will be worth in excess of £20m to them, even if they do end up getting thumped 7-0 every fortnight.  That should keep the accountants happy.

We can understand why the prospect of Europe's elite competition becoming a closed shop would cause Peter Lawwell to come out in a sweat.  Without that avenue, drastic downsizing would be required, regardless of the average attendance at Celtic Park.  In fact, the massive reliance on UEFA monies also makes a move to England rather less palatable, given that Celtic would surely have to start in League Two or lower; at least three years of drastically reduced income even if things went swimmingly (which would certainly not be a given).

Whilst it doesn't sound like the safest of business plans, it seems to be about the only one that keeps Celtic at their current level.  Becoming more competitive at continental level would require a level of investment that Dermot Desmond baulks at, while cutting costs (or keeping Deila in charge) would run the risk of missing the Champions League every year, leading to a never-ending cycle of downsizing until, potentially, the club's domestic hegemony could come under threat.

Which allows me to segue ungracefully onto my next point.  Whilst these final results probably make Celtic fans feel a little uneasy, they should make Rangers fans downright nauseous.  While we don't have enough detail yet to know what the gap in staff budget for last season was, it's unlikely to have narrowed too much from 2014/15...where Celtic's staff costs were £33.2m, compared to Rangers' £13.2m.  So at that point Celtic were spending 250% more.  That's not so much a gap as a flipping chasm.  No wonder that there were four clear goals between them a couple of weekends back.

But that's what Rangers have to try to bridge if they are to knock their rivals off their perch.  And until they do so, they won't have access to the Champions League riches that they desire (not unless something crazy happens to the coefficient, like a repeat of 1967!).  The Catch 22, of course, is that they need those riches to be able to go toe-to-toe with Celtic in the first place.

Or, you know, Rangers could find a sugar daddy willing to spend his children's inheritance on the club, but good luck with that...

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Talking points from the Premiership

County increase the pressure on beleaguered Warburton
“I always go back to the money markets.  If you lose a bunch of money you don’t try to win it back the following day. You build slowly.”

Mark Warburton tried to deal with the fall out from the Old Firm game by looking back to his days as a City trader for inspiration.  Maybe he's right that it will take time to recover - after all, even a 10-0 thrashing of Ross County would not have completely placated a fanbase humiliated by the debacle at Celtic Park.  But in the end, despite the manager's assertions that it was his team's best performance of the season, Rangers didn’t even come close to thrashing the Highlanders, although they certainly deserved to win the match.  Not that the support appreciated that, given the round of boos at the final whistle.

Some football matches can only be assessed in the context of the games that preceded it, and this was a prime example.  Sure, Warburton was right that there were positives to be taken.  His side looked so much more energetic (is the absence of Joey Barton a coincidence? Ed), with Josh Windass again a real standout.  A young side playing a high tempo, able to overwhelm middle-to-lower ranked teams, and, if the defence improves - far from a given - capable of dangerous counter­attacking against the better sides - maybe this is all that Rangers can, and should be, realistically aiming for, right now.

Unfortunately for Warburton, that ain't how it works down Ibrox way.  The supporters were told in the summer that they were #goingfor55, so they expect a title challenge, not a stutter at home to the Staggies.  This isn't the stock market - Rangers lost a lot of credibility at Celtic Park, and the manager needs to get that back very, very soon.  The magic hat is hanging on a very shoogly peg, and if there isn't a run of wins on the horizon then Warburton could be returning to the City looking for new employment.  IM

ICT somehow survive an onslaught
As of half-time yesterday afternoon, this piece was going to be a massive rant about how Don Robertson had lost his bottle and cost Caley Thistle any chance of a result (when I did moan on Twitter, a number of Celtic fans reminded me of a Tweet after Meekingsgate where I claimed bad decisions evened themselves out over time!).

Then Celtic were so dominant in the second period that I went away suspecting that, had Erik Sviatchenko been sent off, the ten men would have probably been well on top anyway.  That they didn't win by a cricket score was down to a combination of factors; an incredible performance from ICT keeper Owain Fon Williams; some terrible finishing; and some sort of flipping miracle.  So complaining about the foul on Draper seemed like pushing one's luck.

Both Brendan Rodgers and the Celtic support treated this result with a "well, you can't win every game" reaction - the sort of response you can only make when you're absolutely certain you're going to stroll the league.  And quite right too.  Results like this will be few and far between; a lot of teams are going to get a proper thumping this season.

The visitors showed no signs of physical or psychological fatigue from their catastrophe at the Camp Nou; whilst Inverness - helped by a screamer from Billy King that levelled things up in the first half - pretty much matched them in the opening 45, the second half was a relentless onslaught.  The patterns of passing and the variety of chances created were extremely impressive; had I been a neutral, it would have been great to watch.  Through the gaps between my fingers, not so.  The speed of movement and speed of thought is so far above that of any other Scottish team...and well last year's Ronny Deila vintage too.

Kieran Tierney was particularly outstanding.  The left-back set up a goal for Tom Rogic with some brilliant footwork to bamboozle Liam Polworth, and later he would hit the bar as well as force one of Fon Williams' many saves.  Whilst he wasn't really tested in a defensive sense, his attacking play was far superior to most wingers in Scottish football.  And remember, the boy is only nineteen.  LS

McInnes sees off his critics, for now
This weekend journalist Graham Spiers questioned whether Derek McInnes would be able to maintain momentum at Aberdeen, citing their visit to Dens Park as looking "ominous".  The criticism hasn't been reserved to mainstream media, either; deep into the second half of this contest, with the match petering out to yet another draw for both sides, calls were also coming from social media for the manager to make changes and show that he actually wants three points.  

Derek duly made a double substitution; off went Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn - both of whom had admittedly quiet afternoons - and on came summer intakes Jayden Stockley and Wes Burns.  Both substitutes obliged their boss; Stockley stuck his bonce on the end of a Jonny Hayes cross from the right to put the Dons ahead, then Burns burned into the box before being bundled over by Julen Etxabeguren to receive a fortunate decision from referee Steven McLean for a penalty kick, which Kenny McLean was just as lucky to score, after smashing his shot off the underside of the crossbar.

Prior to that, Dons fans were at least treated to another classy display from Derek's most recent loan acquisition, James Maddison.  Billed as a brilliant player with superb technique on the ball, he didn't disappoint - punctuating a man of the match performance with a great strike from just outside the box to draw the Dons level in the first half; albeit, Scott Bain must have been disappointed not to have kept it out.  That the visitors had to draw level in the first place was due to an even better goal from the Dees; Paul McGowan threaded a through ball to Nick Ross, whose deft flick set up a Kevin Holt line drive to open the scoring.

In the end, a deserved away win (and a first in the league since March) provides the Dons with revived momentum heading into a difficult double header at Pittodrie; a League Cup Quarter Final with St Johnstone on Thursday evening, followed by the visit of Rangers on Sunday afternoon.  Even as early as mid-September, the results from these two fixtures will go a long way to establishing what further progress McInnes can make this season. MI

Hamilton need to sign some proper full-backs
Louis Moult, Motherwell's four goal hero against Accies, has scored seven times in his last two hours on a football pitch.  That's a hell of a strike rate, and one he won't be matching for long; the Englishman is a bit of a streaky striker, who hadn't scored in his last seven games of last season and who last season had several barren periods interrupted by brief goal gluts.

In addition, he won't play against many defences worse than this. Each of his three open play goals - a hat-trick in the opening 21 minutes - were well taken but all were handed to him on a plate.  Accies right-back Grant Gillespie will have nightmares about the way Moult kept coming inside from his starting position on the left flank; Gillespie was left for dead as the forward raced onto Ryan Bowman's flick for the opener, and was easily beaten in the air for the second.

Gillespie looked like a fish out of water, and that's because he was - he's so much more comfortable in the centre of midfield.  So too Darren Lyon on the other flank, who was skinned for the second and third goals and gave away a dreadful penalty early in the second half before being hooked.

Changing formation at 3-0 makes one think 'barn door, horse, bolted', but remarkably Martin Canning's move to a back three nearly dragged his side back into it, with the outstanding Ali Crawford getting one back and then hitting the post shortly after.  And after Crawford's second goal dragged the score back to 4-2, Craig Samson's goal was peppered.  The best plan when you have no natural full-backs appears to be not to play with any.

Canning has recently said he hopes to bring in someone who plays in that position, and hinted that he'd narrowly missed out on some targets on deadline day.  He sure as heck can't go on playing Gillespie and Lyon in those roles for the rest of the season. LS

Killie's strikers are the key to their survival
If Killie stay up, it will be because of their strikers.  Kris Boyd somehow wriggled away from three Partick Thistle defenders to score his third league goal of the season; Souleymane Coulibaly later headed home to match his strike partner's total for the campaign.  Six goals between them in six league games; if they were to get close to keeping that up for the remaining thirty-two matches then they won't go down.

Easier said than done, of course.  And if they do go down, it'll because of the problems at the other end.  Lee Clark still doesn't know his best back four - he's used seven different players in defence already this season in the league and still has three summer signings to try in that area.  Both Thistle's goals were poor ones to concede.

That said, Kilmarnock still might be better off than their opponents.  Partick's centre half duo of Danny Devine and Liam Lindsay continue to struggle, while keeper Tomas Cerny is indeed out long-term with a foot injury.  At the other end of the park, it was another barren day for Kris Doolan.  Lindsay's late equalizer makes him the team's joint top scorer in the Premiership.  Thistle are fragile at the back and impotent up front, which is a dreadful situation to be in. LS

Clark justifies his manager's faith
Zander Clark's return to the starting lineup last week was more down to luck than anything else.  Tommy Wright's decision to keep faith with veteran Alan Mannus at the start of the season had been largely justified by the Ulsterman's performances, but a sickness bug allowed Clark to get back in to the side and the 24 year old vindicated the decision to stick with him against Hearts with a sensational performance.  One stop from Jamie Walker was particularly stunning, but at times he seemed to be repelling the Jambos single-handedly.

Clark's record in league games is quite remarkable; eight wins out of eight, and only four goals conceded (one of which was a penalty).  His manager touted him for a Scotland call-up, but the reason why Clark hasn't been mentioned before is undoubtedly his lack of game time; this effort should establish him between the sticks for the Saints for a long time to come.  And he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his opposite number Jack Hamilton (who has recently been in Gordon Strachan's plans) and Scott Bain of Dundee.  But I suspect all three will need to test themselves at a higher level than this if they are to start racking up caps.  LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.