Sunday, January 15, 2017

Caley Thistle's case for the defence

Edinburgh-based Caley Thistle fan Chris Lindsay analyses why Caley Thistle can't seem to defend at all this season.


When Richie Foran took over as manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle from John Hughes, there were mixed feelings from the fans but the overall mood was positive. Foran was a dedicated club man, had been a leader on the pitch and, importantly, had the benefit of a settled squad of experienced players to build his team around.

Seven months on and things look different in the Highland capital. Caley Thistle’s season started badly, rallied and has since hit a slump that has seen the club go on the worst run since joining the senior leagues in 1994 – ten matches without a victory. The club had gone from to-ing and fro-ing in the ‘pack’ of teams in the SPFL Premiership to sitting bottom below Hamilton Accies, four points from safety. Only three victories have been achieved in the league by ICT all season and the league cup campaign saw an ignominious exit at the hands of part-time Alloa. Underlying the whole season is a leaky defensive unit. In league matches up until the winter break, ICT conceded 40 goals in 21 matches, 1.9 goals per game – by far the club's worst goals conceded per game ratio ever in the top flight of Scottish football.

Season
Goals Conceded total
Goals per game
Note
2004/05
47
1.23

2005/06
38
1.00

2006/07
48
1.26

2007/08
62
1.63

2008/09
58
1.52

2010/11
44
1.15

2011/12
60
1.57

2012/13
60
1.57

2013/14
44
1.15

2014/15
42
1.10

2015/16
48
1.26

2016/17*
40
1.90
21 games played


Clearly something has gone wrong with the previously reliable ICT defensive unit. However, the defensive partnership of Gary Warren and Josh Meekings has been the basis of the ICT defence for several seasons and far fewer goals were conceded. In addition, the club has retained experienced full backs Carl Tremarco and David Raven, while the much-criticised Danny Devine departed last summer.

Several radar charts show the difference in performance between 2015/16 and 2016/17 for the ICT defenders.

Gary Warren

2015-16
2016-17

Warren showed exceptional results in 2015/16, despite it being a relatively difficult year for ICT. He registered close the top with aerial duel success and interceptions per 90 minutes along with good passing accuracy and positive forward passing scores. These remarkable scores are made all the more impressive by the fact that Warren missed the first three months of 2015/16 with a broken leg.

2016/17 shows significant drops for all of those measures, with only the passes to the final third figure showing a rise.

Josh Meekings

2015-16
2016-17
Meekings figures show a boost from 2015/16, with all areas measured in the chart improving. However, Meekings did miss significant parts of 2015/16 through injury and the impact of this on his numbers should be taken into account. Also, Meekings played as a right back for part of the 2015/16 season, covering due to injuries to dedicated full-backs.

Deputising for Meekings and Warren during their injuries in 2015/16 was Danny Devine, a fill-in player in defence since his arrival in Inverness in 2013. Devine left Inverness in the summer of 2016 to sign for Partick Thistle.

Danny Devine


Devine showed good ratings in aerial and defensive duels but poor pass ratings. Both in terms of completions and passing forward he rated less than Warren and Meekings both in 2015/16 and in 2016/17. Devine incurred criticism from supporters during the season for his mistakes, including hitting a short pass in his own box to Stuart Armstrong at Celtic Park, resulting in a goal, and inexplicably handling within his own box at Dens Park for a penalty, fortunately saved.

Carl Tremarco


2015/16
2016/17

The robust full-back was previously most noted for his red card in the 2015 Scottish cup final but came to the fore following the departure of star left-back Graeme Shinnie to Aberdeen.

Tremarco’s defensive figures have improved from 2015/16 to 2016/17 but his passing figures have set back slightly. Unmeasured in this chart is his emergence as an unlikely goal source with six goals already scored in league and cup this season, making Tremarco ICT's leading goalscorer.

David Raven / Brad McKay
Raven has made the ICT right back slot his own, capping his time as a stalwart of the team with an unforgettable winner against Celtic at Hampden to put ICT into the Scottish cup final. John Hughes’ intention to release the Liverpudlian following a fall-out lead many fans to conclude that they’d prefer the manager to leave over the right back.

Brad McKay was signed following his release from St Johnstone and was surprisingly slotted into the right back straight from the start of his stint in the Highlands

Raven 2015/16
McKay 2016/17

Raven’s solid figures from the previous season are significant higher than McKay’s. McKay has a significantly lower percentage of wins in defensive duels and in the air and fewer passes to the final third. Like Tremarco though, McKay has contributed in unexpected ways, with four assists provided so far this season, behind only Celtic’s Moussa Dembele in the Scottish Premiership.

The radar charts show us that most of the defenders stats have slipped back since the previous season. Can any weaknesses be pinpointed in the defence by looking at other available information? In terms of where the methods of goals against ICT, the goal sources have not significantly altered over the two seasons

Goals from crosses balance out roughly equally at 20% for both left and right with approximately 40% of goals coming from through balls. The composition of the final 20% has changed, with dead balls almost doubling in terms of the percentages but in absolute terms only from three goals (all penalties) in 2015/16 to five this season, two penalties and three direct free kicks. 

 The number of goals conceded from long range shots or direct runs at defence by an individual has doubled but these figures again are relatively small – rising from two in 2015/16 to four in 2016/17. One positive for ICT is that no goals have been conceded so far in 2016/17 from own goals or direct passes to the opposition forwards.

Without a glaring weakness accounting for the increase in defensive frailty in Inverness, further analysis is required. The following charts show the areas of the pitch where the opposition played the ball during their goals, including scoring shots. This doesn’t represent individual touches of the ball, just the times opposition played the ball in these areas of the pitch during goalscoring moves. The pitch is divided into 24 boxes, with the ICT goal at the top.


2015/16
2016/17

In 2015/16 a higher percentage of opposition goalscoring moves against took place in the 18 yard box than in 2016/17 – 44.3% against 32.4%. Other significant differences are seen in touches in the ICT half in wide areas – in 2015/16 16.6% of opposition goalscoring moves touched on the wide areas of the ICT half, whereas in 2016/17 the figure was 25.2%.

Looking into midfield, in 2015/16 14.7% of opposition goalscoring moves touched on the midfield areas immediately in the opposition half and then in the ICT half – the ‘centre circle’ areas. In 2016/17 that figure rises to 25.3%.

These figures are a bare analysis but appear to show opposition having greater success at maintaining possession and building attacks on the ICT defence when around the centre circle and moving into the ICT half. The scope of this blog post is not to analyse the performances of ICT's midfield and forward players but the move from having pacier forwards like Miles Storey, Jordan Roberts and Andrea Mbuyi-Mutumbo in 2015/16 to having a forward line based more on aerial targets like Lonsana Doumbaya and Alex Fisher could have resulted in opposition regaining possession in better attacking positions and the forward players not stretching opposition defences and midfield players with attacking runs off the ball.

Another point for further analysis is on the ICT midfield players – how much protection are the ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Richie Foran offering the defence? Ross Draper is typically the Inverness powerhouse in the middle of the park but, at least early in the season, he was utilised in more attacking roles, with his strength and power used against opposition defences rather than their attacking players. Greg Tansey’s performances are widely perceived by fans to have dipped since the transfer speculation linking him with Aberdeen. The players the in the ‘3’ have also interchanged continually through the season with Iain Vigurs, Larnell Cole, Liam Polworth, Billy King, Aaron Doran, Jake Mulraney and, briefly, Ross Draper having filled roles there. A more settled and organised line could provide further pressing and protect ICT further up the pitch.

With Richie Foran promising to be active in the transfer market and the club facing several crucially important matches in the final ten days in January, ICT fans can only hope that the clubs uncharacteristically leaky defence is improved – in the last five years only Dunfermline in 2011/12 with 2.15 had a higher goals conceded per game ratio than the current ICT team.


NOTE
The pitch grids measure the areas of the pitch where the opposition moved the ball during a goal. If the ball is passed from one grid to another, that counts as a ‘score’ for both grids. If a player dribbles from one grid to another both grids are counted. If a ball is kicked from the halfway line into the box and then put into the net then only the boxes at the halfway line and the penalty box are counted.

The author is an enthusiastic amateur, fully open to any comments, positive or negative about the article and any of the measures used in it.


Credits
Radar chart data kindly supplied by superb Twitter analyst and resource @TheSPFLTwitter.
Goalscoring videos for 2015/16 and 2016/17 viewed on YouTube.com

Thanks to @ASutherland1983 for making the playlist for 2016/17.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Should Kouassi Eboue be allowed to join Celtic?

As if a 19 point lead wasn't enough, Celtic have trolled Rangers fans further by actually getting out their chequebook this month to sign Kouassi Eboue for £2.5million.  I'd be lying if I claimed I knew much about the 19 year old Ivorian; transfermarkt.co.uk describes him as a defensive midfielder.  If he does indeed have the potential that Brendan Rodgers has claimed - "I look at (him) with the same feeling I had as when I saw a young Coutinho and a young Sterling" - then presumably he'll be in the team soon enough...in which case another of Celtic's established midfielders is going to see less game time.  Scott Brown?  Stuart Armstrong?  We'll see.

My beef with the signing is not that; it's that its not clear at all how Eboue circumvents work permit rules.  The criteria for a non-EU player is as follows:
- must have played for their country in at least 75% of its competitive matches in the last two years when fit
- their country must be 70th or higher in the FIFA rankings

Well, the Ivory Coast are ranked 34th at the time of writing.  However, Eboue has a grand total of zero caps.  He has had two previous callups to the Elephants, but is yet to play for them.  So on we go to the next step, where according to SFA rules, "where an application does not meet the published criteria, a club may request a panel to consider the player's skills and experience".

The panel takes the following factors into account.  I quote word for word from the SFA's guidance:
- 'to consider whether the player is of the highest calibre'
- 'to consider whether the player is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland'

To recap, Eboue is an uncapped 19 year old who, so far this season, has started less than half the league games of his Russian Premier League side Krasnodar.  Now, it might be rather stringent for me to assume that 'highest calibre' applies to the Messis and Ronaldos of this world, but to stretch the definition this far appears to be pushing one's luck.

As for contributing 'significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland', what to make of that?  From Celtic's own selfish point of view, he might improve their squad and ultimately strengthen their starting lineup.  Moreover, their long-term aim is to sell him for megabucks, which would certainly contribute significantly to their bank balance.  However, if Eboue is a success, he will reduce the potential playing time of other Celtic players including some Scottish ones.  Maybe Armstrong and Brown are untouchable in the short-term, but what about guys like Callum McGregor and Liam Henderson?

So I strongly dispute that Eboue can be described as 'of the highest calibre'.  And I certainly dispute that he will contribute significantly to anything other than Celtic's ongoing hegemony.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't find any other non-EU signing in Scotland that is comparable.  Victor Wanyama was my first reference point, but whilst Kenya's FIFA ranking was between 65 and 100 before he joined Celtic, he had at least hit that 75% target and so his signing is much easier to justify.

But of course it isn't me who makes the decision.  This panel has sat, and apparently has recommended to the SFA that Celtic be allowed to register Eboue.  Apparently he is of 'the highest calibre', and apparently he will 'contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in Scotland'.

Clearly they know more than I do about football.  Because the alternative explanation is that the panel might not have been entirely impartial in their judgement.  But the idea of an SFA process such as this being anything other than transparent and squeaky clean is nothing short of preposterous, obviously.

On the other hand, say Aberdeen had found a 19 year old uncapped non-EU player and wanted to sign him.  I can't help feeling that wouldn't be looked upon favourably.


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, January 12, 2017

League Two for beginners

I think there are plenty of Scottish football fans out there who have a vague interest in what happens in the lower divisions, but not enough time to keep up with what's happening - even more so since the demise of Tell Him He's Pele.  So here's a basic runthrough of where Scottish League Two is at this point.  I'm sure fans of the various clubs will tell me where I've gone wrong!



































HOME






AWAY






TOTAL




FORM
POS
P W D L F A PTS
P W D L F A PTS
P W D L F A PTS GD HOME AWAY TOTAL
1 FORFAR ATHLETIC 9 6 1 2 24 15 19
10 7 2 1 20 13 23
19 13 3 3 44 28 42 16 DWLWW WDWDW WWWDW
2 ARBROATH 9 4 4 1 16 8 16
10 5 4 1 17 11 19
19 9 8 2 33 19 35 14 WWLWX WDWWW WWWXW
3 ELGIN CITY 9 4 1 4 20 12 13
10 6 0 4 24 12 18
19 10 1 8 44 24 31 20 WLWWD WLLLW WWLDW
4 ANNAN ATHLETIC 10 5 1 4 18 15 16
9 2 3 4 12 18 9
19 7 4 8 30 33 25 -3 LWWWL DLLLW LLWWL
5 CLYDE 9 5 2 2 18 14 17
10 2 2 6 11 19 8
19 7 4 8 29 33 25 -4 DWWXL LLLLL LXLLL
6 EDINBURGH CITY 10 2 2 6 11 15 8
9 3 4 2 8 9 13
19 5 6 8 19 24 21 -5 LWDWL DWWXW WWXWL
7 STIRLING ALBION 10 3 4 3 13 14 13
9 2 2 5 16 22 8
19 5 6 8 29 36 21 -7 LDWLW DWLLD LWDLW
8 BERWICK RANGERS 9 2 3 4 13 16 9
10 3 3 4 9 16 12
19 5 6 8 22 32 21 -10 DDWLL LLLLW LLLLW
9 MONTROSE 10 1 5 4 9 18 8
9 4 1 4 11 14 13
19 5 6 8 20 32 21 -12 LDWDL WLLWX WWDXL
10 COWDENBEATH 10 3 1 6 10 14 10
9 2 3 4 13 18 9
19 5 4 10 23 32 19 -9 WWLLL LDDLW LLLWL

The current top three will probably finish the season in those positions, though not necessarily in the same order.  But There's a six point gap between third and fourth...and a six point gap between fourth and bottom spot.  With East Kilbride tearing up the Lowland League, there's a real likelihood that another club will fall through the trapdoor like East Stirlingshire did last season.

Edinburgh City were most people's favourites to exit the SPFL as soon as they'd arrived, and a dreadful start to the season seemed to confirm those fears.  But they've found their feet dramatically, going seven matches unbeaten until last weekend's loss to Arbroath.  While marquee signing Craig Beattie has been largely a non-factor, Joe Mbu's decision to postpone retirement has been a huge boost and the January signing of ex-England u19 captain Josh Walker (who scored once for Aberdeen against Bayern Munich!) is intriguing.  One wouldn't bet against them avoiding the drop.

Bottom spot has changed hands six times in the last six weeks.  Currently its Cowdenbeath at the foot, at risk of their third consecutive relegation.  Liam Fox's revamped side has several names that Scottish football fans will recognise - David McGurn, Burton O'Brien, Chris Turner, Gary Glen and Fraser Mullen among them - and were supposed to be at the top end of the table, but they've struggled mightily with just five league wins.

Berwick Rangers only moved off the bottom by winning at Central Park last weekend, but are at real risk of losing their status as the only English team in the SPFL.  Manager John Coughlin reportedly offered to resign in October after they were knocked out of the Cup by Hawick Royal Albert, but was persuaded to stay on.  The club have been busy already since the transfer window opened as they look to bring in enough quality to stay up.

It's no surprise to see Montrose in trouble; this is their twentieth consecutive season in the fourth tier and it's less than two yearss since they defeated Brora Rangers to preserve their league status.  The manager who saved them, Paul Hegarty, was dismissed in November and replaced by ex-Dunfermline player Stewart Petrie.  Form has improved since, but they are ninth in the table and are in real danger.  An improved record at Links Park, where they've won just twice since mid-February 2016,

The other League Two club to change manager is Stirling Albion, who sacked Stuart McLaren in September after a humiliating home thumping by Elgin showcased the squad's lack of fight and left them with one win from their first seven games.  It took six weeks for them to appoint a successor - ex-St. Johnstone player Dave 'Cuptie' Mackay who takes on his first managerial role in trying circumstances.  Their hopes of a surge into the promotion playoffs may hinge on whether they can hold onto French forward Dylan Bikey, who has scored seven in seven games on an amateur contract.

That Clyde are in this large group seems inexcusable to this writer, particularly given boss Barry Ferguson's penchant for pontificating on other clubs and managers in his newspaper columns.  It's the ex-Scotland skipper's third season at Broadwood, and it seems like he brings in a new team every year.  After looking like emulating last season's run to the playoff final, they've picked up just one point from their last six games and tumbled down the table.

Jim Chapman's Annan Athletic have overtaken Clyde for fourth on goal difference, though they've won consecutive games just once all season.  The loss of a number of experienced players last summer hurt the Borderers and they've done well to keep themselves in mid-table after a big squad turnover.

At the right end of the league, Gary Bollan's Forfar Athletic look a good bet to return to League One at the first time of asking, having opened up a seven point gap at the top of the table.  The Loons won their first seven league games and have led the division since opening day.

Behind them, Arbroath and Elgin City are very likely to take up two of the three playoff spots.  Dick Campbell is a seasoned operator in the lower leagues and has built an experienced squad at Gayfield that are grinding out results.  Elgin were hopeless away from Borough Briggs last season but this term it has been their home form that has let them down and prevented them from challenging Forfar; in ex-Inverness striker Shane Sutherland they have the division's leading scorer with thirteen goals.



Thursday, December 29, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Inverness are in a mess
With the Highland Derby coming up this weekend, Richie Foran reached for the cliche cannon after this defeat: "if you are a boy, don't get on that bus to Dingwall.  If you are a man then good as we need brave men now".  That's the sort of guff a man under pressure starts spouting.

The stats make grim reading for Inverness Caley Thistle.  Winless in nine games, their worst run in a decade.  One win in thirteen.  The worst defensive record in the Premiership, with one clean sheet all season.  Their lowest points total after twenty games in any of their twenty-three seasons as a club, in any division.

And the problems on the park are much the same as they were in August.  There's no pace in attack.  The lone striker is constantly isolated as no-one gets up to support him quickly enough.  Players are being played out of position (Liam Polworth on the wing?!).  The midfield aren't protecting the defence well enough, and that plus individual errors means soft goals are frequently being conceded, often when the team are on top.

The second half against Motherwell was particularly galling; ICT had dominated the first half, but fell behind to a wind-assisted Craig Clay strike that completely caught out Owain Fon Williams.  Spooked by this, the home side stopped trying to outplay Motherwell and instead resorted to thirty-five minutes of aimless hoofball and long throws.  Let's be clear; wind doesn't stop anyone from passing the ball on the deck.

At what point does the buck stop with the manager?  The change in approach wasn't a deliberate move by Foran, but was a desperate response from players who lack confidence and/or heart at the moment.  The failure of his senior players to show any leadership was deeply depressing, but so too was the manager's inability to change things from the touchline.

For the record, Motherwell were also pretty hopeless.  But they won.  Inverness are in complete freefall.  That four year contract (yes, you read that right) that rookie Foran was given in the summer looks pretty daft right now. LS



Hearts make Kris Boyd eat his words
It wasn't clear what was giving the Hearts fans the most pleasure on Tuesday night - the 4-0 shellacking of Kilmarnock or the opportunity to goad Kris Boyd for his foolish tabloid comments about Ian Cathro.  "You're getting f***** by a laptop", they chanted.

Of course, one swallow does not make a summer; just as Cathro's slow start did not make him the next John McGlynn, so one impressive victory does not make him the next Alex Ferguson.  But Hearts looked impressive, albeit against a Kilmarnock side who were toothless in attack and who offered zero resistance at the back.

Lee Clark bemoaned the lack of quality available to him after the game, and insisted new players will arrive in January.  One can understand his wish for reinforcements - the defence, albeit shorn of experienced heads like Miles Addison and Scott Boyd, were a mess, whilst up front Boyd looked out of shape again and Nathan Tyson has yet to score for the club or look like doing so.

That said, Clark has signed seventeen players permanently or on loan since the end of last season.  His request for more will have raised an eyebrow or two in the Rugby Park boardroom.  Some loanees will leave next month and create a little space, but how many chances should the Englishman be given to completely overhaul this squad? LS



Christie grabs his opportunity
As a Caley Thistle fan who still dreamt that Ryan Christie might return on loan in January, the news that he was outstanding against Ross County was bittersweet.  The 21 year old has been on the fringes of the Celtic squad for much of the season but took full advantage of his rare start, impressing hugely before being replaced on the hour.

Given his display, one wonders if Brendan Rodgers' decision was a tactical one or rather a move to save the player's legs - after all there is a rather bigger game coming up on Saturday.  It would probably still be a surprise if Christie was to start at Ibrox, but Tom Rogic remains a big doubt for that game, potentially leaving a vacancy in that number 10 role.  Christie has certainly staked his claim for it.  And yeah, there's no chance he'll be coming back north next month. LS



Rangers and St. Johnstone show some flexibility
So it turns out that Rangers can play a formation other than 4-3-3; with Lee Wallace injured and no natural left-back available, they surprised everyone in Perth by starting with a back three and with James Tavernier and Barrie McKay as very attack-minded wing backs.  And it worked for the early stages, with McKay's goal as reward for their dominance.

But credit to Tommy Wright for then switching St. Johnstone to a similar system, and to his players for being flexible enough to make the change.  Whilst they only got a foothold back in the game thanks to a horrendous error from Rob Kiernan (who was linked with a £2million move in January by some crazy newspaper), they matched Rangers after that and thoroughly deserved the draw - a result which looks all the more impressive given that Murray Davidson was out and Danny Swanson only fit enough for a late cameo.  St. Johnstone are still unbeaten this season against Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen. LS



Can Thistle find some consistency at last?
Back-to-back wins have catapulted Partick Thistle up to sixth place, which makes this blogger's preseason prediction that they would finish in that position look slightly less ridiculous now.  That said, they are still closer to bottom spot than they are to fifth, and there's a long way to go.

The question is whether this wee spurt is sustainable.  Plenty of Thistle players are on form just now; Kris Doolan appears to be on one of his occasional goalscoring streaks; Chris Erskine is playing with his shoulders high and his head up; Ryan Edwards is dominating the midfield with his energy; Adam Barton is strolling games at centre-back; Tomas Cerny's return in goal has lifted confidence hugely.

But consistency has been Thistle's problem ever since they returned to the top flight.  They have Kilmarnock at home next, a very winnable game; a victory would give them significant breathing space at the bottom going into the winter break.  But just how much would you bet on Partick Thistle winning a third consecutive game? LS



Accies just aren't winning enough games
The stats don't look good for Hamilton Accies; defeat at Pittodrie leaves them ten games without a win, and their only victory in sixteen games was actually against Aberdeen at home.  There have of course been a lot of draws, which is why they're still not bottom (albeit on goal difference) but it's not looking good.

Accies do things their own way, of course; working on a tight budget, they remain determined to develop their own talent  four academy products started this game, though three of them are longstanding first team regulars.  The fourth, Scott McMann, has struggled since getting into the team and was sent off late on.

The trouble for Martin Canning is that there is no James McCarthy or James McArthur on the horizon.  Other youngsters like Darren Lyon, Greg Docherty (both injured for this game) and Eamonn Brophy (a used sub) will probably end up making a living in the lower end of the Premiership or the Championship, but will not go further in the game.  Meanwhile, Canning hasn't found a signing to match the likes of Tony Andreu, who shone for his predecessor Alex Neil.

Canning's record as Accies manager is quite staggering - this was his seventy-sixth league match in charge, the equivalent of two seasons, and he has just sixteen wins in that time.  It's a small miracle Accies are still a top flight club; it's also a small miracle that they aren't bottom at the moment.  But this could be the year they finally go down. 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.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic's reserves struggle to step up
Celtic continued their waltz towards title number six in a row with a routine yet nervy win over Dundee at Celtic Park on Saturday.  Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton scored the goals that made the difference and it was the third game in a row with a goal from last season's top scorer.

Brendan Rodgers rang the changes and it made for a lack of width for Celtic as Gary Mackay-Steven and Ryan Christie both seemed to want to cut inside, leaving what seemed like four central attacking midfielders.  The absence of first-choice full-backs Kieran Tierney (injured) and Mikael Lustig (benched) was also noticeable.  Christian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre both had tough shifts down their respective flanks and couldn't offer the same attacking prowess.  So Celtic toiled as they tried to break down Dundee.

The suspended Scott Brown was also missed; Nir Bitton lacks his bite, but the Israeli's goal, a finish as good as you are likely to see from outside the area, somewhat made up for it.

The best domestic start for any Celtic manager ever continues to roll on although the last three games have been a bit of a slog.  Big matches against Hamilton, Partick Thistle and Ross County and the small matter of a visit to Ibrox are still to come before 2017.  Twelve points out of twelve and the league is over. PF



Aberdeen stutter at the wrong time
Last Tuesday night, Aberdeen lost the opportunity of closing the gap to second placed Rangers when floodlight failure hit Pittodrie Stadium.  This weekend, the Dons once again failed to add to their own league points tally in a match that we may end up reflecting on as the game that lights finally went out on their tenure as the second best side in Scottish Football.

With minutes remaining in the match, Aberdeen had worked hard to overcome an early deficit.  While other strikers in this league earn plaudits for their goalscoring feats, Liam Boyce continues to quietly go about his business for Ross County; his deft poach from Michael Gardyne's cross saw him also slide into first place in the top scorers list, the first man to double figures in the Premiership so far.  However, the Dons managed to rein back the Staggies after a Shay Logan cross flashed across the box for Niall McGinn to convert at the back post.


With ten minutes remaining, a key moment in the match; a desperate lunge by Kenny van der Weg brought down Jonny Hayes and refer Craig Thomson immediately brandished a red card.  With Ross County down to ten men, it appeared as if Aberdeen had been given an opportunity to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.  Instead, a late cross into the box was nodded down by Andrew Davies and Ryan Dow reacted first with a looping header for the winner.

So, a valuable win for Ross County, which sees them return to the top six of the season following a variable run of form over the last couple of months.  As for Aberdeen, they now fall seven points behind Rangers and, with a transfer window round the corner that may see the latter strengthen further, the former will struggle to find a way to close that gap in future. MI



Should Partick Thistle write off the Celtic game?
If anything, Partick Thistle will feel they dropped two points at Tynecastle, given their second half dominance after Sean Welsh's equalizer.  However, the draw keeps them bottom of the table as we head into the busy festive period.

And Thistle's is busier than most, because on Tuesday they play at Celtic Park - the fixture which, for the second year running, was scandalously rearranged so the Champions could send their reserves to play in a friendly.  That will be the second of five games in just fifteen days before the winter break.  They then have a trip to Dingwall on Friday night followed by home games against Dundee and Kilmarnock.

Those three games are of utmost importance to Thistle's hopes of avoiding the drop.  In contrast, their infamous record against Celtic is well known; no wins in their last thirty meetings since January 1994, and nineteen consecutive defeats.  With the hopes of getting anything from this one slim-to-zero, should Alan Archibald rest his first team to keep them fresh for the critical clashes to come?  It must be tempting, though a shellacking could wreck club morale regardless of who starts. LS


Little for ICT to be happy about despite a draw
An away point is always a decent result in this league (unless you're one of the Gruesome Twosome), but it was about the only positive Caley Thistle could take away from Rugby Park.  They'd be bottom of the league but for Gary Warren's late equalizer, and could be there on Christmas Day unless they take something from Ibrox next week.

There was again precious little to reassure Inverness supporters that the rest of the season won't be a fight against the drop.  Injury problems seemed to have eased, but such was the strangeness of Richie Foran's lineup that this author queried whether the seven on the bench might have beaten the eleven in the starting lineup in a match.

Foran clearly wanted to stop the bleeding, but the worst defence in the league still managed to concede despite five defenders starting the game.  And as a consequence the team's attacking threat was further blunted, especially with no natural wide players in the team.  Add in a knee injury to the team's only likely goalscorer, Lonsana Doumbouya, and the future does not look bright.

This author has been on the brink of writing a 'Foran Out' blog for a few weeks now.  Given that ICT have now gone seven games without a win, it may come relatively soon.  However, there are some bookies offering 10-1 on them going down, which I'd say are pretty generous odds.  LS


St. Johnstone struggle at home again
It has been a weird old season for St. Johnstone so far - one where they are unbeaten in five games against Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers and could have won all five, yet where four of their five league defeats have come to Inverness, Kilmarnock, Partick and Ross County.  Consistently inconsistent and all that.

Most curious is the complete desertion of their home form.  The Perth Saints have a deserved reputation for being difficult to beat, and no more so at McDiarmid Park.  Until now.  They've won three out of nine league games in Perth, and the latter three of the aforementioned losses have come on their home turf.  At least they managed to salvage a point against Motherwell, but it was another poor result from their perspective.

Next up are Rangers at home.  Perhaps, given the nature of the opponent and the size of the travelling support, Tommy Wright can, and should, convince his players to treat it like an away game? LS



Waghorn's return to form a welcome boost for Rangers
After two morale boosting wins at Ibrox against Aberdeen and Hearts, Rangers knew that a lot of that good work would have been undone had they slipped up at New Douglas Park on Friday night. Given some of the performances they've put in away from home, that was always a distinct possibility.

 The surprise in the starting lineup was Martyn Waghorn’s return to the team, and boy has he been missed. Not that a team who spends £1.8m on a striker should miss a Geordie with hamstrings made of paper, but having a natural goalscorer makes all the difference in these types of games. Rangers took their chances and looked home and hosed until Andy Halliday had a brain fart at right back.

 This could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the race for second with the other contenders dropping points. Aberdeen look horribly inconsistent just now and Hearts’ new manager is bound to take some time to find his feet. If Waghorn can show the kind of form that he showed in the Championship then what is already a nice 7 point cushion could quickly become unassailable.

The most disappointing part of the game was the quiet performance of Ali Crawford. He’s been great to watch this season and will surely go on to bigger and better things. A game on live TV under the lights would have been the perfect opportunity to show off his talents, but credit to Rangers for keeping him under wraps. IM


Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

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.