Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Ian Baraclough Making the Right Noises





I already like the sound of Ian Baraclough. While he dropped a few clichés, stock answers and blind optimism into his first interview as Motherwell manager, Baraclough spoke well about his preferred style of football, his thirst for developing youth, his previous successes and his desire to see that optimism spread throughout the club.

The former Sligo Rovers manager was unveiled around the same time the club announced some encouraging developments regarding the financial future of the club. A debt-free Motherwell on a sound financial footing and owned by the supporters – or, at least, on the road to community ownership – gives Baraclough every opportunity for his ambitions to be realised.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday, the new manager was treated to a match that perfectly displayed the strengths and weaknesses of the current playing side.

With the hosts trailing 1-0 following a poor first half, Lionel Ainsworth came off the bench to make an impact for the second week in-a-row, setting up John Sutton to score from close range, before his strike partner Henrik Ojamaa outpaced and cleverly ran across Ross County defender Steven Saunders before drilling the ball low into the net.

These goals turned the game on its head, however, it was another common aspect of the Fir Park side’s season that will be of concern to the new manager. With Motherwell defending in numbers late in the game, Tony Dingwall appeared unmarked in the box to slam the ball past Dan Twardzik for the equaliser. While there was no one slip or poor clearance that led to the goal, no fewer than eight Motherwell defenders are in the box at the time and not one of them gets within around ten yards of Dingwall.

Baraclough’s introduction to management was a short and unsuccessful spell at Scunthorpe United, initially taking over as caretaker but he was given the job full-time after some impressive results. Less than five months later he was relieved of his duties with the club in the relegation zone.

Around a year later he was appointed manager of Sligo Rovers where he admitted how tough it would be to further the progress of his predecessor Paul Cook. During his first interview as Motherwell manager – which you can see in full here - Baraclough made similar comments about following Stuart McCall.

“I am delighted and find myself in a privileged position. I’ve done some research into the history of the club and I know how well the football club has done, certainly over recent years,” he said. “It will be a hard task to take over from Stuart but one I’m very excited to take up.”

Despite the perceived enormity of the task, Baraclough went on to secure the League of Ireland Premier Division for Sligo, their first for 35 years, before leading the side to victory the FAI Cup and to their first ever triumph in the Setanta Sport Cup – a cross-border competition contested by clubs from both nations on the island.

While nobody in Scottish football will believe the 41-year-old’s claim that he can repeat that success at Motherwell, you have to at least admire the positivity coming from the man and  his comments make more sense given his more recent explanation.

Believing you are inferior to the competition is no way to prepare yourself, be it for a one-off match, a cup run or for an entire domestic season. His priority for now, though, is to improve the current players, add some of his own in January and steer the club clear of the relegation and play-off places.

Baraclough built a reputation for being shrewd in the transfer market at Sligo after losing his top players to financially superior opposition while working on a tight budget, something he must also become accustomed to at Motherwell. He claims his range of contacts within the game are “vast” and will need to exercise these effectively if he is to implement his preferred style of play successfully.

“I want players to be comfortable with the ball,” he told MFC TV. “I don’t want us to give up possession easily. I think the more possession you have of the football, the more chance you have of winning games.”

As well as his willingness to dominate possession, the new Motherwell manager is known for being tactically flexible, tailoring his strategy to nullify the strengths of and exploit the weaknesses of the opposition, which is something smaller clubs often require from their manager.

His preferred formation at Sligo was 4-4-2 in a league dominated by 4-2-3-1, a formation also popular in the Scottish Premiership at the moment . It should also be noted that McCall used the 4-4-2 effectively during his time at Motherwell. Though often dubbed ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘dead’, the 4-4-2 is alive and well and not just in the sense of two banks of four with a strike partnership. In fact, the 4-4-2 – as with any other formation - has many variations depending on who is positioned where and continues to be used throughout football, even if less so at the very top level of the game.

Whatever the formation and style of play, Baraclough will be required to strengthen the current Motherwell squad if he is to be nearly as successful as he is aiming to be. Defence must be a priority. They've lost 27 goals in 16 league matches this season. And it is not only the amount of goals, but the way in which they have conceded them, which has been the main issue for Motherwell.

Mark O’Brien, on loan from Derby County, is young and needs someone to guide him through matches. Stephen McManus, who is older and is club-captain, is expected to take on this role yet plays like someone who himself needs talked through games.

Cover, if not strengthening, at full-back is also required. Craig Reid and Steven Hammell are both currently injured and attempts to have Fraser Kerr and Zaine Francis-Angol deputise have been unsuccessful.

Further forward Motherwell possess some good attacking talent but may need to strengthen in the centre of the park if they are to play the possession game that Baraclough professes. Paul Lawson has failed to hit the heights expected of him and Keith Lasley is grinding slowly towards the end of his career.

Finally, if the new boss cannot turn John Sutton back into the twenty-goal striker he was last season, then the striking options will also need strengthening. Lee Erwin is raw and has shown much potential, but it would perhaps be too much to ask him to become the focal point of the attack of a struggling side.

In the short-term, the new Motherwell manager must improve the current squad by adding players and improving the ones already there. In the longer-term, he will be expected to challenge for European places, make some progress in the cup competitions and promote youth. There's no point in sounding like the right man if you're not going to back it up with substance.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

County Still Searching For Defensive Combination

When Jim McIntyre took over as manager in Dingwall, he inherited a side bottom of the table with zero points, level with St Mirren, and a goal difference of -11. Ten league matches later the side have amassed 8 points, the same as St Mirren, and have seen their goal difference dip to -19.

It must be noted that the Ross County squad under McIntyre’s predecessor had swelled to ridiculous proportions and he, therefore, cane be afforded time to sift through his options. Matters were made even worse when another 3 players were added on transfer deadline day, shortly before McIntyre's appointment - although he has frequently used all 3 – before he added a further 5 of his own.

Ross County were deficient at both ends of the park early in the season and these problems have continued under the reign of McIntyre. The goals from Yoann Arquin and Darren Maatsen in the defeat to Dundee United on Friday night were the 5th and 6th league goals - of their 15 this season - that has failed to alter the outcome of the match.

The Staggies have only taken the lead in just 4 of their league matches this season and have also failed to take the lead in three cup outings. More often than not, they have found themselves further behind before finding the net – if they do at all - rendering many of their goals meaningless in terms of points accumulated.

If your team has only managed 6 first half goals in the league so far – with 3 of those coming in a 3-0 victory - then ideally your defence should be resolute, allowing the few goals you can muster the chance of being converted into points.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Ross County have conceded the first goal in 11 of their league matches, have conceded a total of 34 goals – and average of 2.27 per game – and have only managed one clean sheet in 18 matches across all competitions.

This is partially down to a lack of quality in their squad - County have limited resources and can only afford a certain level of player - but is also partially a consequence of the many combinations they fielded in a perpetually unsettled back four. Paul Quinn - signed by McIntyre shortly after taking over – may have performed admirably so far in a backline devoid of confidence, but his pairing with Lewis Toshney on Friday night was the club’s 10th different central-defensive partnership this season† .

Before then Scott Boyd had partnered Timothy Dressen, Jordi Balk, Ben Frempah, Darren Barr and Paul Quinn, while Frempah had previously lined up alongside Dressen, Jackson Irvine, Paul Quinn and Darren Barr (albeit for 4 minutes towards the end of their match versus Aberdeen) before Toshney and Quinn were selected for the defeat to Dundee United.

And while we can blame Derek Adams more than McIntyre for County’s scattergun approach to recruitment this season, McIntyre has been responsible for testing 9 of these 10 partnerships in the centre of defence.

The situation at full-back has hardly been much better. Toshney, Barr, Balk, Richie Brittain and Jim Fenlon have all been used on the right this season, while Barr, Fenlon, Graham Carey, Uros Celcer and Jamie Reckord have been tried at left-back*.

Three of the defenders signed in the summer – Dressen, Balk and Celcer – have already agreed to cancel their contracts, suggesting that a more meticulous transfer policy in the summer no doubt would have benefited the club. Rather than having 14 defenders on the wage bill at one point this season, they surely could have veered more towards quality over quantity before it got to that stage.

A similar argument can be made about the goalkeepers. Last season Kilmarnock were guilty of spending part of their budget on two first-team goalkeepers and have now released one and gone with young Conor Brennan as back-up instead. This allows them to use much needed funds to recruit for other positons.

The man Kilmarnock released, Antonio Reguero, initially made his way to Victoria Park to provide competition for Mark Brown. After a short, uninspiring run in the side, Reguero was dropped and hasn’t appeared since. And while Brown has, in the past, been known as a steady pair of hands at Premiership level, he has looked increasingly bereft of confidence as the weeks have progressed, culminating in Friday’s performance.

Jim McIntyre may be some distance off the squad and starting line-up he desires, but he surely now has to work on establishing some continuity  with his first XI, especially in defence, and must only bring in players during the next transfer window that improve the starting line-up, rather than bulk up an already overweight squad.

† Ross County central-defensive partnerships this season:
Boyd-Dressen x3
Balk-Boyd x3
Frempah-Boyd x3
Barr-Boyd
Barr-Frempah (for last 4 minutes of Aberdeen match)
Frempah-Dressen
Irvine-Frempah
Quinn-Frempah
Boyd-Quinn x5
Toshney-Quinn

*Defenders who have played for Ross County this season (appearances in brackets):
- Scott Boyd (13), Darren Barr (6 overall, 4 in defence), Ben Frempah (6), Jim Fenlon (4), Lewis Toshney (7), Paul Quinn (6), Jamie Reckord (3),  Graham Carey (13 overall, 5 in defence), Uros Celcer (5), Timothy Dressen (3), Jordi Balk (4), Richie Brittain (13 overall, 3 in defence) 




Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gomis Red Card Ruins Intriguing Cup Tie

After the meaty challenges of their match versus Rangers last week – both the one punished with a red card and the others that should have been – it was disappointing to see Hearts captain Morgaro Gomis dismissed for a two-footed lunge on Scott Brown with only seven minutes gone in Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie.

Even more disappointing given the vulnerability of Celtic immediately after European matches, with Ronny Deila’s side winning only one domestic match following a Champions League or Europa League night so far this season. Celtic looked far from impressive when they went down 3-1 at home to Red Bull Salzburg on Thursday night and, with Hearts still preserving a 100% record going into Sunday’s match, there was a feeling that they had the potential to not only vastly improve on the 7-0 between the two sides in exactly the same fixture one year ago, but that there was the potential to upset the champions and progress to the next round.

Hearts didn’t necessarily start the game on the front foot, but they looked assured in possession, particularly when passing the ball out from the back – with the exception of a terrible Alim Ozturk pass – and showed that they had talent in forward areas to at least concern the Celtic defence.

Even though you may be aware of my persuasion when it comes to Scottish football, I think I can speak for most supporters of the game in this country when I say that this match was set up as a cracker for the neutral. This fixture is invariably a fiery encounter with much history and promised to be a lot closer than it eventually turned out.

I had hoped to be posting something about two of the more tactically astute managers clashing for the second time this season, be it through describing the way one side as a whole dominated possession or even the way one individual’s movement settled a chess-like cup tie. Instead I’m writing about an idiotic challenge that ruined the match before it had started.

Thanks Morgaro Gomis.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Jonny Hayes: The SPFL's New Most Versitile Player

Dundee 2 Aberdeen 1

Another clever set-piece – one designed to catch the Aberdeen defence off-guard – and a customary strike from David Clarkson gave Dundee the victory at Dens Park in a pulsating Scottish Cup tie. It was, however, the man-of-the-match performance of Aberdeen’s Jonny Hayes that caught the eye.

Aberdeen seemed to confuse their opponents from the off. Hayes lined up at kick-off as if he was going to operate on the left but, as soon as the game started, drifted into one of the holding midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1. The Dons immediately created a chance from kick-off and were inches away from taking the lead. This is an unfamiliar role for the former Inverness star but he slotted in seamlessly, dropping deep to collect the ball from the Aberdeen defenders before launching attacks.

But this was by no means the full extent of Hayes’s contribution. In a tactic reminiscent of Guardolia’s Bayern Munich full backs arcing into the centre of the pitch to become holding midfielders when their side have possession, Hayes performed what was almost the inverse: bursting up towards the left wing when Niall McGinn drifted into central areas.

The Aberdeen equaliser came when Hayes collected the ball in the middle of the park and drove at the Dundee defence before teeing up McGinn and was also found covering at left-back when required. He even popped up on the right wing in the second half to go on a mazy run down the touchline and again set up a teammate, this time Adam Rooney.

With Aberdeen again chasing an equaliser, now into injury-time, Hayes found McGinn once more, this time with a cross-field pass but the Northern Irish international’s fierce strike forced an incredible save from Scott Bain in the Dundee goal.

Hayes was unfortunate to find himself on the losing team and will no doubt be happy with his individual performance. It will be interesting to see if his manager continues to deploy him as such in the continued absence of Willo Flood and Barry Robson.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What They Said: Deila & Hughes

Ronny Deila

I enjoy listening to Ronny Deila pre- and post-match. He is a modern tactician with a methodical approach to all aspects of the game, which is evident whenever he faces the media. Even after each one of their shocking Champions League efforts he cut a reasoned figure in a difficult situation. After his side laboured to a 1-1 draw against a newly-promoted Dundee, however, even he was struggling to find any acceptable excuses.

When referring to his central defence, Deila stated that ”...you can’t expect too much from young players”. This excuse would maybe carry some substance had Celtic actually started the match with Eoghan O’Connell and Jason Denayer. In reality, O’Connell took to the field at half-time for Adam Matthews (with the amount of time the Welsh full-back spend on the treatment table a separate defensive concern) and, moreover, Denayer is currently valued at around £10m and tipped to be the future of a highly-rated Belgian national side. Besides, the young centre-back pairing actually managed a clean sheet over their forty-five minutes on the pitch together, aiding their side in winning the half and tying the match.

The truth appears to be something closer to the following: shortly after arriving at the club, Deila identified that defence was one of the club’s strongest areas - choosing only to supplement it with the loan signing on Jason Denayer - before identifying the attacking areas as the priority to strengthen. Now though, he has realised that his prized asset in this area, Virgil van Djik, no longer wants to be at the club; that Efe Ambrose, cuts more and more of a nervous figure with each passing appearance; and that Emilio Izaguirre ran up the wing sometime in the past year and has never returned.

Joking aside, on the rare occasions when the Honduran left-back does return to fulfil his defensive duties, his concentration and positioning cannot be relied upon. Deila identified this after the match: “We were too open, especially on the left-side”, which gave Dundee pair Phil Roberts and Martin Boyle plenty of freedom on that side at different points in the match and came very close to securing all three points for the Dees.

This was even apparent in the opening seconds of the match: Straight from kick-off, Dundee launched the ball into Celtic’s left-back area where Izaguirre was caught napping. Denayer managed to cover this time but conceded a corner from which James McPake gave his side the lead. After only seconds played, Celtic were 1-0 down due to a blunder from the once highly-rated full-back.

Celtic have now gone two games without a win in the Premiership, which extends to four games in all competitions, and there is a growing discontent among their supporters regarding Deila’s ability. The Norwegian was expected to come in and quickly assemble a side - spending very little money in the process - to qualify for the Champions League. At the moment he is struggling to get the champions anywhere near the top of their domestic league.

John Hughes

The pretenders to Celtic’s throne are currently Inverness, though their boss is adamant his club are fighting a relegation battle. “I very much doubt it”, Hughes claimed when questioned about sustaining their current run, which sees them unbeaten after five matches and yet to concede a goal. A run which also includes a home win over relegation-rivals Celtic. “We’re going to try as hard as we can...whatever it takes to stay in the league .”

John Hughes’s vocabulary is often cliché-driven and this is yet another. This is a type of deflection used frequently by managers of overachieving clubs, attempting to play down expectations. Maybe newly-promoted Hamilton – who have only one less points than the Highlanders as it stands – can be forgiven for retaining modest aims despite their start, but are we to believe that the height of this current Inverness side’s ambition is to avoid relegation in the weakest Scottish top-flight in living memory?

Inverness have recorded top-six finishes in the previous two seasons and may have finished higher than 5th last season had they not lost momentum from their manager abandoning them mid-season. Furthermore, Inverness have one of the most settled and balanced squads in the division and possess enough quality all over the field to cause problems in any given match this season.

It sounds to me that this is an obvious attempt at reverse-psychology by Hughes in order to take the pressure off his players, thus pre-empting the media hype. The trouble is that he has over-compensated and instead just sounds like he’s talking nonsense.

Friday, 29 August 2014

SPFL Betting Preview

Premiership

Considering their respective form going into the weekend fixtures, Aberdeen and Motherwell’s prices appear slightly short. These are the two clubs that finished in the immediate places behind champions Celtic last season and, as a result, their odds are shorter for their home ties than they perhaps should be.

Motherwell have been battling with a fluctuating injury list since the season began and Fraser Kerr’s suspension - for his inexcusable challenge on Jamie Hamill in the recent defeat by Kilmarnock – means that Mark O’Brien, on loan from Derby County, will likely step in for his debut. Other than the untested 21-year-old central defender, Steven McManus and Craig Reid are the only recognised first-team defenders available for selection, with Stuart Carswell filling in as the makeshift left-back.

Motherwell have only managed a solitary victory in six matches in all competitions this season – which involved a two-legged affair against part-time Icelanders that appear to spend more time practicing celebrations than they do practicing ball retention – and have lost all of their last three league matches.

They welcome St. Johnstone to Fir Park on Saturday. The Saints may lack a little firepower right now but so do the home side, and the likes of MacLean, Wotherspoon and O’Halloran, as well as new recruit Brian Graham, should be able to take advantage of that improvised Motherwell back-line. I expect St. Johnstone, fresh off their victory over Aberdeen last week, to take the three points with similar comfort to Inverness a few weeks back. Back St. Johnstone to win with McBookie @21/20.

Aberdeen’s recent form has been equally as poor as Motherwell’s. They have lost four of their last five matches – although two of those came in a Europa League qualifier against a superior Real Sociedad – and have only managed two league goals in three league matches so far, both of those goals coming in their win over Kilmarnock.

Partick Thistle, who travel to Pittodrie on Saturday, may have lost on three separate occasions to Aberdeen last season, however, the Glasgow club eventually recorded a win over the Dons with a 3-1 victory in the final meeting. The early season form of the sides suggests that Thistle are the team to back as they have found the net in all four of their matches so far this season, only losing one of those. That said, I’m slightly less confident of outright victory than I am with St. Johnstone, so instead I’ll be looking at Double Chance Draw/Partick Thistle @ 21/20 or Partick Thistle to win (Draw no bet) @27/10.

Championship

Livingston are unbeaten in the four matches since their defeat at Easter Road on the opening weekend of the Championship season, winning three of those. Although according to the BBC, they are unbeaten in their last five after recording two 4-1 victories over Hearts in the same night.

Conversely, Dumbarton have lost four-in-a-row and have conceded fourteen goals in the process. In fact, with the exception of a 1-0 victory over Brechin City in the first round of the League Cup, the Sons have conceded at least three goals in every match so far this season (2-3,1-3,0-4,1-4,2-3).  This includes their twelve-minute capitulation versus Hibernian on Tuesday evening and suggests that an in-form Livingston side may be too much for them come Saturday. Back Livingston to win @ 13/10.

League One

Lastly, expect goals at Stair Park. On Tuesday, Stranraer’s leaky defence cost them a place in the next round of the League Cup and edged the scoreline above the 2.5 line - the fourth consecutive match of theirs that this has happened. In fact, if we stretch the stat back into last season, eleven of their last thirteen have broken the 2.5 goals barrier.

They take on a Dunfermline side who, after a shaky start to their League One campaign, are now beginning to find the net with increasing frequency. Their last three matches have ended in three goals or more, which means I’ll be backing Over 2.5 Goals @ 7/10.