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.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What They Said: Wright, Adams & Deila

Tommy Wright

“He knows how to link it up, and probably doesn’t get enough goals because of the unselfish work he does outside of the box”, said St. Johnstone manager, Tommy Wright, of Steven MacLean after his winning goal on Saturday. The former Dons forward had earlier struck the post before he netted the winner against his former club. Despite this, and his memorable goal in last season’s Scottish Cup final, it is without doubt his intelligence outside the box that is his greatest contribution to the team.

As well as dropping deep to link midfield with attack, MacLean assisted in bringing about the prolific form of Stevie May last season. There is no doubt the sale of the under-21 international to Sheffield Wednesday has left the Perth side a little lightweight in attack, but to expect MacLean to fill the void vacated by May – as some have suggested - would be to confuse his role in the side.

Granted, for Saturday’s winner, he may have started the move outside the area before finding space within to finish, however, what is required is a strike partner to share the goals with him, rather than him becoming the twenty-goals-a-season striker himself. This is not to say that he shouldn’t be adding to his goals from last season, more that he requires someone with complimentary attributes to work alongside.

When questioned about any recruitment in this area, Wright joked that “Shaun Goater’s gone. It’ll not be him”, while telling of a supporter stopping him in the street to enquire about the alleged new signing. “Are you for real? 43[-years-old] and two stone heavier than me!”, continued Wright before confirming that they were no further forward with any targets.

Derek Adams

“We started really well and Dundee United score against the run of the play…” assessed Derek Adams after their 2-1 weekend defeat to Dundee United. A similar defence of dominating the game for thirty-five minutes and individual errors costing the team was peddled after the defeat to Kilmarnock. Fair enough, but that still leaves the majority of the match where you failed to dominate. At home.

This time around, Ross County travelled to Tannadice and, to be fair to Adams, his side were in control when guilty duo Yoann Arquin and Jake Jervis passed up enticing chances with the score poised at 1-1. “Performance-wise, we were excellent today…”, added Adams. Forgive me, but aren’t defensive mistakes and horrendous finishing part of the performance?

There did appear – although there is only so much you can decipher from criminally short highlights that fail to convey the ebbs and flows of a match – to be some sort of team forming. He has a left-sided full-back in Uros Celcer that seems willing and able to push forward. Just ahead of him is Joe Carlde, known for cutting inside on to his right foot, which allowed the duo to double up on United full-back Keith Watson.

This can make make for a perfect blend when pulled off correctly and, added to this, as we saw on Saturday, is Graham Carey bursting from central midfield, instinctively drifting towards his more natural left side. The goal, as well as the two missed sitters, came from combination play between two of these three and if Adams can foster similarly strong partnerships across his line-up, his team will surely start to pick up wins.

Starting slowly in the top flight is becoming a familiar story for the Staggies though, and much of this is a consequence of the Vladimir Romanov-esque signing policy favoured by Adams. Including loans, no fewer than eleven players have arrived in Dingwall this summer, taking Adams’s total to an incredible forty in the last five transfer windows.

The previous two campaigns have followed similar patters: finding themselves bottom - save for a club in crisis - at the turn of the year before recruiting even more players in January and finishing the season more than comfortably out of the reach of the relegation and play-off spots. Though he managed some continuity in the starting line up during their opening SPL campaign, last season saw Adams struggle to find his best line-up for the first few months before another overhaul of the squad in January.

Managers often bemoan the notoriously difficult January transfer window but it is there that Adams seems to do his best work and whether or not the same happens this time, time will tell. What is apparent is that Derek Adams is still unsure of his starting eleven and that if Ross County don’t begin to pick up results soon, they are headed for another bleak start to their winter.

Ronny Deila

This quote was not taken from the weekend’s post-match interviews but is worthy of inclusion all the same. On Celtic’s upcoming second-leg Champions League qualifier, Ronny Deila started off by, rightly, talking up the occasion. "This is the most important night of this season. The biggest. I can't wait. It's been a long 10 weeks of hard work, ups and downs, and now we're here at the final moment, the moment of decision. We have to go out and attack the game”. He then seemed to completely forget Celtic’s much-publicised and fiercely-debated route to this stage. “If we go through, we will have shown that we belong in the Champions League because we've been good enough to qualify. That is the main thing."

Really?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

SPFL Betting Preview

Premiership

My first bet for the weekend is to back Callum McGregor to score each-way against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. Kris Commons was the standout bet of this kind last season but hasn’t shown the same instincts so far this time around and was benched for Celtic’s recent clash in Slovenia. His odds of 15/4 offer little value.

McGregor’s accurate striking ability, coupled with a shoot-on-sight policy, has seen him net four times in seven matches, with two of those breaking the deadlock. His loan spell at Notts County saw him score nine of his twelve goals before the turn of the year, so I’ll be backing him more often than not until he shows signs of slowing.

The obvious argument against this bet is that Inverness currently sit unbeaten at the top of the table unbeaten and are yet to concede a goal. However, Celtic have had little trouble finding the net domestically this season, scoring nine times in their two league matches, and have scored eleven goals in two previous encounters with John Hughes’s side this calendar year. And we remember what happened last week when a team sitting top of the table, yet to concede a goal, faced Celtic.

I took this bet both last week and in midweek, made a tidy profit and came very close to making more when the 21-year-old struck the post in the first few minutes versus Dundee United. Back Callum McGregor to Score First (E/W) @ 6/1.

Championship

Two of the Championship’s part-time clubs face off at Central Park on Saturday with both teams having failed to win either of their opening league matches. In fact, the only wins for both clubs have come in the early rounds of the cup competitions. Alloa Athletic have fared slightly better, winning three cup ties from three, with Cowdenbeath defeating Clyde and only managing a draw over ninety minutes with Brechin City, a tie they lost in extra-time.

Add to this that the Wasps are unbeaten at Central Park in nine attempts, that seven of those have ended in draws and that the home side have lost their goalscoring duo from last season and it would appear that betting against the Blue Brazil is the smart way to go. I’m going to back Alloa or the Draw @ 7/10 but if you’re feeling brave you could back the draw at 5/2.

Elsewhere in the Championship, including last season’s results, Rangers have been involved in matches with more than 2.5 goals in eight of their last nine (or eleven of their last thirteen). Dumbarton managed a clean sheet in a victory over Brechin City the other week but have conceded a total of ten goals in their other three outings so far this season. 

Kris Boyd broke his scoring duct with a hat-trick in an 8-1 victory over Clyde on Monday night and he will be widely expected to continue this form into Saturday’s match. It is possible that this, along with the margin of victory, will have allowed Ally McCoist’s men to shrug off their sluggish start to the campaign and begin to dominate the opposition the way their vastly superior budget and playing staff suggests they should.

Even though not many recent Rangers matches have seen more than 3.5 goals, three out of Dumbarton’s four matches have and since the Over 2.5 Goals market offers little value @ 48/85, I’ll be backing Over 3.5 Goals @ 6/5.

League Two

Finally, League Two has seen two-thirds of its matches end with both teams scoring and, furthermore, all of those matches have broken the 2.5 goals barrier. The standout fixture for these selections is undoubtedly Berwick Rangers v East Stirlingshire. Backing both teams to score would have returned a profit in all five of Berwick’s matches this season, while four of those five have resulted in more than 2.5 goals. This includes a 5-2 extra-time defeat at the hands of Greenock Morton in midweek.

East Stirlingshire’s record makes for similar reading – more than 2.5 goals in all four of their fixtures so far, three of those have seen both teams score. Both Teams to Score and Over 2.5 Goals can be backed separately @ 1/2.


All odds are taken from McBookie at the time of writing.  

Monday, 18 August 2014

What They Said: Stubbs, Hartley & Adams

The post-match interview is the avenue through which managers address the supporters and wider public in the wake of, say, a dominant performance or a total capitulation. Some, like well-trained politicians, choose to deflect questions as if they weren't asked while some can't seem to move beyond tired clichés. There are those who honestly address the issues at hand, then there are those who refuse to face certain media outlets at all. 'What They Said' picks apart selected post-match interviews from the weekend in Scottish football.

Alan Stubbs

The Hibernian manager has now lost two from two against opposition they are widely expected to challenge for the Championship title this season - even though the Rangers match came in the Petrofac Training Cup. Both matches have been lost 2-1 and Hibernian have failed to lead at any point in either game, despite being awarded a penalty with the score at 0-0 in Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. Regardless, manager Alan Stubbs didn't “think the [final] scoreline [versus Hearts] reflected the game.”

To give him his due, the former Celtic defender appears to be instilling a more progressive style at Easter Road and has made some decent signings so far, most notably a proven Championship striker (who has netted twice already) as well as the first decent right-back at the club for around seven years. It is also true that his side have shown some “really encouraging signs” and have “come a long way in a short space of time.”

Stubbs had the better of Robbie Neilson in the opening exchanges on Sunday, pressing the home side so that they couldn't distribute to the defence, forcing a nervous-looking Jack Hamilton to kick poorly. He also had the better of Ally McCoist for large parts of their cup tie. In that match, Stubbs’s side dominated midfield due to McCoist believing that it would take three central defenders to nullify the threat of Farid El Alagui. Then, when McCoist switched to a back four, Stubbs made the correct decision to go with two strikers up against two centre-backs. Unfortunately, Danny Handling’s red card minutes later meant we never saw how Rangers would have coped, or how their manager would have responded.

However, even if they continue to perform yet find themselves unable to challenge, how long will these types of rationalisations wash with the Hibernian faithful? They are, by now, well-accustomed to managers claiming that their side played well despite the defeat, although this previously came from the mouths of more regressive managers in Pat Fenlon and, more recently, Terry Butcher. Even though Stubbs already seems to have more tactical nous than either of the two previous managers, the deficiencies in his squad are still there to be seen.

None more so than the mentality of some of his players, especially in the centre of midfield. During Sunday's derby, after a decent start to the match, captain Liam Craig lost his composure to miss a first-half penalty and never seemed to recover. He was even found projecting his own failings and indiscipline on to the Hearts players towards the end of a bad-tempered match.

And what about his midfield partner? Scott Robertson got booked for throwing himself into anyone he could find and was nutmegged for the opening goal. He then, like Craig, failed to regain his self-control and conceded a penalty which effectively lost his side the game and, further, brought about his dismissal. Perhaps this is what Stubbs was referring to when he spoke of “ill discipline” costing the team.

These are the players tasked with protecting a vulnerable defence, igniting attacks and being two of the more experienced heads to guide the younger players through matches. It appears, on Sunday’s evidence, that while they may have some attacking capabilities – more so in the case of Craig – they lack the required discipline and temperament to protect their back four and to leader others.

Paul Hartley

Dundee fought their way to a third successive league draw on Saturday versus Partick Thistle and have 17-year-old Craig Wighton to thank after scoring following his half-time introduction. The teenager won a new contract prior to his first top-flight goal and afterwards received some lavish praise from his manager.

The praise came seconds after manager Paul Hartley dared not to over-hype the youngster. “We don’t want to say too much because we know how good he is”, but the former Scotland international seemed to forget his own words instantly as he went on to describe Wighton as “…the future of our club.”

Dundee’s managing director John Nelms, as well as defender James McPake, have since further played-down the young striker's abilities, respectively describing Wighton as “an exceptional young talent with maturity beyond his years” and “…up there with the best”.

I wonder what they would have said had they over-hyped him.

Derek Adams

Finally, fresh after stating it did not matter how his side played in their 4-0 defeat to Partick Thistle on Wednesday, Derek Adams displayed perfectly the rampant hypocrisy found in just about any post-match interview. For the two goals conceded in a 2-1 home defeat to Kilmarnock at the weekend, Ross County have “…got to stop the cross…and the ball getting to the attackers for headers”, according to Adams. Yet for County’s own headed-goal - which came with just ten minutes remaining - was not only a “…good goal from Liam Boyce. It’s a good cross from Joe Cardle”.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Science of Penalties




Sunday’s Scottish League Cup final was billed as a potential classic: Two teams currently battling it out in the top half of the Scottish Premiership. One, former powerhouses of Scottish football, looking to end 15 trophy-less years, the other still in its infancy and appearing in its first major final.

Though not the most drab 0-0 you’ll ever see, 120 minutes of goalless action in a cup final hardly constitutes a classic. And so it took penalties to separate the sides. Which is a lottery, right?

Well it depends which manager you listen to. In their respective post-match interviews, Derek McInnes spoke in a measured tone that his team talk just before the spots kicks was “It’s not about luck...you have practiced them all week”. His Inverness counterpart, John Hughes, by contrast bemoaned penalties being “down to luck”, wedging yet another overused, empty expression into his already cliché-ridden vernacular.

This is where the final was won and lost in the end and the marked divergence between the managers’ attitude towards penalty shootouts is clear to see. Hughes, essentially, compared penalties to a lottery, and how can you practice for a lottery?

If it is a lottery, then why pick your best five penalty takers? Furthermore, best estimates put the amount of penalties scored somewhere around 80% - incidentally, the amount scored in yesterday’s shootout had a 75% success rate - if so, then why bother practicing other ways of putting the ball into the net, be it other dead-ball situations like free-kicks and corners or attacks through open play?

These situations end in goals with far less frequency than penalties kicks, making them even more of a lottery, so why bother practicing them either?

The fact is that scoring from the penalty spot is as much of a skill as finding the top corner on the turn or threading a through-ball through a tight space. Fine-tuning putting the ball into areas where the goalkeeper can’t reach, mastering run-ups that confuse and, from the goalkeeper’s point of view, researching where the taker is likely to strike the ball, are all techniques that can be practiced and developed.

Practicing and developing these skills will increase you chance of scoring penalties. Not some unexplained cosmic force.