Today the SPFL released the full fixture list for the forthcoming season. Each division’s schedule…
Sunday’s clash between Aberdeen and Rangers had everything. In the opening weekend of Scottish Premiership football we were treated to a match with red cards, goals, drama and just about everything else. It isn’t a proper weekend of Scottish football if Monday morning in the office isn’t spent thumbing through conspiracy theories on Twitter.
However, for all the enjoyment neutrals may have garnered from the 90 minutes of madness, it was a game that not only showcased Aberdeen’s limitations from the offset but also, ultimately, suggested that Steven Gerrard’s Rangers side had some work to do too.
The most notable issue for Aberdeen from the first kick of the ball on Sunday was the manner in which they immediately conceded possession and incentive in attack to Rangers. Despite being the home side, Derek McInnes’ team once again opted for a tactic of sitting deep and hoping something may happen on the counter attack. It’s how the Pittodrie boss has always played against Glasgow’s big two and it has rarely worked.
It was why, when Rangers went a man down in the 12th minute, Aberdeen still looked tepid and reserved in possession. Suddenly the side that had been set up to sit deep were forced in to at least attempting to take the game to their opponents. And as we saw on Sunday it didn’t really work.
Rangers’ penalty in the 30th minute also coincided with Scott McKenna’s injury, which McInnes tried to tackle by bringing Chris Forrester on as a central midfielder. This then meant Graeme Shinnie shifted back to left back and Andy Considine slotted in alongside Michael Devlin. But from then on in Aberdeen never managed to take hold of the match.
McInnes may have hoped the more attacking Forrester would have brought something to the middle of the park, but Rangers’ rather defensive midfield trio limited that and as such Aberdeen reverted back to their original plan: long balls to Gary Mackay-Steven and Niall McGinn.
During the match Aberdeen attempted 64 long passes to Rangers’ 39. Although one, fateful ball in to the Rangers’ box would ultimately earn the Dons a point it was largely a fruitless task as Sam Cosgrove offered very little in terms of hold-up play or presence in the box, while both of his wingers did their best to dribble past two or three Rangers defenders at a time.
McInnes’ limited imagination and options became even more apparent in the second half when Stevie May came on for Stephen Gleeson. The Aberdeen striker remains a point of deep frustration for fans, but it’s surely time that criticism now becomes general acceptance that the club must move on to different options. In three, full seasons in the top flight of Scottish football May has only proved himself a goalscorer in one and that was four years ago.
On Sunday, as we’ve seen for the past 12 months, May is anything but a viable option as a starting striker or an option off the bench. And although McInnes was spared by a late goal from youngster Bruce Anderson, it still doesn’t pave over the fact that Aberdeen have had since May to find at least one, capable striker and they still haven’t managed that.
For what it’s worth, McGinn and Mackay-Steven looked back to their best – as they did in both ties against Burnley – but Sunday’s clash was one which underlined how far their influence can go. McInnes’ hopes of playing defensively and relying on either widemen to create some magic isn’t a foolish ploy, but it only works if he has strikers that can link up and score goals.
Despite the late goal, most Rangers fans seem to have walked away from Sunday’s game relatively pleased with how their team responded to going a man down and for the most part they had every right to be. As we’ve just noted, Aberdeen were in no position to properly take the game to their opponents and instead we saw Rangers look more potent in attack.
This was largely down to Gerrard’s decision to play something similar to a 4-3-2 formation once Morelos had left the park. Rather than shift to the often-used 4-5-0, the Rangers manager kept Josh Windass and Jamie Murphy further up the park, which then allowed Ryan Jack, Scott Arfield and Lassana Coulibaly to not only maintain control of the middle of the park but quickly find out balls to relieve pressure when needed.
Although this worked wonderfully well in the first half to keep Rangers in the game, it didn’t actually offer a huge amount going forward. Gerrard’s side may have looked more composed on the ball, but they only had nine shots to Aberdeen’s six throughout the match and touched the ball in the opposing box on 17 occasions to the Don’s 14. Rangers controlled the middle of the park – an unquestionably impressive feat considering the numerical disadvantage – but they didn’t do a whole lot with the ball.
Rangers also got tired. Gerrard’s system may have offered more presence in the middle, but it required Windass, Murphy and the central midfielders to track Aberdeen’s full backs and wingers. And late in the second half it was becoming clear that GMS and McGinn were finding more and more space out wide.
For example, in the first half GMS attempted just two dribbles. One lead to a free kick and the other was blocked. However, in the second half he made no less than eight attempts to dribble past opponents and at least five of them got him past his man and in to space to cross the ball. Similarly, McGinn attempted just two dribbles in the first half but clocked a further four in the second half.
In the first half Aberdeen attempted just four crosses in to the Rangers box. Over the course of the second period of football, McInnes’ team made no less than 15 crosses as they began to pile forward and, to borrow a particularly Scottish term, get the ball “in the mixer.”
Instead of bringing a more defensive player like Ross McCrorie on to sure things up at the back, Gerrard turned to an equally attacking and naive Ryan Kent to replace Murphy in the 70th minute and then to Oviemuno Ejaria to take the place of the injured Ryan Jack – who had probably been Rangers most effective, defensive player for the duration of the match until that point.
Whether Gerrard had decided to push for a second is anyone’s guess, but it ultimately backfired when a dummy from a Lewis Ferguson late run in to the box left Anderson with all the time and space he needed to finish off a simple long ball and knock down in to the Rangers box.
Ultimately, this was a match that Aberdeen seemingly had no interest in winning but McInnes side were allowed back in to snatch a point through some careless tactics from Gerrard. Day one of the new league campaign and plenty for both sides to mull over.