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Derek McInnes always seems to prove his detractors wrong. There’s often a group at the start of each campaign who look at the Aberdeen squad and think this is the year they’ll struggle to maintain their status as ‘the best of the rest.’ This season is no different and is perhaps only compounded by the fact that the Dons currently sit ninth in the Premiership with just six points from five games.
Aberdeen have lost key players before and have found a way to not only cope but thrive. Most recently both Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn left Pittordie and McInnes’ team managed – although McGinn did return. Conversely, this term Aberdeen do seem to be struggling. There’s no doubt the departure of Kenny McLean has left a significant void in the midfield. And although Adam Rooney wasn’t the goal threat he once was, the Dons look out of ideas up front.
Signings were made but few have really truly shown they are the standard required. Second place is now expected by fans in the Granite City, but if performances so far are to go by it’s going to be an uphill struggle. An unconvincing draw against 10-man Rangers on the opening day was followed by a home loss to Kilmarnock and draws against Hibs and St Johnstone. Their only win has come against a hapless Dundee side.
Fans would rightly point out that McInnes’ Aberdeen have found themselves in this position after a similar number of league games in the past. That may be true, but it’s the performances and specifically the lack of attacking potency and creativity which is cause for real concern at Pittodrie.
Aberdeen have only scored four goals in the five games they’ve played this season. For the purpose of context, only St Mirren, Hamilton and Dundee have scored fewer. However, what’s more startling for Dons fans is that only one of these goals has come from open play. Their equaliser against St Johnstone came from a wonderful McGinn free-kick. Similarly, against Hibs they bundled the ball in from a corner and against Dundee, they could only break the deadlock thanks to a Gary Mackay-Steven penalty.
For a team with ambitions of finishing second, this is simply not good enough. We’re also five matches in and neither of McInnes’ seemingly first choice strikers has found the back of the net. Sam Cosgrove and Stevie May look toothless playing as the lone striker in the preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. In fairness, the former has shown glimpses of decent build-up play and bringing teammates into the game. That said, he, and May for that matter, look like they’d be much better suited to playing with a strike partner up top.
There’s also the issue of James Wilson. There was much excitement when he was signed from Manchester United and perhaps rightly so. It’s more apparent than ever how Aberdeen need someone of his supposed talents. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of him as of yet due to injury. Moreover, if you look at his career he’s actually not played that much football at senior level. Not to be too negative, but if the Pittodrie faithful think Wilson is the answer to all their problems then they might be in for a disappointment.
It’s easy to lambast May and Cosgrove as they aren’t getting the best service. There’s far too much reliance on GMS and McGinn in the wide areas. Whilst they are decent players who do have a creative spark they are really Aberdeen’s only creative outlet and route to goal. As a result, teams have cottoned on to this and made it harder for the wingers to be at their most effective.
It would be a lie to say this is all down to Kenny McLean leaving. However, it’s also a huge part of Aberdeen’s current struggle. McLean wasn’t just the club captain; he was talismanic in the middle of the pitch. You only have to take a quick glance at a number of metrics to see he was a top performer at Pittodrie in his final season.
Let’s just be frank about this. In the 2017/18 season, McLean took the most shots and produced the most crosses of any Aberdeen player in the Premiership. He also comes second in the number of through and key passes played. Now nobody is saying it’s easy to replace somebody as instrumental as this, but Aberdeen appear to be directly struggling as a result. It’s not just his overall creativity but also his goalscoring – he was their joint-top scorer last term.
McLean also made more overall passes and passes into the final third than any other player in a red jersey last term. In essence, with Shinnie, Ferguson and Gleeson in the middle of the park McInnes is lacking creativity. It means the strikers are not receiving much through the centre and results in an over-reliance on those out wide. In essence, at the moment Aberdeen only seem to have a Plan A, and that’s to stick with 4-3-2-1 and hope GMS or McGinn can produce a moment of magic.
It’s not going to get any easier for Aberdeen. First up this weekend is a Motherwell side who will be far from easy to overcome. After that is a trip to Easter Road to face Hibs in the League Cup quarter-finals, followed by a visit to Celtic Park. Simply put, Aberdeen and Derek McInnes need to find the top gear as soon as possible.
Motherwell have one of the worst defensive records in the league. They’ve conceded nine goals in five matches, but only two of those were from set pieces. With the likes of Tom Aldred and Peter Hartley in their defence, it’s not wholly surprising. Aberdeen obviously need to improve and start scoring from open play, but it appears that their match against the Steelmen couldn’t be timelier.
The majority of Motherwell’s conceded goals have come from outside the box which perhaps means teams are given more space in and around that area. If that turns out to be the case then the likes of GMS, McGinn and May need to take the attacking initiative and try more speculative efforts. Aberdeen need some players to really step up and prove they can be a person that can win games. Hayes, McGinn, Rooney and McLean have all done it in the past and the Dons are screaming out for someone to do the same this season.
Perhaps a change of formation is needed? McInnes has always made 4-2-3-1 work but this crop of players seem to be struggling. Or if he’s not willing to change the system then why not give Bruce Anderson a try up front? The youngster has looked lively when given the chance and scored an excellent goal against Rangers. Whatever it is, change is needed because the Pittodrie side will continue to struggle with this lack of goal threat. McInnes has proven his critics wrong in the past, but doing the same this season could be his toughest challenge yet.