Derek McInnes is in a peculiar situation. Despite undoubtedly being Aberdeen’s most successful manager of…
Expectations are a difficult thing to manage for any football club. Every season starts with a fresh wave of optimism as fans are caught up with the idea that this could be the year that their side wins a trophy, gains promotion or qualifies for Europe. These expectations, however, can bring their own pressures for clubs and more specifically for managers.
This certainly appears to be the case for Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes. The Dons are – at the time of writing – still involved in a three-way fight to finish in second place in the Scottish Premiership. Whilst McInnes has impressed in his time with the Pittodrie side, you could still argue that a second-place finish this time around would be his greatest achievement to date; a resurgent Rangers and the impressive form of promoted Hibs have undoubtedly provided a more substantial challenge to his side this season.
However, even if Aberdeen do secure second place again there is a sense that the coming summer transfer window could be the most important yet for McInnes with a number of questions surrounding players leaving the club or not performing to expectations.
We already know that central midfielder Kenny McLean will be departing having already signed for English side Norwich City. Add to that the departures of on-loan Ryan Christie, Greg Stewart, Dominic Ball and Chidiebere Nwakali and the squad is immediately depleted in key areas. We should stress at this point that the chances of Aberdeen retaining either Christie or Stewart on a permanent basis are all but non-existent. The form of Christie has attracted attention from his parent club Celtic along with clubs in England and the wages that Stewart currently earns at parent club Birmingham City put him far out of the financial reach of Aberdeen.
There are others around the periphery of the squad who will be looking to move on including the likes of Nicky Maynard and Kari Arnason with defender Anthony O’Connor still facing an uncertain future as contract talks between him and the club seem to have stalled in recent months.
These departures will leave the first team squad at Aberdeen shorn of creativity and cover in key areas but even now, before these departures, the squad lacks balance and cover in some positions. Let’s break the key issues down into three main points to be addressed by the club going forward.
The majority of Aberdeen supporters have an enormous amount of affection for Andrew Considine. He is a player that has been with the club for his entire career and has become something of a cult figure at the football club. However, with that said, those same fans will recognise that using Considine as your every day left back is putting huge constraints on the left flank in the attacking phase.
Defensively Considine is fine. In wide areas his size is an asset when the ball is in the air and he has developed his positional awareness to the point that he no longer gets caught out of position by direct or diagonal balls.
Yet it is in the attacking phase that Considine is lacking. Full backs in the modern game are a key part of most attacking movements, given the time and space that tends to exist in the wide areas. Considine prefers to maintain a deeper position when Aberdeen attack as opposed to offering key width and a threat on the overlap to pose the opposition defence problems.
In the recent 2-0 win over Hearts, there was a clear contrast with Graeme Shinnie used at left back as he combined effectively with Niall McGinn on the left side throughout the match, giving Aberdeen a genuine attacking threat.
The issue with using Shinnie at left back, however, is that you weaken the central midfield position considerably (more on that later) and there appears to be a genuine need for the club to address this position in the summer.
That said, if a left back is recruited in the summer it will be interesting to see where this leaves the young left-back Daniel Harvie. A player with potential who will be looking to secure more first team minutes over the course of next season. One criticism which has been levelled at McInnes during his time at Aberdeen has been that he does not give opportunities to young players and in Harvie he has the perfect opportunity to buck the trend.
With McLean and Shinnie in the centre of the midfield for Aberdeen there was always a sense of control and safety. The two combine and compliment one another well with contrasting styles that work. Although behind those two players there appears to be a vacuum.
In the aforementioned 2-0 win over Hearts, Ball played in the centre of midfield and impressed with his defensive work as well as his passing ability. Yet Ball is another player however who is on loan at the club and there is by no means a guarantee to return to Pittodrie next season.
With McLean also leaving in the summer to start his career in England, there is now no obvious candidate to partner Shinnie in the centre of midfield and this will need to be addressed as a priority in the summer. There doesn’t seem to be an attainable target within the Premiership. Greg Docherty was a long-term target for the club before leaving Hamilton for Rangers, so expect to see McInnes turn again to the English lower leagues to recruit for this position.
With Shinnie providing something of an all-encompassing option in terms of attacking and defending we should see Aberdeen look to recruit one more attacking midfielder and one who is more defensive in order to provide options and balance to the squad.
The need to add creativity to the squad was an issue before the current season. With Jonny Hayes and McGinn having left the side last summer there was a huge void in the squad going forward. This need was mitigated effectively with the signing of Gary Mackay-Steven on a permanent deal and the (re)signing of Christie on loan.
With Christie leaving at the end of his loan there is a real need to add a player that offers a creative spark in the central areas. Aberdeen tend to favour their build up through the wide areas, this threat can be negated by an intelligent opponent with a defensive gameplan.
It is in these cases that the creative force of Christie, whether playing centrally or moving centrally from wide, has been key for Aberdeen this season and his role will have to be replaced by McInnes for next season.
A busy time ahead is undoubtedly in store for Aberdeen. The club has been somewhat hot and cold with their recruitment over the last 2-3 seasons and there is a sense that they need to have a successful transfer window over the summer to retain and reinforce their position as the closest challengers to Celtic going forward. Whether they can do exactly that remains to be seen but there’s no doubt that McInnes has his work cut out for him.