Aberdeen need to aim higher. Over the course of this season, my belief has strengthened that…
Aberdeen travelled to Hampden on Saturday afternoon hoping to reach their second consecutive Scottish Cup final. All that stood between them were Stephen Robinson’s tough, no-nonsense Motherwell side. A few notable players sat out through suspension for the Dons, but this should have been about as straightforward a semi-final as Derek McInnes could have hoped for. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Motherwell ran out comfortable 3-0 winners on the day, swatting aside Aberdeen with ease. As good as Robinson’s side were, the result highlighted consistent failures in the Aberdeen side that need addressing if McInnes is to guide the Dons to second place in the Premiership.
This isn’t the first time Aberdeen have failed to show up for a big game and unless McInnes learns from the defeat, it won’t be the last either. The club consistently fail to challenge Celtic in their fixtures – this is perhaps understandable given Celtic’s greater resources, although obviously not ideal. However, it’s a lot harder to rationalise Aberdeen’s performances against other top six teams. McInnes’ side have one of the lowest points-per-game ratios of any side in the top half of the Premiership when playing another top six side.
What this demonstrates is a pattern. Aberdeen are excellent at brushing aside weaker opponents in the league, but when it comes to the big games they consistently struggle. Unfortunately for McInnes, the buck must stop with him here. The weekend’s semi-final is a clear example of McInnes setting his side up in completely the wrong way in a big game.
Motherwell are a physical team and are arguably the best side in Scotland at playing this way, which is why it beggars belief that Aberdeen decided to try and play them at their own game. Out of Aberdeen’s ten outfield starting players, five have spent the majority of their careers at centre back. By adopting a physical approach, Aberdeen played right into Motherwell’s hands and gave Robinson the game he would have wished for. Graeme Shinnie, Kenny McLean and Shay Logan may have been missing for the Dons, but it doesn’t excuse McInnes’ tactics.
Sadly for Aberdeen fans, the problems don’t end with McInnes’ setup. Against Motherwell, Aberdeen looked blunt in attack and lacking in creativity. It was over an hour until Trevor Carson was forced into a save and Aberdeen’s forwards only mustered three shots on target over the course of the game. For a team that at one point had Gary Mackay-Steven, Niall McGinn, Ryan Christie, Stevie May, Adam Rooney and Greg Stewart all on the pitch, this is clearly not good enough.
The problem here seems to be in midfield, particularly in getting the ball forward to their attackers. When looking at individual players’ key passes (a pass that leads to a shot) per 90 minutes, only one Aberdeen player appears in the Premiership’s top 30. Scott Wright is in fifth place overall, which is good, but the winger has only played 635 Premiership minutes.
When examining each Premiership players’ passes to the final third, Aberdeen again come up short. When ranked by the percentage of successful passes into the opposition area, the Dons don’t have a single player in the top 30. This underlines the challenge facing McInnes that will surely only be exacerbated with McLean’s departure in the summer – put simply, his side don’t create enough quality goalscoring opportunities.
McInnes’ most pressing issue, however, is at the back. In a squad with eight defenders, Logan is the only out-and-out full back. McInnes must accept responsibility for this – having shaped the squad since his arrival in 2013, it’s staggering that he’s given himself so few options in this area.
Even with an abundance of riches at centre back, few are fulfilling their potential in this Aberdeen team. The Dons only have three players in the Premiership’s top 30 when it comes to the percentage of defensive duels won; Kari Arnason is 21st, Scott McKenna is 29th and Mackay-Steven, rather oddly, is 24th. It’s a similar story when each Premiership player’s interceptions per 90 minutes is analysed – only Arnason makes an appearance, all the way down in 15th.
Sadly for Dons fans, the Aberdeen defence again looks poor when we examine the league’s most effective players in aerial duels. This time, only two players make the top 30 – Anthony O’Connor is in tenth spot, while McKenna is 14th.
All of this points towards an obvious conclusion. McInnes’ defence simply aren’t pulling their weight compared to their Premiership contemporaries. Not one Aberdeen player is in the top ten by any defensive metric – for a side that wishes to be the second best team in the country, this clearly isn’t good enough. The semi-final against Motherwell reflected this neatly – each Well goal was easily preventable, but silly defensive errors ended up costing Aberdeen dearly.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom for Aberdeen. They still lead the way in the race for second. But what is clear is that things cannot continue as they have. McInnes has done a wonderful job over the last five years to bring Aberdeen to the summit of Scottish football. Aberdeen’s problems were visible to all of Scotland at Hampden – they will need to improve, and quickly, if they’re to pip Rangers and Hibs to second spot.