Assessing the Scottish Premiership’s tactical diversity

Assessing the Scottish Premiership’s tactical diversity

By Blair Newman

The Premiership is a tactically diverse league. While some of its teams share certain principles, whether it be man-oriented defending or attacking primarily through the wider areas, there is also plenty to distinguish each side from their competitors.

 

Michael Cox recently wrote an excellent piece looking at the different styles on show in England’s Premier League. And, considering the exciting start to Scotland’s top flight in 2018/19, now is a good time to do a similar analysis of the various tactical approaches on show north of the border.

 

Here, using data to back up the tactical discussion, each of the Premiership’s 12 teams are assessed and ranked based on the clarity of their playing style. Enjoy, and if you have anything to add on your team join in the conversation in the comments below or on Twitter!

 

1) Kilmarnock

 

Style: Leicester-esque 4-4-2 with the league’s most zonal defence

 

Hearts and Hibs may have dominated the discussion regarding surprise Premiership title contenders this season, but the only team capable of ‘doing’ a truly authentic Leicester City is Kilmarnock. Steve Clarke has rejuvenated the club since his appointment as manager last October, bringing in a classic 4-4-2 with a focus on defensive compactness that is reminiscent of The Foxes under Claudio Ranieri.

 

Their approach to defending is positional. Rarely pressing the opponent’s first line of attack, they instead retain their shape and move as a unit to block the centre and force their opposition wide. They are, unquestionably, the most zonal defence in the league, which is backed up by the fact that they allow their opponents to make more passes per defensive action than anyone else in the Premiership bar St Mirren and St Johnstone. Their strategy is effective, too – only Celtic and Hibs face fewer shots, while Kilmarnock’s expected goals against is the lowest in the league.

 

 

Clarke’s side aren’t just about defence, however. Whereas before they were extremely reliant on Jordan Jones’s dribbling on the counter and Kris Boyd’s finishing, they now have a cohesive attacking plan built around simple wing dynamics. The wide men, Chris Burke and Jones, come inside while the full-backs, Stephen O’Donnell and Greg Taylor, push on down the flanks. Enabling these movements are the two central midfielders, who stay deep to offer stability in case of turnovers.

 

Kilmarnock don’t prioritise possession, but they use the ball well when they do have it. And when they don’t, they are one of the toughest defences to break down in Scotland. Organised and efficient, they offer tactical inspiration to the Premiership’s traditional outsiders.
 

2) Livingston

 

Style: Renounce possession and suffocate the opponent

 

In a season full of unpredictable twists and turns, Livingston have been the Premiership’s surprise package so far. It’s safe to say that no-one envisaged them beating Rangers and Hibs, not to mention being the first side to take points off of table-topping Hearts. Impressively, their success is founded on the same principles that got them promoted last term.

 

After Kenny Miller’s short player-manager spell, Gary Holt has focused on keeping the style David Hopkin implemented in previous years. This involves the use of a 3-5-2 system that often gives them numerical superiority in the centre, something they utilise fully when defending.

 

Both forwards regularly press backwards, while the midfield three combine marking their men with flexibly covering space, suffocating the area around the opposition ball-player. Behind them, three physically dominant centre-backs aggressively man mark opposing forwards, giving them no time or space to turn.

 

 

Only five Premiership teams concede fewer shots than Holt’s side. At the same time, only St Johnstone block more shots. These numbers indicate just how hard it is for the opposition to engineer clean strikes at goal when up against Livingston’s central congestion.

 

They all but renounce possession, only stringing passes together to rest on the ball. Aside from that, they go long at every possible opportunity, looking to cause chaos high up the pitch by creating a perpetual state of transition: no team in the league has averaged less possession or hit more long balls than them.

 

Essentially, it’s defend and counter, with a threat from attacking set pieces. All of this may sound simple, but it works for Livingston. They know their own strengths and weaknesses and play to maximise the former while minimising the latter.
 

3) Celtic

 

Style: Fluid attacking and intense pressing

 

In a league where man-oriented defending still reigns, the positional play implemented by Brendan Rodgers at Celtic has caused havoc for much of the last two years. As well as changes of system from game to game, their actual shape is fluid, which often has the effect of pulling apart rigid man marking defences.

 

Their attacking approach allows for movement, but not total freedom. Players must ensure they aren’t bunched together and take up positions on different lines, creating plentiful – and penetrative – passing options. This not only allows them to dominate possession but to use possession to open up opponents. And, whenever the ball is lost, their structure means they can counter-press to win it back immediately.

 

 

Rodgers’ offensive plan is based around creating advantageous situations all over the pitch, whether it be a 4v3 in midfield, a 1v1 for James Forrest out wide, or finding Callum McGregor’s intelligent runs in space between the lines. As a result of all this, Celtic not only average far more possession than anyone else in the Premiership, but they complete significantly more passes per defensive action. This also leads to chances – their expected goals (xG) tally of 15.42 is the highest in the league.

 

Between the intensity of their pressing and the quality of their possession, Celtic are the closest thing to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in Scotland right now. They’re fun to watch and tough to defend against.
 

4) Hibernian

 

Style: Multifaceted possession and counter-pressing

 

Neil Lennon deserves more attention for the way his teams play football. His Hibernian side were the Premiership’s entertainers during their successful first campaign back in the top flight last term, and they look intent on establishing that tag this season.

 

When it comes to xG, only Celtic, Rangers and Hearts have a higher tally than Hibs. And when it comes to actual goals, no team in the league has scored more. Throw in the fact that only Celtic average more possession, and a rather pretty picture is being painted at Easter Road.

 

Lennon’s side aren’t like anybody else in the division. They’re one of the few teams to employ counter-pressing consistently, and while they tend to dominate the ball, they also mix things up. They pass at a high tempo, moving possession from side to side quickly to open up space in the central channels. On top of that, they aren’t afraid to go direct when appropriate, making use of pacey, tricky wingers such as Martin Boyle and Daryl Horgan.

 

 

Their build-up is led by a technically astute centre-back trident of Efe Ambrose, Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon; only the Old Firm can boast better options in this area. Usually two of them will start, with Lennon generally preferring 4-3-3 to the more experimental 3-4-1-2. Within the former system, the full-backs play a more constructive role – from wide starting positions they often choose not to bomb on down their flanks and instead feed diagonal balls in to the frontmen.

 

With John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan moving on, Hibs essentially lost one of the best midfields in the league over the summer. But with Mark Milligan adding composure at No.6 and Stevie Mallan bringing a fine passing range, the transition period has been surprisingly painless.
 

5) Motherwell

 

Style: Direct attacking and aggressive defending

 

Gael Bigirimana’s increasing prominence in midfield may hint at a desire for more imagination on the ball, but Motherwell’s style can still be nicely summed up by a few noteworthy statistics. Only Livingston and Hamilton average more long passes than they do, only Hibs and Celtic average more crosses, and no team averages fewer passes per defensive action.

 

Stephen Robinson’s side much prefer direct attacking play, and with a front two of Curtis Main and Ryan Bowman, this makes a great deal of sense. Their strikers carry genuine threat in the air, and hard-working midfielders such as Allan Campbell offer excellent support for winning second balls and making runs off of the frontmen. Generally, their possession goes one of two ways: straight from centre-back to striker in the inside channels, or out to the wing-backs who then cross into the box. Irrespective of which method is chosen, the aim is to maximise the aerial potential of the strikers.

 

 

Motherwell defend deep and naturally get numbers around the ball in central areas thanks to their 3-5-2 system. They also press and counter-press in packs, giving their opposition little breathing space. These tactics got them to both domestic cup finals last term, earning them a reputation as tough nuts to crack. That reputation remains firmly intact despite a tricky start to this season.
 

6) Aberdeen

 

Style: Man marking and risk-averse possession

 

Aberdeen may have lost their grip on second place, with improvements from Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock ensuring the most competitive Premiership top six in years. However, the Dons remain one of the most clearly defined teams in Scotland.

 

The most obvious facet of their play is their man-to-man defending. In a football culture obsessed with tracking opposite men, Derek McInnes’ side are perhaps the most rigid enforcers of the tradition. While they vary the height of their back line depending on the quality of opposition, they always deploy an intense man marking style, with players leaving their positions to keep tabs on individual opponents.

 

This strategy works well against teams without a coherent possession game, but has been manipulated consistently by stronger ball-playing sides to create gaps within Aberdeen’s block. It’s no coincidence that they have lost 10 of 11 contests with Celtic since Brendan Rodgers brought his fluid attacking to Parkhead.

 

 

While their defensive approach is overt, Aberdeen’s possession is slightly more nuanced. They are risk-averse, gaining stability through lots of sideways circulation, but their progression doesn’t just come from long passes and successfully hunting second balls. Rather, they frequently look to get their wingers, Gary Mackay-Steven and Niall McGinn, into 1v1 situations in wider areas where they can maximise their dribbling skill or work a good crossing opportunity.

 

Considering the loss of talent the Dons have suffered in recent seasons, with Kenny McLean, Ryan Jack, Jonny Hayes and Adam Rooney all moving on, their tactical consistency is admirable.
 

7) Dundee

 

Style: Build possession through the centre

 

Neil McCann’s side are somewhat of a tactical anomaly in the Premiership. Generally, teams that dominate the ball find themselves close to the top of the league table. However, just behind Celtic, Hibs and Rangers in the average possession charts are bottom-of-the-table Dundee.

 

The reasoning behind this strange state of affairs is simple: while the Dens Park side have no problem retaining possession, they have major difficulties turning that possession into chances, and then turning those chances into goals.

 

 

McCann’s preferred 4-4-2 system features extremely attacking full-backs outside of a narrow and fluid midfield. They overload the centre with intelligent movers and astute ball-players such as Glen Kamara, Elton Ngwatala, Karl Madianga and Adil Nabi, but the lack of a prolific striker to finish moves has led to a constant and unsettling rotation of options. The same thing could be said of central defence, where a partnership of Ryan Inniss and Andy Boyle was only recently decided upon.

 

Dundee’s commitment to playing out from the back and attacking through the centre is refreshing, but inconsistent selections in key areas, poor striking options and a disorganised zonal defence have stopped them from turning excitement into wins.
 

8) Rangers

 

Style: Stable build-up with rotations in wider areas

 

The current Premiership table may have Rangers in sixth place, but they are slightly unfortunate to be positioned so lowly at this point. A combination of silly red cards, concession of last-gasp equalisers, a squad in transition and a nightmarish Europa League qualifying campaign have not helped Steven Gerrard, but tactical order has been restored.

 

Since his appointment, the 38-year-old has set about establishing an identity at Ibrox after years of personnel turnover and underwhelming performances. This has been achieved quickly, with his 4-3-3 system set after a couple of brief experiments with 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2.

 

Scoring goals wasn’t a problem last season, but stopping counter-attacks was. Rangers attacked and attacked, without any real balance, leaving themselves open in defensive transition. Under Gerrard, their build-up has become more stable whilst remaining productive. One of the three central midfielders will drop between, or to the side of, the centre-backs, while positional rotations in wider areas are used to advance possession.

 

 

The wingers regularly come inside to operate behind the opposition midfield and offer a penetrative passing option, while both full-backs – James Tavernier and Borna Barisic – offer overlapping and underlapping runs, not to mention superb crosses.

 

Gerrard promised aggression and excitement upon his appointment, though if anything the most important aspect brought about by his management has been an improved structure when pressing. Thanks to his influence Rangers are a far more organised team, with and without the ball.

 

9) Hamilton

 

Style: A different kind of directness

 

Football stereotyping can be unfair towards direct attacking sides. Teams who prefer to go from back to front quickly are generally lumped in together, but there are subtle differences between most of these teams. Take Hamilton, for instance. They are generally viewed as just another long ball outfit, but their style is different to that of their Premiership rivals.

 

Only Livingston play more long balls per 90 minutes, but they place much less emphasis on keeping possession and breaking the lines. Martin Canning’s Accies may be direct, but they focus on finding their frontmen with passes to feet rather than passes over the top or into the channels to be chased. There is, in short, more control to their attacking.

 

 

In Rakish Bingham and Fredrik Brustad, Hamilton have two target men capable of playing with their back to goal. And in Mickel Miller and Steven Boyd they have two players who offer pace, energy and movement in support of the striker. The only problem is a lack of creativity in midfield, which limits the quality of supply received by the forwards.

 

Furthermore, Canning switches system from game to game and has a habit for making substitutions early on during matches. These constant changes mean that, despite a reasonably defined style involving precise, direct attacking and intensively man-oriented defence, his players are rarely settled.
 

10) Hearts

 

Style: Increasingly varied and attack-minded football

 

After a summer spent wheeling and dealing, Hearts are almost completely unrecognisable this season. Last term they recovered from a chaotic start by instituting rather dour defensive football, with Craig Levein’s tactical flexibility making them hard to beat. However, despite the conservatism, there was a reliance on two individuals – goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and striker Kyle Lafferty – to both prevent and score goals.

 

Those two players have since left, and not for huge amounts of money either. But the recruitment process threw up some rather intriguing finds who have not simply plugged gaps, but enhanced the team’s all-round play.

 

Uche Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean have added a combination of mobility, strength and excellent hold-up play to the frontline; Olly Lee has brought intelligent runs from deep; and Peter Haring has provided a solid defensive presence in midfield. Steven Naismith has also looked back to his best since re-joining on loan, while the graduation of youth team product Callumn Morrison on the right wing has given extra edge to the attack.

 

 

The aimless long balls of 2017/18 have rarely been seen this time around, with shorter passing in build-up and better movement in the middle and final thirds enabling Hearts to play through their opposition more often. In addition, they now defend higher up the pitch, with their back line generally settling closer to halfway than their own box and actively looking to catch strikers offside.

 

Having quickly switched from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 towards the end of pre-season, Levein’s side are clearly still figuring out who they are. However, there are promising early signs of more varied attacking and more aggressive defending.
 

11) St Johnstone

 

Style: Less long balls than before, but more organisation needed

 

Last season, St Johnstone’s attacking play was, to be blunt, lacking in ingenuity. Consequently, one of the priorities going into this campaign was to introduce more cutting edge to their possession. So far Tommy Wright appears to have injected the necessary additional verve, primarily through the signature of several refreshing attacking options.

 

Drey Wright and Matty Kennedy have brought skill and speed to the wings of Wright’s 4-4-1-1, while Tony Watt has enjoyed leading the line up front. The new wide men have combined nicely at times with the full-backs, Ricky Foster and Scott Tanser, giving the team’s attacking a more progressive look.

 

 

St Johnstone are similar to Kilmarnock in terms of their shape without the ball and their wing-focused attack. However, they don’t have the same defensive organisation, with gaps frequently opening up between the lines. These gaps were most obvious against the Old Firm, where they lost 5-1 to Rangers and 6-0 to Celtic.

 

Wright has instilled a more intriguing possession game, with his side averaging roughly five fewer long balls per 90 minutes than they did last season. However, results suggest the players have yet to fully adjust to their new style.
 

12) St Mirren

 

Style: Too many managers spoil the identity

 

Lewis Morgan’s move to Celtic left St Mirren without their primary source of goals from last season’s Championship-winning campaign, but they were arguably impacted more by the departure of Jack Ross to Sunderland. Since he left in the summer, the club have gone through two managers without establishing a tactical identity.

 

Alan Stubbs’ reign lasted less than three months. His successor, Oran Kearney, hasn’t had enough time to put his stamp on the team, though early indications are that he will implement greater focus on being organised without the ball in a 4-2-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape.

 

The new manager has already made signings of his own, drafting in experienced heads in Anton Ferdinand, Simeon Jackson and Adam Hammill. The latter two could offer pace on the break, giving St Mirren more of a counter-attacking threat to go with their zonal defensive strategy.

 

 

Last season’s exciting wing play and penetrative passing is rarely visible now, and it will take a couple of months for the Kearney to properly imbue his defensive style. There is a real concern that by then it could be too late to turn around the team’s poor start to the campaign.

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