Things aren’t going so well for Partick Thistle. Not only are they languishing dangerously close…
On Friday night, Ross County will travel to Firhill in a massive game at the foot of the Premiership. The game has all the hallmarks of a classic relegation six-pointer, with neither side able to afford to slip up at this late stage of the season. As it stands, Partick Thistle are two points clear of twelfth-placed County so Alan Archibald’s mission is simple: they simply must win, whatever the cost.
The Jags have still to play Motherwell and Dundee, two sides that they have generally struggled against this season, so this might well be the last opportunity for Thistle to get some points on the board. A win would all but relegate Ross County, who need at least a draw in order to keep their survival hopes alive.
The fixture is the most important game either side have played in years, with both clubs enjoying good spells in Scottish football’s top flight. Below, we take a look at some key areas where the match is likely to be won and lost.
Alex Schalk can fly under the radar sometimes, but the forward is having a fine season in the Highlands. He’s one of the Premiership’s most effective impact subs and also happens to be County’s top scorer this season with 11 league goals so far. Since Stuart Kettlewell took the reins in Dingwall, the forward has been responsible for four of the nine goals County have scored in that time. Not to mention the forward bagged a hattrick on the last occasion the two sides met.
The graphic above highlights how County have scored their goals since Kettlewell was appointed. As we can see, the majority of successful attacks come down the left – two thirds of goals scored under Kettlewell come from the left, where Schalk likes to drift to.
Whoever starts for Thistle at right back will need to be on their game on Friday if Thistle want to avoid relegation. This season, Paul McGinn usually features there but Mustapha Dumbaya has recently returned from a long-term injury and could start Friday’s game. Dumbaya has a little more physicality than McGinn, which could prove useful in dealing with Schalk. Regardless of which one of the two starts, keeping Schalk quiet must be a top priority for Archibald.
Thistle, on the other hand, have looked particularly dangerous from set pieces in recent weeks. Six of their last ten goals have came from free kicks, corners and penalties so keeping such opportunities to a minimum might be Kettlewell’s best hope at blunting the Jags attack.
In this regard, County should fancy their chances. Only St Johnstone, Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs commit fewer fouls on average per game and as the table below illustrates, County have a relatively clean disciplinary record this season. Keeping this going will be key against Thistle – simply put; by not giving away silly fouls, County won’t give Thistle the opportunity to capitalise on them.
This might be easier said than done, however. Friday night’s match is sure to be a tempestuous affair with so much riding on the result. But if County can keep their heads then they have a fantastic opportunity to cut off Thistle’s most effective offensive play at its source. Goals have been hard to come by for the Jags this season and removing the threat of set pieces could severely limit their attack, forcing them to attempt a normally unsuccessful plan B.
Unsurprisingly given their respective league positions, both Thistle and County usually play a reactive style of football. On Friday, this will not do. Any passivity shown will surely be leapt on by either side so it’s utterly imperative that both teams set out on the front foot. This doesn’t come particularly naturally for either side, who both enjoy a minority share of possession on average.
This is perhaps where the Glasgow club have a slight advantage over County. Their total expected goals (xG) in the Premiership this season is higher than their actual goals scored – this shows that Thistle create more, better opportunities than their goals scored column suggests. By taking the game to County, Thistle have shown that they can create good chances. All they need is for someone to bury them – after recently bringing a 594-minute goal drought to an end against Hamilton, fan favourite Kris Doolan might fancy his chances of finding the net.
If County can get Thistle on the back foot, though, then the Highland club have every chance of walking away with the win. Thistle might create slightly better opportunities, but County average 1.18 more shots per game than their relegation rivals. Ross County’s xG is slightly lower than their actual goals, suggesting that Kettlewell’s side are taking difficult chances and making the most of whatever opportunities they fashion. This skill has obvious benefits in a game such as Friday’s.
Come Friday, both sides will feel the pressure to grab a win that will almost certainly ensure Premiership survival for another season. So far this season playing passive, reactive football has hurt both of these teams and neither can afford to make the same mistake again. It’s vital that both sets of players attempt to go out on the front foot and set the pace of the game – if one side doesn’t, they will find themselves meekly dropping out of the division without having even put up a fight.