Aberdeen travelled to Hampden on Saturday afternoon hoping to reach their second consecutive Scottish Cup…
After last weekend’s Scottish Cup disappointment, Aberdeen will be keen to put the result behind them and get their season back on track. The Dons face Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock this weekend knowing a win could be enough to make second place their own.
At the start of the season Aberdeen would have been odds-on favourites to win the game but question marks have lingered over Derek McInnes’ side all season while Killie have improved dramatically. After the weekend’s humbling defeat to Motherwell, they now face a Kilmarnock side that has won five Premiership games on the bounce. Six months ago, the Dons would be clear favourites for the game. Now, in the eyes of many, it’s Kilmarnock who are expected to win.
Derek McInnes has a good record against Clarke since the former Reading boss took the reins at Rugby Park but will need a much greater showing than last weekend’s semi-final performance. Luckily for McInnes, he already has a blueprint for how to defeat Killie.
McInnes would be wise to look at wins over Kilmarnock earlier in the season and set his team up in a similar fashion. The Aberdeen boss has a perfect record against Clarke in this season’s Premiership and is the only coach who is still unbeaten against Killie since Clarke’s appointment.
On both occasions where the two managers have met in the Premiership this season Aberdeen have ran out 3-1 winners and on both occasions McInnes has set up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation, to great effect. Kilmarnock are a dangerous team this year for many reasons but tactical flexibility isn’t one of them. Killie will almost certainly line up in a 4-4-2, ceding possession in the middle of the park and allowing Aberdeen to make the most of the extra man in midfield.
Kenny McLean has looked particularly bright in fixtures against Kilmarnock and against Motherwell last week it was easy to see how much Aberdeen miss him when he isn’t there. The McLean-Christie-Shinnie axis has been responsible for most of the best aspects of Aberdeen’s play going forward this season and McInnes will need these players to be on form on Saturday to get anything from the game.
This time last year you’d be forgiven for overlooking Kris Boyd’s contribution to Kilmarnock. Fast-forward twelve months though, and the former Rangers striker has become one of the most dangerous forwards in the division. Boyd leads the Premiership scoring charts with 16 goals and is on track to finish as top scorer for the first time since the 2009/10 season.
It’s not just Boyd’s goalscoring record that’s improved however. Boyd’s hold-up play has also improved this season, as demonstrated by his key passes. When judged on the amount of shots that Kilmarnock players are setting up, Boyd comes in fourth place overall – only Jordan Jones, Greg Taylor and Stephen O’Donnell manage more than the ex-Scotland international.
Boyd is the focal point of Killie’s attack and the key to blunting Clarke’s side going forward. The 34-year-old was never blessed with pace and with time creeping up on him, his style of play is far from dynamic. What sets Boyd apart are his penalty-box instincts, his reading of the game and an eye for goal.
In order to stop him then, a specific man-marker should be deployed. McInnes should select a centre back who, like Boyd, excels in their reading of the game. Kari Arnason seems a good fit here – the 35-year-old has the highest interceptions per 90 of any Aberdeen player, along with the natural physicality to keep Boyd quiet throughout the game. After a dreadful performance against Motherwell last week, Arnason has as much to prove as any Aberdeen player and will surely be desperate to redeem himself.
Shay Logan was another who missed Aberdeen’s semi-final and again his absence underlined his value to the team. His replacement last week was Dominic Ball, a natural centre back, and his discomfort out wide was clear for all to see last weekend. Motherwell’s first goal last week was entirely his fault; not just for Ball’s inexplicable decision to stop and face the referee to appeal for a hand ball, allowing Richard Tait to scamper away. The ex-Rangers defender was already exposed by pushing beyond the defensive line and was too easily exposed by a simple through ball.
McInnes will hope that Logan’s return will help avoid similar mistakes being repeated. The right back isn’t having the best season at Pittodrie this year but as the only out-and-out full back on the books at Aberdeen, more is required from Logan. On Saturday, the 30-year-old will likely face one of the league’s in-form wingers in Jordan Jones: this should prove to be an intriguing and decisive battle on the pitch.
Jones has attempted far more dribbles than any other Premiership player this season so nullifying him is of vital importance to Aberdeen. Logan usually excels at going forward, but it’s his defensive play that will be crucial in stopping Jones. McInnes will have to choose between playing an attacking full back or an out-of-position centre back. On last weekend’s evidence, it should be Logan. But he’ll have to improve.
Saturday, then, could be a defining moment for Aberdeen’s season. Back-to-back defeats would hurt, and McInnes’ side cannot afford to begin the split with a defeat with the race for second so competitive. The semi-final defeat highlighted Aberdeen’s vulnerability, exposing their weaknesses: a win over the division’s in-form side would do wonders for making McInnes’ dream for second place a reality.