Going into the first Old Firm derby of this season, the prevailing narrative was that…
The pressure was on Neil McCann as his Dundee side travelled to face Hamilton Academical last Saturday. Defeat would have meant seven league losses on the bounce and remaining bottom of the Premiership table. It would also have meant more calls for the manager to leave.
Fortunately for McCann that scenario was avoided thanks to a 2-0 win. The result not only sealed his team’s first points of the season, but pulled them to within three points of their vanquished opponents in ninth place. All of a sudden, the situation isn’t quite so depressing, particularly considering the quality of Dundee’s attacking play throughout the game.
Martin Canning’s formation of preference is a 3-5-2, but on this occasion he lined his Hamilton players up in a 4-4-2 system. In the absence of Darian MacKinnon the central midfield pairing was made up of Scott Martin and Tom Taiwo, while Rakish Bingham was dropped in favour of Steven Boyd in attack.
McCann went with a rough 4-diamond-2, though Lewis Spence filled in for the experienced Paul McGowan on the right side of the midfield quartet. Elliot Parish continued on in goal in place of Jack Hamilton, while Adil Nabi played just behind Benjamin Kallman up front.
Unlike most teams near the bottom of the Premiership, Dundee prioritise retaining and utilising the ball. Indeed, so far this season only Celtic, Rangers and Hibernian have averaged more possession than their 51.9 per cent. They would once again enjoy the lion’s share of possession against Hamilton, and they made good use of it for the most part.
Glen Kamara, arguably the best No.6 in the league, stayed close to the two centre-backs, Ryan Inniss and Andy Boyle, at times dropping back between them during build-up. Through this movement he was able to create 3v2 situations against Hamilton’s first line of pressing, helping Dundee to keep the ball and move it into the middle third.
McCann, as always, instructed both of his full-backs to push up down their flanks early on in build-up. From their high positions they then offered wide out-balls which could be used to switch play, while they also helped to stretch Hamilton’s midfield four by drawing out their wingers. This created more space in the central channels, which are the areas Dundee constantly looked to play through when attacking.
Their midfield four is highly fluid, and this helped them to penetrate Hamilton’s defensive block in different ways on a number of occasions. Ostensibly Karl Madianga was on the right and Elton Ngwatala on the left, with Spence and Kamara in the centre, though they were always moving and rotating positions to offer passing lanes, combine with one another and confuse Hamilton’s man-oriented defensive scheme.
The benefits of Dundee’s midfield fluidity are shown in the two graphics below. In the first screenshot, Kamara advances after being man marked by Dougie Imrie. Spence then drops deep into the space vacated by Kamara to receive, un-marked, from the centre-backs. Later in the same move, Nabi (circled) drops back, dragging Taiwo with him and freeing up space for Ngwatala between the lines.
Nabi regularly peeled off the frontline and came deep. He often looked to receive the ball with his back to goal before laying off to a teammate, though he also helped to overload Hamilton’s central midfielders, who had to cover and/or close down him, Madianga, Ngwatala and Spence. This overload led to situations like the one shown below, where Martin has to cover both Nabi and Madianga. Unable to mark both, he chooses to remain in his position, leaving Madianga free to receive a pass from Boyle and progress the attack.
The second half brought changes of personnel and mentality for both teams. Dundee, who had defended zonally in a 4-4-2 mid-block throughout the first half, became deeper and deeper as the match wore on and they looked to seal their first win. This change in defensive approach was compounded by their increasing readiness to give up possession.
In the first half, Dundee had 60 per cent of possession and succeeded with 90 per cent of their passes; in the second, they had 47 per cent of possession and succeeded with just 76 per cent of their passes. Their drop in pressing intensity can also be seen numerically, with their PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) increasing from 8.4 to 9.7. It’s unclear whether this was a result of nervousness or tactics. What is clear is that it led to them having far less control of the game.
Hamilton, meanwhile, became more assertive as they looked for a goal and a point. Having generally sat off Dundee’s centre-backs in possession in the first half (seen in the graphic above) they began to apply more intense pressure in the second, at times forcing Parish, Inniss and Boyle into long balls and giveaways. While their opponent’s PPDA increased, theirs dropped drastically from 11.1 to 5.1. Undoubtedly this was partly due to Dundee’s newfound unwillingness to retain possession, but it also had something to do with a higher press from the hosts.
Protecting the lead through deep defence is not a look that suits McCann’s side, particularly when up against a direct and physical attacking force desperate for a goal. Problems arose when Canning changed his personnel, bringing on Bingham and James Keatings on the hour mark.
Bingham partnered Fredrik Brustad up front, with Boyd moving to the left wing. This meant Hamilton had two natural strikers up against Dundee’s centre-backs, while their wingers occupied the visitors’ full-backs. One example of the issues this caused is seen below. Here, Boyd draws out Cammy Kerr, the Dundee right-back, in turn creating space in the channel for Bingham to attack and get on the end of a through ball. This led to a chance at an open goal that Brustad narrowly failed to finish.
Another personnel change that helped Hamilton was Imrie’s move to a deeper, more central position. In this new role he moved to offer a simple pass to his central defensive teammates, helping them to out-play Dundee’s two-man frontline and circulate possession more effectively.
Dundee were unquestionably the better team for the vast majority of this match, but their dominance wasn’t as pronounced as Hamilton’s strong half-hour showing in the second half. Canning’s men, buoyed by their opponent’s more negative tactics and improved by a couple of important personnel changes, created some good scoring opportunities and hit the woodwork twice.
The final score of perhaps didn’t do the Accies justice, but it’s hard to feel anything other than pleased for McCann and his players. Not only do they play progressive and attack-minded football, but they have the individual talent to be far higher in the Premiership standings than their current position of 12th.
Dundee’s next task is to build on this win. In the next two fixtures they face Kilmarnock and Livingston, two games that should see them dominate the ball once again. If they can turn that possession into goals, a rise up the league table will soon be on the cards.