Both Hibernian and Aberdeen entered their clash at Easter Road last weekend with undefeated records…
It’s been a tumultuous few months at Livingston. Former manager David Hopkin left in the summer after guiding them to a second straight promotion. His replacement, the inexperienced Kenny Miller, lasted just two Premiership games as player-manager before leaving and being succeeded by Gary Holt. All of this, along with the arrival of 14 new players, ensured the club’s status as firm relegation favourites.
However, after six games into the campaign they sit pretty in fourth place and have suffered just one defeat – an opening day loss to champions Celtic, who they have since overtaken. Consequently, there is an increasing optimism that Livingston can not only survive, but thrive in the top flight this season.
Holt has changed little about the team’s style of play, continuing on the work Hopkin did before him. An aggressive defensive approach, coupled with a simple yet chaotic attacking strategy, has been enough to seal big wins against relegation rivals Hamilton and St Mirren, as well as Euro hopefuls Hibernian. Most recently, they became the first team to take points away from Hearts, drawing 0-0 with the table-toppers at Tynecastle.
Livingston’s system remains a 3-5-2, just as it was last term. A few personnel changes did occur during the summer window, however. Liam Kelly joined from Rangers to replace Neil Alexander in goal, Steven Lawless and Ricki Lamie were brought in to fill the wing-back berths, while the signing of Dolly Menga has added strength and directness to the frontline.
Elsewhere, the centre-back and central midfield trios remain in place following promotion. Declan Gallagher, captain Craig Halkett and Alan Lithgow make up the back three, while Scott Pittman, Shaun Byrne and Keaghan Jacobs occupy the midfield roles. Further forward, Scott Robinson provides mobility and endeavour alongside Menga.
A lot can be learned about a team just by listening to their manager. Holt, speaking after his side’s win over Hibs, gave an insight into Livingston’s approach when stating: “If we suddenly turn up in two weeks’ time and think… we can pass the ball about and be tippy tappy, we’ll get turned over – we need to stick to what we’re good at.”
The aversion to ‘tippy tappy’ football is, generally speaking, a problem within Scottish football. Managers refuse to even consider imbuing their teams with some sort of controlled possession style as they see it as risky. Having the ball can mean giving it away, and goals always look worse when coming after turnovers as opposed to after a good bit of organised attacking from the other team. If you’re going to lose, you might as well not stand out while doing so.
Holt, however, doesn’t deserve to be criticised for this mentality. Not yet, at least. All he is doing is underlining the clear principles that made Livingston so effective in the Championship and encouraging his players not to veer from the script. By doing what they know they can remain organised, and by being organised they can minimise their mistakes and compete in every game. The sophisticated passing can wait for now.
The statistics offer further confirmation of Livingston’s aversion to ‘risky’ possession. They have the lowest average possession in the league (43.6%), but play more long passes per 90 minutes than anyone else. To give some stylistic context, they are more direct than Martin Canning’s Hamilton, and that’s saying something.
Again, this isn’t a criticism. Directness in and of itself is not a bad thing in football, and Livingston are creating chances. Indeed, they are sixth in the Premiership table when it comes to Expected Goals, and they are actually scoring less than ‘expected’ – their xG so far is 7.05, but they have only scored six times. Once Menga gets settled up front and summer signing Craig Sibbald returns to full fitness, they may create and score even more.
Most of Livingston’s chances come from set plays or counter-attacks. This is no surprise considering their organised attacking is almost non-existent, so rarely do they actually have full control of the ball. Kelly and the centre-backs go long to the strikers at almost every opportunity, with the focus simultaneously on avoiding turnovers deep in their own half and on constantly stressing or turning the opponent’s back line.
As a result of this direct approach, neither they nor their opponent has organised possession. The ball is in the air a lot, and this leads to lots of attacking or defensive transitions. However, Holt’s team consistently give themselves a good chance of emerging victorious from these uncertain situations.
Firstly, they get compactness and numbers around the second balls through their wing-backs tucking in and their central midfielders pushing up. Rarely do Livingston find themselves in situations of numerical inferiority here, and the players’ positioning ensures they aren’t all bypassed at once with a simple headed clearance. Secondly, they are an extremely physical bunch, with Menga, Byrne and Lamie offering aerial threat.
With the strength and fitness throughout their core, as well as the good central presence that arises naturally from their 3-5-2 system, Holt’s side are built for winning 50/50 duels and securing loose balls. With this in mind, the more chaotic the game, the higher their chance of winning, and their direct attacking strategy leads to a whole lot of chaos.
The ironic thing is that a number of Livingston’s players are perfectly capable on the ball. Gallagher is comfortable driving forward, while Halkett and Lithgow both have fine passing ranges. And, if they do establish possession in the middle third, Jacobs and Byrne are steady passers.
In these rare instances, the midfielders will generally look to circulate the ball to the wing-backs to work a crossing opportunity, though Pittman does offer a more penetrative option centrally. The 26-year-old, who recently signed a new contract, makes intelligent runs in the final third to offer an option between the lines or link the attack high up the pitch. If Livingston are to go through rather than around or over their opposition, he will likely be the reason why.
When discussing what makes Livingston so effective, Pittman pointed to the team’s defending. “We keep our shape… and try to get teams on the counter attack,” he told BBC Sport. “We try to press the other team, get in people’s faces, don’t make it easy for them.”
These words will resonate with fans of teams who have been unfortunate enough to have played Pittman & Co. so far this season. It always seems as if they have an extra player – if two players go for a tackle and miss, there is another sweeping up behind them to collect the loose ball and start a counter.
The early numbers back up Pittman’s words. Livingston are sixth in the table for PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action), top of the table for interceptions per 90 minutes, and third in the table for defensive duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession.
Setting up in a 5-3-2 mid or low block, their pressing focus varies depending on the opponent. Against back threes, their front two of Menga and Robinson tend to split and concentrate on the outside centre-backs; against back fours, the front two will press the opposition’s centre-back duo while the wing-backs, Lawless and Lamie, take it in turns closing down the ball-near opposition full-back.
Neil Lennon’s Hibs lined up against them in a 3-4-1-2 system, so their outside centre-backs – Efe Ambrose and Paul Hanlon – were covered by Menga and Robinson while Ryan Porteous was the free man. This had the effect of funnelling Hibs’ possession down the centre, where Livingston had good numbers and a man marking midfield trident to take away safe forward passing options. This, combined with Robinson and Menga pressing backwards, regularly resulted in a misplaced pass and a breakdown in Hibs’ possession.
Man marking remains the dominant form of defensive coverage in Scotland. This is in spite of the success teams such as Kilmarnock and Rangers have enjoyed recently since switching to a more zonal method. However, Livingston’s man marking isn’t nearly as rigid or all-encompassing as that seen in other teams, such as Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen. It’s actually quite unique.
The front two’s pressing actions differ depending on the opponent, but they do look to press the first line consistently. If and when they are bypassed they remain engaged in the press, while the central midfielders go from man marking to a more flexible, space-oriented defensive approach.
Rather than following their opposite men, Byrne, Pittman and Jacobs will look to retain their strong central presence, surround the opposition ball-player and occupy the area where the action is. (Examples of this against Hibs and Hearts are seen below.) This often means they can overload the opposition. One player will look to tackle the opponent, forcing him to rush his decision. And, even if he resists the initial pressure, there is always another Livingston player nearby to harangue him once again.
Evidently, Livingston’s flexible, one might say ‘situational’, man marking allows them to move and press collectively rather than defend individually. This reduces the gaps between players and increases their chances of winning the ball. Furthermore, if the opposition do bypass their midfield line, the back three of Gallagher, Halkett and Lithgow are extremely aggressive in man marking their opposite men. So, should an opposing striker receive the ball, they are put under immediate and intense pressure from behind and allowed no space to control, turn and advance the attack further.
While Hearts were unable to add Livingston to their list of vanquished opponents, they did lay down a blueprint for beating Holt’s side. By taking up a medium defensive line and having their back four actively move up at every opportunity, they were able to nullify Livingston’s long ball game and frequently catch Robinson and Menga offside. Additionally, their wide players and strikers dropped into the middle third to provide dynamism and overloads to play through midfield.
Craig Levein’s side hit the crossbar twice and missed a penalty. They were the dominant side, had the best chances and could easily have won the game relatively comfortably on another day. Other Premiership teams would be wise to copy their fluid 4-4-2 system when taking on Holt’s men in future.
Ultimately, Livingston can expect to suffer a regression in form at some point this season. While their aggressive defence has been effective, it will be difficult to keep up such intensity, especially when having such little possession, for a whole campaign. And even if they do keep up their high standards, will they have the motivation to continue if and when relegation is avoided?
Regardless of exactly how well they end up doing, perhaps the greatest thing Holt and his players have accomplished is show that Championship teams do not have to completely alter their style and personnel upon winning promotion to the Premiership. Consistency and organisation can be enough to compete.