Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
In October 2016, with St Mirren on a downward spiral and looking like they had no way of avoiding relegation, Alex Rae and the club parted company, who then looked towards a former player doing a good job with Alloa Athletic in League One.
Enter Jack Ross. Ross is a guy who commands respect and was the previous chairman of the PFA Scotland Players Union. He has a degree in Economics and has shown an ability to be a stable influence during difficult periods at Dumbarton, where he was assistant manager during the tenures of Allan Adamson and Ian Murray.
It was in October 2016 where my colleague in Canada, Steven McDougall, said to me to watch St Mirren now that ‘Jacko’ was the manager. Since then, I have watched with interest at the job he has done with the club and in the way he has rebuilt a poor squad to take them to the top of the Championship. Of course, simply having good recruitment and being a respected figure isn’t going to be enough to win.
Playing against Celtic often gives an indication of how well the team has been organised, and what the coaches ideas are. St Mirren played a very compact block, didn’t play explicitly man-man but looked to press passes and prevent access diagonally from left-centre by tucking the winger inside, the FB slightly outside and creating compactness in front of the ball as McGinn moves up to press 1v1.
An issue which is common across Scottish football is defending the switch of play, and in particular when a forward line player drops off to receive the ball with their back to goal. St Mirren asked the FB to drop off and press from behind, which means the body shape of the receiver isn’t set and receiving on the move, the defender can jump in front and regain possession to start a counter facing forwards.
This caused some issues with the winger tracking the FB on the far side, rather than blocking the space to drop off into. In this example, Gary Mackay-Steven finds his way behind Demetriou with a clever 1-2.
One way to prevent this happening is have the wider midfielder – Morgan – stay in the red box, and force play wide. Stelios Demetriou wouldn’t need to drop off with Mackay-Steven, and thus keep the space closed, or at least be able to track the run from a better starting position without having a flat line of five.
The opening weeks of the season is where you can see the work being done on the training ground in pre-season and how the coaches’ tactical ideas and the variations against different opponents they will come up against across the season.
We saw in this game that St Mirren were well organised defensively, could initiate a strong press to regain possession in the opposition half, but we could also see that they would look to play a positional possession game in a flexible shape, often seen moving from 4-4-1-1 when pressing 3-2-4-1 in possession with Morgan moving inside between the lines, Smith moving higher and occupying the wide zone on the right side with Eckersely tucking across to form a back three with Baird moving wider to stabilise the shape of the back three.
When Dundee United tried to play from the back, the back four shape was woeful and offered absolutely no shape to be able to move the St Mirren block or cause difficult decisions when pressing.
Murdoch at RB moves deep inline with Durnan to receive in a deep central position. As there is nobody on the side, McMullan drops deep to support the play on the right side. The issue for Dundee United here is that they have nobody in the space between the lines to offer a forward pass. When a team has such a bad structure when looking for a forward pass, playing backpasses or circulating play is the best way to allow you to re-organise the shape, find the space between the lines, occupy opponents and create positional superiorities against the opposition midfield line.
Dundee United didn’t do any of that and instead played straight into the well organised pressing traps created by St Mirren.
In this example, Smith blocks the forward passing lane with Demetriou covering the wide pass. McShane and McGinn hold position zonally and stay compact to make a pass through midfield line difficult. With this defensive block, Stanton stays in front of the midfield line to receive, playing in the zone where he can be pressed on two sides with no support anywhere near him, except Fyvie who is already marked by Sutton dropping deep.
From a regain here, it is easy to counter attack with Smith and Morgan both in free positions to be the first pass in transition to start a counter attack with United in no position to counter press.
Given what we know about the Championship table, St.Mirren will be promoted as Champions. From next season, we need to assess if they will either be able to score enough or be strong enough defensively to be competitive in the top flight and steer away from relegation.
On current assessment, I feel that they would be good for a 7-9th placed finish, easily clear of relegation with a good cup run if they can keep Morgan on loan from Celtic.
Ross has a well organised team, buying into his ideas and executing them well in a difficult Championship. In the Premiership, as they have seen against Aberdeen, it is a completely different level of player and any off days will be punished. They will fancy their chances against clubs constantly firefighting to stay up, and are on a more positive trajectory than some of the clubs sliding down the table in the top flight.
The biggest worry for St.Mirren next season? Keeping this manager.