Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
The Scottish Premiership has been gloriously unpredictable so far this season both on and off the field. Surprise managerial sackings, controversial sending offs and shock results have made for an interesting start to the campaign. One club which embodies this is Livingston. The Lions let go of player-manager Kenny Miller but have experienced a successful start on the pitch.
There’s no doubt Gary Holt’s made an impact and was a swift and astute appointment to replace the former Rangers striker. Similarly, there are players delivering standout performances throughout the team. The likes of Scott Pittman and Shaun Byrne are proving formidable in the middle of the park. Conversely, we’re going to focus on the Lions’ defence and just how effective they’ve been this season.
Whether they line up with a back three or four, Livi’s backline looks solid and well organised. The defence has arguably improved since Holt came in and this will be significant going forward given that they are a side that will be under the cosh for many games this season. Just how impressive have they been so far this season? Let’s take a closer look.
If you were to watch Livingston last season their solid defence may hardly come as a surprise. Captain Craig Halkett is only 23-years-old but is an excellent leader and looks set to continue developing into a quality centre-back. The only problem with this is that Livi may struggle to hold onto him if that’s the case.
Similarly, Declan Gallagher and Alan Lithgow have also shown so far that they’re more than capable of taking the step up from the Championship. And this is the pertinent point, these three defenders impressed last season, the worry was whether they could replicate that level of performance in the top flight; so far so good. This rock solid backline allows the midfield to play more and is a strong foundation for Holt’s side.
Of course, it’s still early days but we can already see that the Lions are performing well defensively. Only Hamilton (331) have participated in more defensive duels than Livingston (305) this term. However, it’s the success rate of these battles that are more significant. Livingston win 24.59% of theirs which is almost identical to Hearts (24.6%) and only bettered by Kilmarnock (31.84%). It’s also important to note that Livi had more overall defensive duels than both Killie and the Jambos.
A big part of these impressive early numbers is down to the previously mentioned defensive trio. In the Premiership, only Kilmarnock’s Gary Dicker has won a higher percentage of his defensive duels than Gallagher. Similarly, the latter is also in the top 20 for the number of defensive duels he’s participated in.
The game against Hibs at the weekend was a microcosm of this. Neil Lennon’s side’s attacking options were all dominated by the Livingston defence. After Livi got the second goal to put them in front they never looked like losing, which is no mean feat given how dangerous a team they were facing.
Those who regularly watch Livingston will tell you it’s hardly groundbreaking to say Halkett, Lithgow and Gallagher are good defenders. After all, they played a significant part in the club gaining promotion last season. Perhaps many always thought they’d make the step up whilst in the Premiership. Lithgow, in particular, has played all his football in the lower leagues so it’s satisfying to see him hit the ground running at this level.
Livingston's record when Declan Gallagher, Craig Halkett and Alan Lithgow are all in the starting line-up: P55 W33 D17 L5. Goals conceded 44.
— Callum Carson (@CallumCarson34) August 25, 2018
This tweet from Callum Carson, the Sports Editor of the West Lothian Courier, highlights just how important the defenders are. This stat can now be updated to ‘P56 W34 D17 L5. Goals conceded 45’ following their victory over Hibs. It really is a remarkable stat. So how are they so effective? Well, let’s take a look at how they fare in the air. For many, a defender’s bread and butter is ensuring they dominate aerial duels and win headers. This is certainly something Livingston’s defence thrive at.
You only have to have a quick glance to see how strong Livingston’s defenders are in the air. In terms of overall aerial duels, nobody partakes in more than captain Halkett. (43). Gallagher comes third in this regard with 31 aerial duels whilst Lithgow is further down with just 14. That said, the latter has played half the game time of the others. On a separate note, Ricki Lamie is another defender that impresses in this metric. He’s only one behind Gallagher overall (30) and has a better aerial duels per 90 rate (14.21) than all three of the aforementioned defenders.
However, when we turn our eyes to how many of these battles each player wins we begin to see just how effective Halkett, Gallagher and Lithgow really are. The skipper wins over 75% of all the aerial duels he participates in. He’s closely followed by Gallagher (65.12%) and Lithgow (64.29%) who also win the majority of their battles in the air. Only Steven Saunders has a higher success rate, but he also has a significantly lower number of aerial duels to his name.
Simply put, Livingston’s backline are a force to be reckoned with in the air. Not only do they put themselves about, but more often than not they are successful. To emphasise just how impressive Halkett is in this regard, he’s 12th in the league for overall number of aerial duels. Even more impressive is that he’s ninth when it comes to success rate. He truly is leading from the front and so far is one of the best in the Premiership.
Another metric we can look at is interceptions. Again Halkett is leading by example as he has made more interceptions this season than anybody else (28). Gallagher isn’t too far behind with 22 but Lithgow has fewer than other defenders Saunders and Lamie with just 11. However, remember he has played less game time. Halkett is actually again in the top ten in the league for overall interceptions whilst Gallagher makes it into the top 20.
In essence, just by looking at a few different stats it’s evident how effective this Livi defence have been so far. They’re formidable in the air and are quick to enter defensive duels when possible. We’ve focused on three players, but Saunders and Lamie are also decent players which show there’s a bit of depth in the squad. Conversely, there’s no doubting Halket, Gallagher and Lithgow seem to be the best three defenders at the club.
Gallagher and Lithgow are extremely effective at what is expected of them. They are defenders that love to defend. So is Halkett, but he’s also so much more. He’s a leader and wise beyond his years. He may be just 23, but there’s a reason he’s captain and helped steer this team to a seemingly impossible promotion last term.
Many predict Livingston to struggle this season. However, being the underdog once again will suit them just fine. Nobody will forget their route to promotion, they weren’t expected to get in the playoffs, never mind beat the likes of Dundee United and Partick Thistle. It’s early days, but with this defence, they have a foundation that will allow them to give the Premiership a right good go.