How St Johnstone’s change in approach is paying off

How St Johnstone’s change in approach is paying off

By James Cairney

Before the season began, it seemed like the top six in the Scottish Premiership was already pretty sewn up. Both halves of the Old Firm were never going to drop into the lower half, while Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs would all likely finish in the top six, so long as they avoided a catastrophic run of form. Kilmarnock or Motherwell would have been most fans’ picks to fill the remaining place but at this early stage of the season, it looks like it could be St Johnstone that break into the top half.

 

Saints have enjoyed a good start to the season, losing one of their opening five Premiership fixtures and Tommy Wright has guided the club into the League Cup quarter-finals, where St Johnstone will host Celtic next month. The summer was one of significant upheaval in Perth but Wright appears to have rejuvenated and tinkered with his lineup to great effect. In our manager power rankings, where we judge coaches’ performances across all competitions, the Saints boss is currently one of the highest-performing managers in the league.

 

Over the last couple of seasons Wright has been focusing on rebuilding an ageing squad and has been making good progress in this regard; last season, Saints had the highest average age in the Premiership with 28.2 but this year that figure has dropped to 25.8. Fan favourites like Steven MacLean and Alan Mannus have moved on and been replaced by a raft of new signings, but the early indicators suggest that this needed to be done if Wright wanted to improve on last year’s eighth-placed finish.

 

Where St Johnstone have previously relied on a narrow, flat 4-4-2 formation, this season Wright has been lining up his team a little differently. The two wide midfielders are being asked to push a little further up the pitch, operating more like modern wingers, while the two central midfielders are not expected to contribute much going forward. Up front, Tony Watt has been partnered with David McMillan – although the ex-Celtic striker has been asked to drop a little deeper on occasion. The end result is somewhere between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 and, so far at least, it seems to be serving St Johnstone well.

 

 

This tactical tweaking has changed the way St Johnstone play and there are already some clear differences between Saints’ approach to a game when we compare this season to the previous one. Under the new system, Wright’s team average more key passes per game and an additional 3.5 crosses. At the back, St Johnstone block more shots per 90 than any other team in the league and only Motherwell, Livingston and Hamilton attempt more aerial duels – and Saints’ success rate of 54.26% is only bettered by Hearts.

 

The Perth club are still averaging around the same numbers in terms of possession as well as shots, dribbles, and touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes, but what we can see is a clear shift in the number of actions per 90 across the board. This tells us that St Johnstone are playing with more vibrancy and urgency this season: the team are working harder.

 

In fact, the only metrics by which Tommy Wright’s team have significantly dropped off is in terms of expected goals per 90 minutes, both for (xGF) and against (xGA). Obviously, a side’s xGA shrinking is only a good thing and Wright will no doubt be pleased that St Johnstone are conceding fewer clear-cut opportunities. However, St Johnstone’s xGF has dropped from 1.59 last year to 1.18, indicating that they aren’t making as many quality chances for themselves.

 

One of the most effective changes in approach from St Johnstone this year has been in the way that Ricky Foster has been deployed. Wright has given the right back greater license to roam forward and join the midfield when attacking, whipping cross after cross into the opposition box in the hope of finding a breakthrough. And it’s a role that Foster is thriving in.

 

 

Foster has been the unlikely hero of Saints’ season so far and is one of the most effective creative outlets in the Premiership this year. Last season, we touched on how important Stephen O’Donnell is when Kilmarnock are attacking and Foster is performing admirably in a similar role. The 33-year-old hits 6.22 crosses per 90 minutes – only Borja Barisic hits more – and has a success rate of 42.31, the fifth highest of any Premiership player. In terms of key passes per 90, Foster is third with 0.96.

 

The former Aberdeen defender has essentially proven to be highly effective at playing long balls, whether it be a cross into the opposition box or simply switching the play to the opposite flank. Wright realises this and is encouraging Foster to do so, as evidenced by the right back’s long passes per 90 mins of 11.97 – the fifth highest rate in the league. For a bit of context, the four players above him are all goalkeepers. By marauding forward and exploiting space created by Drey Wright, Foster has become a dangerous weapon for St Johnstone to deploy and one that future opponents will need to keep an eye on.

 

Which brings us on to the wingers. Wright’s preferred wide men of Matthew Kennedy and Drey Wright both moved to McDiarmid Park over summer from the English lower leagues and the St Johnstone boss looks to have unearthed a couple of gems. In the current St Johnstone system, the wingers are tasked with driving forward with the ball and both players have impressed doing so.

 

 

Kennedy has the fourth-highest dribbling rate in the Premiership, attempting 9.02 per 90 minutes on average and with great effect; his 72.09% success rate is the sixth-highest in the league. The ex-Portsmouth winger is a decent crosser of the ball too: Kennedy ranks twelfth in the league for crosses per 90 mins and thirteenth by success rate. The 23-year-old is fitting in well for Saints and looks as if he’ll be an important and decisive player for Tommy Wright going forward.

 

On the other wing, Drey Wright is performing well in terms of dribbling – he’s in the top 20 for dribbles per 90 minutes and has the eleventh-highest success rate – and at 24-years-old looks to be an intriguing prospect. Wright doesn’t attempt anywhere near as many crosses as Kennedy, for example, but this isn’t his role in the team. By driving forward with the ball, Wright creates space for Foster to fill into where the former Rangers player can hurt teams with his delivery.

 

There’s one last area of the pitch where Saints have improved dramatically, and it’s perhaps a surprising one: in goal. After seven seasons as St Johnstone’s first-choice goalkeeper, Alan Mannus departed the club and Zander Clark has been given the nod in his stead. Clark played a decent amount of games last season, starting on sixteen occasions, but failed to nail down a starting spot. This year, he’s been given the opportunity to stake a place and has so far been one of the most reliable goalies in the division.

 

 

Clark makes more saves per 90 minutes than any other goalkeeper in the league and has hit a good run of form in recent weeks. Only Craig Samson has faced more shots than the St Johnstone goalie and his manager will be hoping that he can keep up the good work. Last year, we saw with Jon McLaughlin how important a goalkeeper can be to a mid-table side – if Clark continues to excel, there’s no reason he can’t influence his team similarly.

 

All in all, it’s been a promising start to the campaign from St Johnstone and fans have plenty of reasons to be upbeat about their team’s prospects this season. There are a few new faces and the formation is a little different, but this could be yet another season where Tommy Wright’s side upset the odds and over-perform. For years St Johnstone were seemingly guaranteed a fourth-place finish and while that might be a stretch this season, a top-six spot isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

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