Aberdeen need to aim higher. Over the course of this season, my belief has strengthened that…
Oh, how we laughed when Pedro Caixinha made his infamous comment about Aberdeen seeing their pedal power reduced. “I do believe that they’ve had a fantastic cycle in the last three or four years and they need to renew it,” said the then Rangers manager.
Aberdeen needed to freshen the squad up if they wanted to stay ahead of the rest, including keeping his big-spending side at bay. He questioned their ability to do so because he knew he was about to take Ryan Jack off their hands, with Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn also departing.
Days after his comments, Aberdeen won at Ibrox for the first time in nearly 26 years and went on to finish nine points ahead of Rangers. Had Kenny McLean just checked his run and turned home Hayes’ pass, he may well have been the man who brought the Scottish Cup back to Pittodrie too.
Eight months on, Caixinha is gone, and Aberdeen are still sitting above Rangers in the league.
So Caixinha was wrong, wasn’t he? Manager Derek McInnes even turned down the chance to replace the Portuguese in Govan in order to stay with the second best team in Scotland. The Dons are still the top dogs in this long-standing rivalry. Well, not so fast.
The two defeats to a Graeme Murty inspired Rangers hit home that Aberdeen have a tougher fight on their hands to hang on to second than last season. That Murty was a wasteful Alfredo Morelos away from a win at Celtic Park just seven days after Aberdeen were rolled over 3-0 at the same venue put that point about Rangers being on the up back on the table.
Rangers have thrown away silly points, especially when leading games, but since Murty has taken the reigns they have out-performed Aberdeen in big matches – beating the Dons home and away, coming from behind to win at Easter Road, and giving Celtic more cause for concern than McInnes’ side has.
On the other hand, two wins over Hibs apart, Aberdeen simply haven’t turned up against the top side. On paper many would argue McInnes still boasts a stronger starting eleven than Murty. The league table shows they have more points. They went further in Europe. But, unarguably, Rangers have reached a peak more than Aberdeen have.
Rangers are now flexing their muscles in the transfer market with Jamie Murphy and Sean Goss first through the door, and rumours remain that McLean could make the same journey Jack did.
The first league game back after the winter break is Rangers v Aberdeen at Ibrox. Should the home side win, their third over the Dons this season, and unseat them in second place in the process, it would be difficult to argue the case that the Dons are still Celtic’s main threat.
Despite the growing challenge from Glasgow, does that mean Aberdeen are on the way down? No. In fact, 2018 could be very bright year for the Dons.
They have missed Hayes and McGinn. Now one of them is back, and it is the one they needed the most. Hayes at least had replacements even if they haven’t yet provided the consistency he did. The side though has lacked someone who is a natural fit on the right hand side, able to score goals and create chances, with Stewart and Christie more comfortable through the middle. When on song, McGinn is Aberdeen’s most intelligent player. His return is huge.
Aberdeen fans will hate to admit it, but the team has also missed Jack. Despite the criticism he got in his final season, Jack was an excellent player for Aberdeen. Some of it went unnoticed, and no doubt he had his off days that were amplified by the fact he was captain. Shay Logan has received a much easier time despite his alarming dip in form this season.
However, Jack was not Graeme Shinnie. He didn’t score as many goals, he didn’t win as many tackles, and he was not a leader, and fans didn’t want Shinnie and Jack, they wanted another Shinnie. Now they have Shinnie and Anthony O’Connor.
Who fills that void? Craig Storie appears to have gone missing with a loan spell at St Mirren failing to catapult him into the first team reckoning. Hard central midfielders seem tough to find these days. As seen by Aberdeen’s midfield currently being made up of a left-back and a centre-half.
What Aberdeen do have, in abundance, are quality left-sided players. The fight is on between Gary Mackay-Steven and Scott Wright to be the permanent replacement for Hayes. Both have hit hat-tricks on occasion, both have come off the bench and lifted the performance when the side is toiling, both have bags of talent and that ability to drift past players, but neither has managed any level of consistency.
Then in came Frank Ross and Daniel Harvie. Ross announced his arrival by pushing more senior players out of the way in a high-pressure situation and rattling in a free-kick against Rangers.
Ross replaced fellow prodigy Wright on the left wing in that game, but he himself admits he sees himself as more of a central midfielder. With McLean going either in the next few weeks or at the end of the season, is the time now set for Ross to step into the middle, with Shinnie essentially being the replacement for Jack and playing more defensively?
That would allow Wright to continue his battle on the left flank with Mackay-Steven, while hopes are high Harvie can stake a claim at left-back, for that Shinnie clone is becoming difficult to find. Another left-footed player who has established himself in the heart of the Dons defence is Scott McKenna.
While few would hasten the return of error-prone Ash Taylor to Pittodrie, his departure meant there was a lack of physicality in the team, and the loss of a big threat at set-pieces.
Step forward McKenna. He is an old fashioned centre-half in that he does the simple things – wins headers, puts in challenges, and makes sure he’s a presence in the opposition box at corners and free-kicks. Where Taylor tried to be more of a footballer at times, attempting to ping ambitious passes that ended up with the opposition, McKenna just gets rid of it, and it is a more than welcome sight. Alongside the experienced Kari Arnason he can only improve further.
So should Rangers be worried? Well yes, because Aberdeen are still to hit their best, yet are still ahead. May, Mackay-Steven and Stewart have only shown flashes of what they can do. Before the winter break the latter two were beginning to step it up and if they continue in that vein we’ll see them make a bigger impact over the next few months.
After being reluctant for so long to introduce youth to the team, McKenna is starting regularly while Wright and Ross are ready to join him. Another midfielder, 16-year-old Dean Campbell, became the club’s youngest first team player last season just hours after sitting an English exam at school, and he is making waves in the under-20s. That adds a depth that Aberdeen have lacked in previous seasons.
While another Christie arriving in the January transfer window would provide a boost, they could do without another last-minute Donervan Daniels style signing to play ahead of the club’s youth prospects, and they already have three loanees in the squad.
McGinn is back and if Logan can rediscover his old self then Aberdeen are more than capable of stepping back to the level of this time last year. A run of form that saw them win 20 of 26 games, two of them seven-goal hammerings, before finishing comfortably in second place and featuring in a Scottish Cup final.
And let’s look ahead again to that showdown at Ibrox on January 24. What if it is the Aberdeen side that thumped four goals past Hibs that turns up that evening? What if the Dons leave with the points, their second win in a year at the home of their greatest foes?
Six points clear. Key players finding their form. Exciting young talent breaking through. Then it would be difficult to make the case that Rangers are ready to dismount the Dons just yet.
Photography by Scott Baxter. Buy images/prints here.
Photography by Stephen Dobson. Buy images/prints here.