The two Scottish Premiership games to be played this mid-week really are tasty affairs. Motherwell…
The return of the Scottish Premiership this week brings with it a whole host of interesting stories and narratives, but none as intriguing as the current race for second place between Rangers and Aberdeen.
Derek McInnes’ side travel to Ibrox on Wednesday night, knowing fine well that a defeat to the Gers will put Graeme Murty’s side equal on points with them. And with two back-to-back defeats just before the winter break still fresh in the memory, the Dons will undoubtedly be wondering how they can make sure they don’t lose their first league match of 2018.
So how can Aberdeen stop Rangers?
The first thing that McInnes has to do is step out of his comfort zone and throw caution to the wind. A hard-fought, 0-0 draw may be all the Aberdeen coach dreams of when his head hits the pillow ahead of the trip to Govan, but in truth the reality of the situation rarely plays out like that.
For a start: Aberdeen aren’t very good at defending. They may be physical, organised and show a real determination to sit back and stop teams from scoring but they’re by no means a well-oiled defensive machine. And the stats make that perfectly clear.
When it comes to expected goals against (xG) – i.e the amount of goals a team ‘should’ have conceded in this season’s league so far – Aberdeen sit fourth, just behind Kilmarnock and Motherwell and only slightly above a Rangers side that have been largely useless in defence so far.
Similarly, when we tally up how many scoring chances each team has conceded in the Premiership this season we can see that McInnes’ team are joint fourth alongside Killie. And in this regard, Rangers are actually better than them.
It’s not as if the Dons coach is setting his team up defensively whenever they travel down to Glasgow and leaving them wide open against lesser teams. In just four games against the Old Firm this season, Aberdeen have conceded an incredible 11 goals. If McInnes has a defensive tactic in mind whenever he plays either side it clearly isn’t working and he ought to consider flipping it on its head.
Aberdeen are also pretty good in attack when they want to be. McInnes has seemingly managed to successfully implement Adam Rooney back into the team, Niall McGinn is back and looked like his old self against St Mirren on Saturday and in Ryan Christie the Pittodrie side have one of the most promising attacking players in the whole league.
No central midfielder in the Premiership has as many assists as Graeme Shinnie so far this season. And Stevie May sits just two behind him with five to his name. Add a rejuvenated Gary Mackay-Steven to that and it isn’t hard to suggest that Aberdeen’s strengths undoubtedly lie in attack.
Indeed, when we took a look at which teams were over or underachieving last week, we found that Aberdeen are actually one of the most efficient in attack. The team’s current xG in the Premiership stands at 33.230, which is identical to the 33 goals they’ve scored so far. Essentially, when Aberdeen create goal-scoring chances they tend to score them.
When we look at the graph, which shows each club’s xG For and actual goals scored in the Premiership this season, we can see that the likes of Motherwell, Ross County and even Celtic create way more chances than they end up scoring, but Aberdeen and Hibernian are almost bang on the money when it comes to converting what they create.
So if the logic suggests Aberdeen score as many chances as they create, surely they should then set about trying to create more chances? At the very least McInnes could consider the idea of playing a slightly more attacking threat than Anthony O’Connor in midfield.
Of course, doing what you’re team are good at is only half the battle. If Aberdeen want to match Rangers or even beat them on Wednesday they’ll have to make sure they can nullify a number of Murty’s attacking threats.
Although, it’s never too hard to figure out who is scoring Rangers’ goals or indeed which playmakers are pulling the strings for the Ibrox side. And as we can see from the graph below, when it comes to key passes (i.e passes that lead to shots) and assists it’s usually three or four of the same, old faces.
Daniel Candeias tops the list when it comes to Rangers’ most creative players in the Premiership this season, but right behind him is the man who, well, tends to find himself right behind him: James Tavernier. And Josh Windass, Rangers’ other forward on the left wing, isn’t far behind with 22 key passes this season.
Although Ryan Jack and Jason Holt have proved exceptionally useful in attack for Rangers this season, their contributions pale in comparison to what Murty’s team are capable of on either wing. And if Aberdeen want to plug any holes in defence it’ll surely need to come in support of Shay Logan and Andy Considine.
This surely suggests one thing: if you can crowd Rangers’ flanks and keep the likes of Candeias or Tavernier from swinging crosses in and Windass from cutting inside then you can really nullify this Rangers side.
Sure, the club have bolstered their attack with loan signings, Jason Cummings and Jamie murphy, however the former is a striker reliant on said service and the latter is a winger that doesn’t tend to establish himself as a creator of goals. Although both may feature, neither will most likely be considered chief playmaker over the three aforementioned dangermen.