What’s behind Motherwell’s poor start to the Premiership season?

What’s behind Motherwell’s poor start to the Premiership season?

By Niall Murray

Scottish football doesn’t disappoint. We may only have witnessed two match days but already the Premiership has given us unbelievable goals, red cards and a grown man shouting at his opponent as they lay injured on the ground. All that aside, the season is very much still in its infancy and consequently, it’s too early to jump to any conclusions. That said, Motherwell have had a poor start to the campaign.


Now before we go any further, it must be stressed that this isn’t an article saying the Steelmen are in meltdown or that the Fir Park faithful should be panicking. No, rather it’s looking at why the Lanarkshire side have not only lost their opening two games but have also performed poorly as a team.


On paper, Motherwell’s squad looks just as strong as last season with one notable exception; Cedric Kipre. There’s no doubt the Ivorian will, and is, missed at Fir Park but selling him for £1million is an impressive bit of business from the club. That aside Stephen Robinson has so far kept the likes of Chris Cadden and Allan Campbell. So why then have his side looked so poor and bereft of ideas in their opening two fixtures? Let’s take a closer look.


Problems with shape and formation


The main overriding issue with Motherwell seems to be the formation that’s being employed. Robinson enjoyed a lot of success playing 3-5-2 last year, but it appears that he might have to adapt this going forward or at least have an effective, alternative plan.



Although Motherwell dominated much of the game against Hamilton they had no creative spark or guile. The other issue is that without Kipre or Charles Dunne, Motherwell have a very rigid back three. Peter Hartley and Tom Aldred are completely different types of players to Kipre and Dunne. The latter have pace and are able to recover when they become exposed on either side of the defensive three. Moreover, both also were significantly more likely to dribble out from the back.


A back three of Hartley, Aldred and Carl McHugh is certainly physically imposing but perhaps isn’t the best balanced. Aldred is undoubtedly a good signing and impressed last season but without a pacier centre-back, the defensive three just isn’t as effective. They need players that have the pace to fill in if the wing-backs are caught out and who are willing to bring the ball out from the back.


The graph above emphasises this point. Whereas Kipre completed 34 dribbles and Dunne 23, in comparison, Aldred only completed five and Hartley two. It’s a similar story when it comes to the average number of dribbles per 90 minutes. Kipre (0.93) and Dunne (0.66) were significantly more like to dribble than Aldred (0.28) or Hartley (0.14). There’s no doubt Kipre is a miss, but Dunne is as well as he helps balance this Motherwell defence. Moreover, the bottom line is that this current defence isn’t as strong as their backline from last season.


Perhaps it might be worth Robinson trying to play a back four. With Aldred and Hartley they’d have an intimidating centre-back pairing, while the likes of Tait and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair are two players alongside them with plenty of pace. Changing to a back four would also let them make some changes further up the pitch, but we’ll get to that later. Furthermore, it would also free up McHugh to move into midfield.


A lack of creativity and goal threat


It is very early days, however, in their first two games against Hibs and Hamilton, the Fir Park side have struggled in the creative department. Particularly against their Lanarkshire rivals, Motherwell controlled much of the first 70 minutes but couldn’t turn possession into goals or many clear-cut chances.


The thing is, Robinson does have creative players. Campbell, Gaël Bigirimana and Cadden all have the ability to play with the ball at their feet, so why have the men in amber and claret lacked a cutting edge? One reason is that they certainly miss Craig Tanner who is without a doubt one of their best creative players. Conversely, they can’t rely on one player who is currently out with a serious injury to turn around their fortunes.


The other reason is the style that this Motherwell team play. It’s never been the most pleasing on the eye, but last season it was extremely effective and Robinson knows how to make sure his team are well-drilled. The Fir Park side need to try to play less long balls in the air. If the likes of Campbell and Bigirimana are going to create something they need to be given the ball into feet more often. Furthermore, they have two strikers in Main and Sammon who, despite their appearance, are not at their best in the air.


The club’s strikers haven’t looked too threatening in the opening couple of games. Sammon has looked the better out of him and Main. In fact, the latter really is in a poor patch of form. He started his Fir Park career with a bang and really helped plug the gap left by Louis Moult. However, since his scintillating display against Aberdeen at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-finals, he’s not been anywhere near as effective.



Don’t believe us? Then all you have to do is look above. Before and including that semi-final Main found the back of the net six times. Since then, the Englishman has only scored twice and those both came in the League Cup against Clyde and Edinburgh City. Moreover, the striker’s expected goals (xG) rate has also dropped from 6.76 to 4.56.


This decline also translates into the goals per 90 and xG/90 metrics. Main averaged 0.43 goals per game, but since then that’s dropped to 0.29. His xG/90 is also lower; from 0.56 to 0.44. This suggests that he’s also still missing a few chances that he’s expected to put away. The final area is his conversion rate. This lets us know how many of his shots end up in the back of the net. Unsurprisingly this has fallen rather dramatically from 14.63% to 8.57%. This isn’t intended to be a witch hunt, just rather that Robinson perhaps needs to think about his options going forward.


We mentioned previously how changing to a back four could let the manager alter things up the other end of the pitch. Why not try Sammon or Main as a lone striker? Alternatively, why not pair Danny Johnson with one of the two? He seems like he might compliment them better up top. Right now you’d have to say, judging from the first couple of games, that Sammon deserves the nod over Main.


There’s no crisis and no reason for Motherwell fans to panic. They have a good squad and an excellent manager in place at Fir Park. After all, they lost their opening two games last season and ended up having a memorable campaign. Sure they have Aberdeen, Rangers, Hearts and Kilmarnock coming up in their next six games, but there’s nothing to say Robinson’s side can’t turn things around and once again become the team that were a force to be reckoned last term.



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