Why are Tommy Wright’s St Johnstone in decline?

Why are Tommy Wright’s St Johnstone in decline?

By Stevie Grieve

Tommy Wright joined St Johnstone as assistant to Steve Lomas in November 2011 and took over as manager in June 2013. In that time, he has established St Johnstone as a top six Scottish Premiership club, something that many fans haven’t experienced in their lifetimes.


In that time, Wright has become the most successful manager in the clubs history, with consecutive top-six finishes leading to five trips into Europe, creating memorable nights against both Rosenborg and away to Luzern of Switzerland, where many Saints fans made the trip. I still remember Saints playing at home to Monaco in 1998 in a thrilling 3-3 draw as an excited 11-year-old, and I’m sure this generation of Saints fans will remember the games vs. Rosenberg and Luzern for the same reasons.


Winning the Scottish Cup in 2014, and beating local rivals Dundee United in the final was a ‘once in a lifetime’ moment for many fans, cementing the squad and Wright in club folklore, giving legendary status to ‘Sir Tommy’ in many people’s eyes. Perth town centre was filled for the Scottish Cup parade in scenes the town has never seen before.


A living legend 


Many people will try to pour water on these achievements as this was during a period in which Rangers were in freefall, and many clubs saw an opportunity for silverware, and indeed took that opportunity. Rangers accompanied both of the Edinburgh clubs in the Championship with weaker squads than in previous years, resulting in momentous occasions for fans of northern and east coast clubs; Ross County and Aberdeen who won the League Cup, Dundee United, St Johnstone winning the Scottish Cup. Incredibly, Hibs beat Rangers in an all-Championship final ending Hibs’ 113-year wait between Scottish Cup wins.


After the Scottish Cup win and multiple European trips, Tommy Wright is a club legend.


During this period of success for St Johnstone, many fans have voiced dissension at the style of play employed by Tommy Wright, which got the best out of many players. The introduction of Stevie May to stretch the game and drive the team forward was a vital component to the success, and replacing him would be a near-impossible task.


When a quality player such as May leaves, either the style needs to be adapted or a player of a similar profile needs to be found, which on the wage budget of Saints, is difficult. To his credit, Wright seems to have tried to find players who flew under the radar, including several players from the League of Ireland.



When managers have won playing in a direct, safety first manner, they can justify the process by pointing to the results. Eventually, teams will regress and end up where the quality of play merits, and if the quality of players drops, then you have real issues, like Hibs and Dundee United in recent seasons. Right now, St Johnstone are showing relegation form with no real process to speak of to show that there might be a way out if this elongated slump, especially at home.


Having shown tactical nous in the past, such as changing from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 to nullify Rangers, Wright should be given as much time as necessary to turn it around. He is a club legend, and loyalty towards managers is an uncommon trait in the modern game. This is the first real bad period since Wright took over, and under the leadership of Steve Brown. This will be a test of the relationship between the pair and if they see eye-to-eye on the future direction of the club. Wages and transfer fees are low, but using a statistical approach and looking for young players to sell on like Saints did with May, may give the club an added financial boost in the future.


It should be noted, that after every period of relative success for St. Johnstone, there has been a very sharp decline. It is imperative that the club assess the current situation and ensure what happened in the past doesn’t happen in the future.


After the successes of the early 70s where both Bobby Brown and Willie Ormond left the club to manage Scotland, there was a sharp decline wherein 1986 St Johnstone were relegated to the 3rd tier. It has taken prudent fiscal management from Geoff Brown, and now Steve, to get St Johnstone to where they are today. We have already seen that even after winning a Scottish Cup, Dundee United, Hearts and Inverness Caley Thistle all suffered a relegation not long after winning the trophy due to poor coaching, management and squad planning.


Failure to build a new squad


Recent forays into Europe have shown a regression; beating Rosenborg and coming close to reaching the group stage in 2013-14, to underwhelming performances in the last two seasons, losing in the first round against both Alashkert of Armenia and FK Trakai of Lithuania without scoring away from home.


Such regression could often be put down to having been unlucky, but these were completely deserved results. St Johnstone deserved to lose in both matches. If you are going from beating a strong team in Switzerland to losing to the fourth-placed team in Armenia, we need to look at the tactics or the squad succession planning.


Currently, at the time of writing, St Johnstone have an average age of 28.9, suggesting that the team is likely two years past peak age, which would correlate with the decline in performances and results.


Key players such as Alan Mannus, Steven Anderson, Brian Easton, Chris Miller and Steven MacLean all need replaced by ready-made players or current players in the squad. Unfortunately for St Johnstone, only Mannus has an able, ready-made replacement in 25-year-old Zander Clark.



Other players in the squad such as Dee Wotherspoon and Murray Davidson are approaching 30 and will need to have a player coming in behind them to take over the position in 2-3 years, so future player identification from the youth academy is a must, and match experience must be gained from the current U20s to enable this to happen.


Younger players such as Aaron Comrie have been given opportunities but at 21, it’s three years too late. If there was a feeling he might be a first team player in the future, more games in the first team at Premiership level were required to be ready. Currently, St Johnstone have a policy of sending young players to part-time clubs to gain match experience which is fine, it worked for May and Chris Kane, and will hopefully continue in future.


Tommy Wright has complained recently in the press that he “needs more quality” in the squad, which is true. The reason for this is not that the previously good players have become bad players, but the direct, physical style of play no longer works with players of declining physical prowess. Either the style must be adapted or the profile of player must be identified to continue in the same manner.


In the meantime, the club must go into recruitment mode for the summer which is something that should’ve been done two years ago to prevent the freefall situation Saints currently find themselves in due to past-peak age players and an ineffective style of play.



Only in Summer 2017 were ‘young’ players signed, at an average age of 21.8. This may be a deliberate way of keeping a squad at ‘peak age’ by looking to bring in players who balance out each other. If you sign a 23-year-old and a 31-year-old, one player is 2-3 years beyond peak age, while one is approaching peak age.



St Johnstone tactical issues – the hallmarks of relegation


When in possession, St Johnstone rarely build play from the goalkeeper. Often Clark or Mannus will hammer the ball downfield to Steven MacLean and look to win the second ball. When you play like this, everything is down to organisation and winning second balls.


Wright’s team are good at getting bodies around the ball, which leaves them vulnerable in transition as they don’t press after losing possession. In a team whose basic shape often resembles a 4-4-2 they end up against opponents with a player less in midfield, the midfield line flat, and poor staggering of players across the lines which will often result in being opened up if the counter press isn’t good, which in St. Johnstone’s case, it never is.


Ten competitive wins from 31 at home since October 2016 with 16 defeats and five draws. Ten games with no goals scored and only on nine occasions has more than one goal been scored. For an increasing home support, this is tough to handle. No wins in the last eight at home. I was at the 0-0 vs. Hearts at Christmas and it may have been the worst game I’ve ever been to. A £23 donation effectively with nothing in return for the fan.


This must change as 4200 on average for a home game in a city of 50,000 may not last too much longer if the current situation continues. A boost after the Scottish Cup win has continued but fans are restless.


Why are Saints struggling at home?



Defensively, Saints start in a rigid 4-4-2 with no real organised press from the front players, which make them easy to manipulate. They struggle against teams who like to circulate possession, which in this case, Johnstone follows the ball when Woods occupies the space between the four players to provoke pressure to release the far side central defender. Cargill here finds Erskine in the space that Millar can’t cover after the phase of circulation, which means Scougall should block the pass into Erskine and leave the wide pass to set a trap to regain in the wide zone 3v3 with Watson and Millar.


Partick Thistle show here that with a well-connected build up and good positioning behind the midfield line, you can stop the opponent from pressing and create high-quality scoring chances.




Against many teams playing a flat 4-4-2, you can play wide passes just to get the midfield four to shift over, then back inside. If the near-side central midfielder comes to press, you should have a player in the position Lawless is in to break the press and attack the back line. If Craig stays deeper, the pass to Woods may provoke Millar to press, opening the forward pass. The front players could drop in to reduce the space vertically between the midfield four and front two and help this, but the real issue is the flatness of the midfield four and how easy they are to manipulate as the ball travels.




This is a common scene for St Johnstone with nobody playing in the inside channel to allow you to occupy multiple players to free up space to move the ball into the free man and attack with positional superiority. Partick showed that it can be done in Scottish football, despite what many pundits suggest when they scored a great goal (Lawless, 13 mins) by being positioned in relation to the opposition block in this match. St Johnstone play direct, but without a good attacking structure, your defensive transition suffers badly. Eventually, you end up with a basketball match where the most decisive team wins.




Again, when you attack, you need to be set to defend. This is a fundamental principle of all team sports yet many coaches at the top level seem to ignore it. Here, Saints play long, the ball is lost. Watson is unable to control Storey on the counter, Scougall can’t prevent Woods moving forward, while Craig and Millar are too flat to prevent a pass between them.


Here, Craig should have dropped into the gap between Shaughnessy and Anderson to prevent the central attack as Comrie is tracking Lawless, meaning Millar could block the wide pass to Storey who won’t be caught by Watson. This would allow more pressure by Millar, a blocked forward pass to Erskine and Storey, forcing play wide into Comrie’s side where he can be supported by Craig moving over and giving time for Millar to make a 3-2 block as everyone recovers into position.



This is a set defensive shape against a throw in. If you intend to win the ball, you need to be set to either recycle possession or remove it from a dangerous area. Here, Saints win possession on the forward pass, Shaughnessy is caught on the ball resulting in Anderson not being set to defend in transition, leaving Kerr alone on the box against Curtis Main who scores.


This is not uncommon, both goals conceded against Motherwell came from a lack of organisation after losing possession. An example of Tommy Wright highlighting individual mistakes would possibly refer to Davidson competing to win the ball from Campbell, losing out and compounding it by failing to track his run into the box from deep, conceding the second goal.




In the Premiership, attacking and defensive transitions are the key to controlling matches. Celtic are completely in control of both phases due to the positional structure they set up when in organised possession. By passing to a player’s feet or into a run, we know where the ball is going, how we move with the ball and how we are set up to press/counter-attack from that position.


In Saints’ case, the first pass in transition is generally direct or behind the defence as early as possible. With that in mind, this effects the runs players make and the chance of completing the attack to lead to a shot.


In this diagram, the white arrows show which runs were made, I’ve suggested better ones in blue. Craig would stay right centre, stabilise the attack and allow the wide midfielders to support the attack from behind, starting with a wide pass into the wide run of Johnstone.


Overall, Wright has a mountain of work to do on the training ground – not going ‘back to basics’ which is the bog standard line usually spouted in times like this. The simplicity of how they play is becoming the problem – they are predictable, boring, easy to break down and lack control in phases where the ball is never under control. They are a team in physical decline, while Anderson and MacLean cannot go on forever.


Brown must be watching the next few months with interest as the previous history of success at St Johnstone followed by a very sharp decline is something he must be wary of. Wright must be looking to solve these problems and although he still has an invisibility cloak after a cup win four years ago, unless there is a drastic improvement in performances in the near future, St Johnstone could find themselves in a relegation scrap either right now or next season, leaving Saints fans with a withering view of Wright’s legacy as a club legend.


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