Ross County consolidate their position at the top of the First Division table, after a fiercely competitive match with Hamilton.
There was not so much tactical interest in this game than usual. The two teams set up similar to previous league matches. Watching the match felt like observing a succession of set-plays, rather than an open game of footbaly. The quality of the match was affected by the number of fouls given away by both teams, particularly by Hamilton, who did not pull any punches in the contest.
The two teams lined up and then matched up. Gardyne is in place of Morrow in the second diagram, because Morrow pulled a leg muscle and had to be substituted after 7 minutes. Hamilton’s right-back should be spelled McAlister.
County continued with their 4-4-2 line-up that got them victories against Ayr and then Dundee. The only change was Kettlewell coming in for Quinn, who was out of the squad altogether. Hamilton went with a fluid but robust 4-1-3-2 that has been used in recent times by Billy Reid.
Both teams played high defensive lines for most of the match, which meant that there was little space in central midfield. Hamilton always appeared to have an extra man when the ball was in central midfield, because of the relative fluidity of their system, but with the lack of space they couldn’t make that count and were a man short elsewhere to stretch the play.
The formation diagram shows the typical lines of movement by the players in the two teams. Hamilton’s front five players moved into different positions more often than County’s, but that did not mean that they played any better.
There were three players that stood out in the Hamilton side, from a tactical perspective: Imrie, Mensing and McBride.
Hamilton Accies’ number 8 was the holding midfielder. Typically, this role involves stopping space for the opposition midfield/forwards to exploit between midfield and defence and helping the defence build play from the back, among other duties.
McBride had a curious game. He never really contributed in a play-making sense. The centre-backs behind him often had to make pass-backs to their goal-keeper Hutton, because McBride didn’t make himself available for the simple pass.
However, one thing he did do well was to stay deep and offer protections for his centre-backs in a defensive sense. This in particular allowed Accies’ full-backs McAllister and Gordon to get forward to give the team width (see fig. 1).
Hamilton needed width from their full-backs most of the time, especially on the right-hand side, because their right-midfielder was Mensing, a strong built player who is more of a natural centre-back. He was used on the right, presumably to win Hamilton their fair share of aerial challenges from throw-ins and other set-pieces.
However, County’s Fitzpatrick and Vigurs on the left-flank were both tall and strong enough to deal with Mensing on his own. In open play, Mensing tended to drift inwards to support McBride in the centre of midfield, while Currie and Crawford attacked. County’s Vigurs naturally likes to tuck in and he often followed Mensing, which meant that there was space on the flank for Hamilton’s right-back and indeed County’s left-back to get forward.
One thing that should be said at this point is the difference in the use of the two sets of full-backs. County under Adams tries to bring his full-backs into play as early as possible, using players such as Brittain and Lawson in particular to switch the ball to the flank. The full-backs ie Fitzpatrick and Miller then brought the ball forward. Hamilton, on the other hand, tried to build up play with the ball played up to Imrie and Currie and it was then that the full-backs would be played in, with space to attack down the channels. Hamilton looked their best when they played like this, but it didn’t happen enough.
County favourite Dougie Imrie was in theory Hamilton’s danger man. He has skill, speed, tenacity and a strong left foot. He nominally played as a second striker, but drifted throughout. Sometimes he led the line (with Spence dropping deeper); sometimes he dropped deep himself; and sometimes he played somewhere among County centre-back Munro, left-back Fitzpatrick and left-midfielder Vigurs.
On the whole, he was kept quiet in the first half. He probably could have done with isolating and attacking the outside of either full-back, because County have conceded a couple of penalties in this way recently. However, he started more centrally, which meant that County’s centre-backs could read his play quite well.
IMRIE AT LEFT-BACK
In the second half, Imrie was put to left-back, with forward Ryan coming on for full-back Gordon, meaning Ryan partnered Spence up front. This appears bizarre in theory but made at least some sense, because Hamilton’s system depends on the full-backs getting forward and this should have given Imrie space to attack into, to make the most of his skill.
In reality, Imrie ended up looking a little frustrated. He couldn’t get forward enough, because of the threat of the pace and running of McMenamin (later Byrne) behind him. Imrie was almost caught out in possession, trying to play his way out of trouble too often, with County latterly keen to close him down because of this.
Imrie’s ultimate contribution to the match was his fascinating duel with Ross County’s captain Richard Brittain. Both players are known for their determination and put everything into their challenges together, without playing illegally. Apart from an early shank, Brittain had a very effective match and he set the tone for the rest of his team by standing up to Hamilton’s physical approach while remaining disciplined and organised.
What of the victors, then?
In truth, Ross County did enough without being able to play excellent football. At times their one-touch passing out of defence and midfield in the first half was entertaining and effective. With Hamilton playing such a high defensive line, County were not afraid to play long balls over the top of the Accies defence, which troubled Hamilton’s centre-backs.
It was unfortunate to see Sam Morrow leave the pitch so early, because he had been on form recently and his replacement Gardyne couldn’t get into the game much.
It was only towards the end of the match, with County sitting more deep to defend their lead, that Gardyne could pick the ball up with space to run into. He has the ability to do more with the opportunities that he had, but he had not played much football recently since Morrow’s return from injury.
Iain Vigurs was substituted for winger Corcoran, but he had an influence in the game. Defensively, he kept Mensing quiet. Offensively, he offered an element of surprise against Hamilton’s midfield, because he was happy to drift in from the left flank. He had a couple of free-kicks saved well by David Hutton.
Hamilton Academical showed their strength – literally at times – by hunting for the ball in packs. Hamilton used fluid attacking patterns, compared to most teams at this level, but there was a lack of cutting edge around the County 18 yard box. It was disappointing to see Imrie kept at left-back in the second half, when he could have had a much more effective match starting high and wide on the wing and cutting in to attack the County defence.
In the aftermath of the Ayr match, this site suggested that the Dundee and Hamilton fixtures were the acid test to the theory that County could be top three contenders. After four wins on the bounce, a top three finish is certainly a possibility. The ten-team division is still too competitive at this stage to look at end of season predictions, but County look as good as any other team at present.
There might be a shortened post-match analysis of County’s next league match, away to Greenock Morton at Cappielow. Keep an eye out next weekend for a report, but due a possible lack of available time to write, any analysis will probably be truncated.