Without the Subbuteo board this weekend, we have ‘artist illustrations’, to paint the picture of some scenarios in the match.
Ross County earned a challenging three points, against a Greenock Morton side who were always willing to play the game on the front foot, but who ultimately didn’t pose any sort of threat.
Morton failed to make the most of their numerical advantage in midfield, because striker Peter MacDonald was isolated up front for the time that he was on the park. County’s strategy was to hit Morton on the counter, to exploit the Morton defence’s lack of pace. It didn’t make an aesthetically pleasing match to watch, but it was an effective tactic in difficult circumstances.
How the teams lined up and matched up. Morton had McGeouch as the spare man in central midfield.
Morton started the match with a 4-5-1 formation (or perhaps more accurately, 4-1-4-1). They lined up similar to their recent 1-1 draw at Livingston, but with MacDonald replacing Weatherson up front.
Ross County started with the same 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system used in their last four wins. Gardyne dropped a little behind McMenamin off-the-ball as usual.
It is fair to say that Greenock Morton had the better of the first thirty minutes of the match, without looking like they were going to score. Ross County couldn’t keep a hold of the ball in midfield, because they were simply out-numbered.
County’s Stuart Kettlewell is a street fighter but not a play-maker, so Lawson has the creative responsibility in the centre of the pitch.
Defensively, Morton always had a spare man in midfield, but often the midfield was too far from striker MacDonald to cause a threat in attack.
Lawson couldn’t get into the match early on. With McGeouch sitting at the back of midfield, effectively as the spare player in the Morton team, this let McCann and especially Bachirou press intensely with the protection behind them. Lawson and Kettlewell never got any time on the ball, to let County play out of defence.
As a result, County mostly had to rely on more direct football towards their forwards, but Morton’s defenders generally coped well in the first half hour. Morton could keep a relatively high line and get their midfielders on the ball. There was the occasional time when Morton did not look at ease in defending the longer ball, especially when the ball was played with a low trajectory. This was County’s best chance of getting behind the Morton defence.
However, while County couldn’t get their wide midfielders in the game because of the lack of possession, Morton’s wide men struggled to penetrate for different reasons.
Paul Di Giacomo and David O’Brien played as ‘inverted wingers’ in the first half: left-footed O’Brien played on the right wing; right-footed Di Giacomo on the left. Presumably the plan was to get both players attacking towards the box, to link up with striker Peter MacDonald.
In practise, neither wide player got anywhere near MacDonald when it counted. There are a couple of explanations:-
- Ross County defended narrow and strongly. The same back four has played together for most of the season now and the discipline in position was clear to see.
- O’Brien and Di Giacomo never got any help in attack from their supporting full-backs. Inverted wingers are at their most effective when there is an over-lapping player to distract the winger’s marker, but County’s own full-backs had it relatively easy in this respect. Indeed, Morton’s full-backs were quite poor in possession.
Di Giacomo needed support from left-back Forsyth if the County defence was going to be breached.
Perhaps another key reason for Morton’s lack of quality in possession was the absence of Michael Tidser. Tidser had a decent game in the last match at Dingwall, showing his strength and technique on his left foot. His presence can make space for other attacking players on the park, which makes the whole team look a little more creative. His replacement Kevin McCann looked tidy enough in possession against County, but on the whole Bachirou was left to do too much by himself. Bachirou’s energy is an asset to any team, but he never looked as if he had the ball under control in the final third, against County’s compact midfield.
THE COUNTER ATTACK
Ross County started to get into the game more, shortly before they scored the first goal on 34 minutes. Grant Munro showed his experience in defence as he started to pass the ball from the back. With MacDonald being marked by Scott Boyd, Munro was often County’s spare man on the pitch. His distribution from the defence to Brittain and Vigurs was generally good and it helped County get forward as the half wore on.
It took until beyond 30 minutes for Lawson to find time and space in the match.
Having said that, County looked their most dangerous in quick transitions. Kettlewell’s goal came from one of County’s best attacking moves in a while, with one-touch football between midfield and defence leading to a long, ground pass to McMenamin on the left wing. McMenamin had dragged the defence to his side of the pitch and a drilled cross along the box found Kettlewell to finish first-time.
Until the last 15 minutes, the pattern of the second half followed the first. Morton looked increasingly frustrated in not being able to build attacks. Morton’s centre-backs attempted to play football along the ground, but there was no-one in the Morton midfield to collect the ball from them.
Ross County sat more deep as the game went on, potentially to their downfall. However, it proved a successful tactic, because Morton couldn’t get behind the County defence and neither was there a threat from outside the box (where Tidser’s absence was noted).
CHANGE IN MIDFIELD FORMATIONS
Team formations in the last 10-15 minutes
Greenock Morton manager Alan Moore took a gamble after the first hour. He needed to play closer to Ross County’s penalty box and to get his best striker Peter MacDonald involved in the match. The most obvious solution was to take off a midfielder and put on another forward.
Morton’s right-back Andy Graham was taken off on 63 minutes and was replaced by Weatherson. Weatherson sometimes plays at right-back himself, but went up front to partner Peter MacDonald, who badly needed someone to work beside. Kevin McCann dropped back to the vacant right-back position. Morton therefore ended up with a 4-4-2 formation that often resembled 4-2-4, with their wide midfielders playing high up the pitch.
Morton had plenty players high up the pitch towards the end of the match, but few options between attack and defence.
If Morton struggled to play the ball forward effectively with the spare man in midfield before, they looked even more uncomfortable in possession building from the back. Their best hope was to play direct balls to Weatherson, to knock on to MacDonald (later subbed for Archie Campbell) and to bring their wingers into play that way. Bachirou drove forward with the ball himself, but his midfield partner McGeouch didn’t always appear to be on the same wavelength.
Derek Adams changed things on 75 minutes when he took off forward McMenamin for left-winger Marc Corcoran. McMenamin had an effective game to that point. Although he rarely won any direct physical challenges against Morton’s centre-backs, McMenamin always looked for the ball in the channels and/or over the last defender’s shoulder. He didn’t look excessively tired, but the change was to allow a change in formation.
McMenamin’s use of the channels was excellent.
Ross County moved to a 4-2-3-1 for the last fifteen minutes, which gave them extra protection in central midfield. The anomaly to the system was Gardyne was used as the lone forward, with Vigurs behind him. Gardyne didn’t show his best form in that position, because he couldn’t hold the ball up well, but his movement alone kept the Morton centre-backs occupied. Gardyne was replaced by Kurtis Byrne (which we assume was always part of the strategy). Against Morton’s four man midfield, Kettlewell and Lawson were able to sit a little more deep to protect the back line and still have Vigurs supporting in the attacks, flanked by Corcoran and Brittain.
At this stage of the match, Morton let one of their centre-backs join in their attacks, with County at times defending on their 18 yard line. There was plenty of space to exploit behind the Morton defence and every time Morton lost possession, there was a quick Ross County counter-attack. Corcoran’s pace was causing McCann and then right-winger Fitzharris problems, while Vigurs’s late runs into the box ought to have earned him at least one goal by the end of the match.
Greenock Morton posed a test to Ross County, in as much as they had possession of the ball in County’s half for large spells of the match. There was no creativity nor a direct physical challenge, either up front or on the wings, so County defended with relative ease. While Ross County found it difficult to control the match, particularly for the first thirty minutes, they were always able to decide their own fate. It would have taken a rare defensive mistake to allow Morton in.
It took a bizarre mistake by Morton goal-keeper Colin Stewart to guarantee the result, but in truth, Ross County never looked threatened and they looked certain to win after the first half.