‘Artist illustrations’ return again.
Colour-coding for the annotation: Green = defenders; Yellow = midfielders; Orange = attacking midfielders; and Red = Strikers.
Ross County continued their winning streak to nine in the league in trying circumstances against Raith Rovers.
Rovers looked enterprising and benefited from a bit of luck at the start of the match. However, despite their ability to keep the ball on the deck at times (a real treat to see given recent Rovers performances in Dingwall), they never really penetrated. The Rovers back four never got enough protection from the central midfield pairing and Ross County’s attacking ambition prevailed.
Ross County started the match with their expected XI that has played together for the last couple of months. Marc Fitzpatrick was stretchered off on 17 minutes, which meant that left-midfielder Vigurs had to go to left-back.
Raith Rovers put out the same team that won 3-2 last week at home to Hamilton, with the new loan signing teenagers Jamie Walker, David Smith and Denis Prynchynenko starting again.
Rovers lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with John Baird spear-heading the attack, in front of the players on loan from Hearts. Rovers had a more enterprising strategy than in recent visits to Dingwall (see the 0-0 and 0-1 results from last season). It was a refreshing change, but County found too much space behind the base of the Rovers midfield, particularly in front of the full-backs, which helped win the match.
SPACE TO EXPLOIT
Early on in the match, and before Raith Rovers’ first goal, Ross County put a lot of pressure on Rovers with a succession of set-pieces.
The initial corner kick came about because Gardyne was able to advance and put right-midfielder Brittain into play high up the pitch, with space to attack into. Jamie Walker, Rovers’ left midfielder/winger in their 4-2-3-1, was found too narrow. County did win a corner from this move and it was an early warning sign that was not attended to.
Even though Rovers scored with a freak goal from a corner on 12 minutes, County dominated the opening quarter of the match. Once again, a County midfielder (Kettlewell this time) found space to attack down Rovers’ left-side. The lack of challenge from left-back Dyer or by Jamie Walker should have been alarming.
County scored both of their first half goals in a similar fashion. The picture immediately above shows the last move of the first half, with McMenamin squeezing a header past Rover goal-keeper McGurn at the far post to equalise for 2-2. He already had a similar header saved. County kept exploiting space on the flanks and by that point, Rovers deserved to lose their lead by not tightening up at the back and in midfield.
County’s third goal to take the lead, incidentally, came at 62 minutes from Gardyne crossing for McMenamin from the same position at the bye-line.
GARDYNE & McMENAMIN
There wasn’t just space to be found around the Rovers full-backs. McMenamin found a couple of chances where he didn’t score, getting excellent service from the players around him. That service was facilitated by the sometimes ponderous positioning by Prynchynenko and Allan Walker. Giving the amount of space to Gardyne as illustrated above is dangerous.
Prynchynenko was the more defensive-minded of the two central midfielders, and his age (and lack of first-team experience) showed at times. He wasn’t helped by Walker’s lack of positional discipline. This picture shows Lawson finding the time to chip a pass over the Rovers defence for McMenamin to get one-on-one with the goal-keeper, but the back-line did enough to put McMenamin off his shot.
McMenamin and Gardyne together had a greatly effective match, scoring three goals between them.
Raith Rovers’ front-man, on the other hand, had a mixed bag of a game. He clearly suits having the front-line built around him, because when he had the ball passed to his feet, he showed excellent control and awareness to bring others into play.
Often at times he was able to play one-touch passing football under pressure. He has never had a better game in Dingwall to that extent, because in recent visits the Rovers strategy has been to use Gregory Tade (now an Inverness CT player) as a battering ram up front.
These pictures, illustrating two separate moments in the second half when Rovers were 2-3 down, show Baird getting the ball to his feet and holding up play for the attacking midfielders to get involved.
However, he wasn’t always able to do so. At times he cut an isolated figure up front, because when County began to turn the screw, Rovers’ midfield unit fell back towards their own goal.
This picture shows County in possession, with Rovers defending their own half. The red line indicates the scale of distance between Holt, Rovers’ main attacking midfielder, and Baird up front. If Rovers had won possession at this point, they would have struggled to have put on a counter attack.
This second picture shows Jamie Walker getting the ball when possession is won, in the first half, but his target Baird isn’t even within the frame here. Baird grew frustrated for large parts of the first and second halves, because he couldn’t get the service to his feet that he needed to drag his team back into the match.
OTHER THOUGHTS ON ROVERS
It would be amiss to not discuss the Rovers players on loan from Hearts.
Jamie Walker was the best of the three attacking midfielders (coloured orange). All three players were tidy in possession, but will need to work on their games when their team doesn’t have the ball. It was clear that Baird enjoyed playing in front of them.
Allan Walker had an interesting match. He contributed to the first goal, with his poor corner coming off Kettlewell at the near post. He scored the second, with this speculative shot under pressure, which spun high into the air and dipped beyond goal-keeper Fraser’s head at the last second, with some help from the wind. County will feel hard done by, in a tactical sense, because there is not much else that they could have done to prevent a goal at this point. The goal-keeper was a yard off his line and that was all it took for Walker’s excellent strike to beat him.
Other than that, he struggled to impose himself on the match. This blog has already gone over how well County defend in numbers. Rovers’ central midfield quite often ran out of ideas when they had to take the game to County towards the end of the match.
Overall, the result will please Ross County, but they will wonder how they weren’t winning the match by half-time. McMenamin and Gardyne’s partnership up front is continuing to blossom and will continue to get goals with the balanced midfield behind.
Raith Rovers will need to work on the defensive side to their game. They are very vulnerable to attacks down the flank. This is due to a) The 4-2-3-1 system encouraging the wide players to keep higher up the pitch, and b) the lack of experience of those wide players in the band of ‘3’. It will be interesting to find out how Rovers adapt to the Hearts loanees returning to their parent club in January.