Ross County salvaged a draw very late on in the match tonight.
Morton were the better of the two teams in the first half without looking anything special, but looked value for their 2-1 lead at half-time. Morton did not offer anything in the second half though and seemed to settle for the 2-1 score-line, but were caught by a free header by Boyd at a corner 5 minutes into injury time.
This was Willie McStay’s second game in charge at County and first game at home. The line-up was siilar to the 4-4-1-1 played at the 1-1 draw with Partick Thistle at the weekend, with Craig – played as a right-sided midfielder/winger against Thistle – dropped to the bench in place of Gardyne. The midfield pack was shuffled, so that Scott started out left, Brittain out right and Lawson beside Vigurs in the middle.
Morton played with a 4-4-2 for most of the match, in contrast to the strict 4-1-3-2 in their last match at Victoria Park. Bachirou, who sat in front of Gardyne during that game (with various levels of success), sat on the bench all night as Darren Young featured instead.
The first thing that struck me was how high County’s defensive line was at times. This was a County trait under Derek Adams from late last season and it is encouraging that McStay is a fan of it… as long as it is used against the appropriate opposition. You wouldn’t want to do this against Leigh Griffiths (as County recently did). Tonight, it was one of the few things that County got right. Kean and Graham were busy forwards who were always looking for a run behind the County defence, but they never got adequate service from deep to trouble County.
Given that Morton played a flat four-man midfield, I thought that Gardyne might have played a crucial role in tonight’s game. Regrettably, he never got involved as much as he might have liked. The picture above shows him in a good position, ready for collection of the ball between Morton’s defence and attack, which normally gives him his best opportunity to run at the opposing defence and either shoot or thread a pass for Barrowman for a wide midfielder.
However, he rarely got himself in what I would call his correct position. The picture above has Gardyne out of frame, which would have reminded Barrowman of the bad old days of playing up front for Craig Brewster’s ICT team and being isolated for most of the time that he played for them. More often than not, Gardyne was either too deep to support and link with Barrowan, or too high up the pitch, to be marked by Morton’s centre-backs.
Gardyne could have been the key player for County tonight, but it wasn’t his game.
Michael Tidser had a decent game for Morton in the middle of the park. He has good presence and it is clear that he has good technique when kicking with his left foot. During the first half, he often found himself free on the edge of the County box when Morton played down the flanks. He was unlucky during these moments, when the ball was played back to him, that the passes were not played accurately enough to allow him to get an early shot away.
When Greenock Morton looked dangerous on the attack, it was largely in the first half and mostly down their left-hand side.
O’Brien had an influence on the game. He was willing to keep wide, demand the ball from his team-mates and run at Gary Miller at right-back. There was one moment in particular where he dribbled half-way across the 18 yard box, skipping away from a challenge by Scott Boyd and then running through on goal. He should have shot early and his hesitation allowed County’s goalkeeper to position himself for a save.
However, the amount of space between County centre-backs Boyd and McCormack was an ominous sign of things to come.
Morton’s equalising goal came from one of many casual passes by the midfield to County’s centre-backs. Brittain passed the ball back to the defence without looking up, only for the pass to follow straight through the massive gap between the defenders; the pass turned out to be a perfect through ball for Graham, who finished well into the far corner.
That pass was just one of numerous occasions where County’s defence were put under pressure by their own midfield. Having said that, County fans have been taking for granted the fact that the defence normally have the ability to pass the ball out of danger. They weren’t up to it last night though as the whole team looked more nervous than usual in possession.
O’Brien was ably supported by MacGregor at times. This picture shows Brittain getting back to support his full-back, but Morton began to dominate this part of the pitch with short passing triangles.
The second of the two pictures here shows Kean linking up with the left side of the team. He did well to work through that part of the County defence and cross for Jenkins to head in at the far post.
A common theme to the game – and perhaps the season – was County’s lack of urgency in midfield. Time and again, they had to pass the ball back to the defenders, who were not shy in passing back to the goalkeeper to punt forward.
The two pictures above show Lawson and Vigurs consistently working parallel to each other.
Defensively, that is probably the preferred way they should be positioned, so that Morton cannot play an easy ball to the forwards through the middle.
However, I see little point in the two central midfielders standing side-by-side in possession:
- Passing the ball to each other from there adds nothing to the team going forward
- It allows the opposition team to sit in and wait for County ‘to do something’; something that rarely happened all game
- It doesn’t help the defence get the ball forward. With no-one collecting the ball from defence, it meant the defence had to play a higher-risk ball forward, which more often than not ended out of play or straight back to Morton.
The picture above sums up County’s play in the first 60 minutes pretty well. Lawson and Vigurs are marshalled easily by Tidser and Young, while Gardyne is too high up the pitch to help them play through. County ultimately concede territory by having to pass back to their defence.
The picture above is a classic example of what Lawson used to do well, but we are seeing less of in recent times.
The annotation shows a good, relatively low-risk option for the ball to be switched to Morrison on the left flank, giving Morrison plenty time and space to build an attack from.
Instead, Lawson is too late to realise the situation and Boyd has to launch another long ball. Another opportunity to retain possession and build pressure wasted.
Thankfully from a County perspective, Jimmy Scott was one player to try to do something different in midfield. At least twice during the first half, he made dashing runs to his opposite flank to try to out-number MacGregor at left-back.
The picture above shows the build-up to the first goal. Miller fed a ball behind MacGregor and Scott sent a cross right on to the head of Barrowman, who finished well.
However, I have an issue even with that goal. What if the cross wasn’t inch-perfect? There was no-one supporting Barrowman in the box, who was fortunate enough to get good service for one of the few times in the match. Gardyne wasn’t anywhere near to the cross when it came in and Lawson; Vigurs and Brittain were no-where to be seen.
Brittain didn’t have one of his best games. Apart from the dodgy pass that led to Morton’s equaliser, he wasn’t positive enough with possession of the ball or with his off-the-ball runs.
These two pictures show a counter-attack by County, probably their easiest opportunity (out of maybe three clear chances) to score in the match. Brittain got forward and was the prime candidate to receive a cross from the left hand side. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the confidence to continue into the box until it was too late; he checked his run and almost appeared surprised when the ball bounced free in the box, by which time he had a man on him and had to try to lay it off to someone else.
If Brittain had the conviction to continue his run uninterrupted, he might well have been in a position to score with a free header, or have the time to take the ball down to score on the half-volley. If I was the manager, I would have been disappointed with that missed opportunity.
Another reason why County struggled in possession was due to McGovern not having an option to pass to the full-backs. During the first couple of years of Adams’s reign at County, the full-backs were clearly instructed to give the goalkeeper an option to give a quick throw, which allowed County to play out from the back. That wasn’t an option tonight for McGovern, which is not an encouraging sign. Barrowman had a thankless task up front and was never going to win every header – County are a comparatively small team in the Division.
It wasn’t until the second half that we saw any throw-out by the ‘keeper, but it was the only time during the match that he did it.
Willie McStay realised that he had to do something about the lack of galvanism at the heart of the team and switched Vigurs with Scott. This gave Scott more of a licence to get forward and pose a threat to Morton than he does playing wide-left, when he has to cut in and onto his stronger right foot.
As Scott was getting forward more, Lawson was asked to sit back . This is clearly his best position, as he has more of the pitch to see and can spray passes around, without the responsibility of getting forward which isn’t his game.
At the start of the second half, County showed some promise going forward, with Jimmy Scott breaking forward and beyond the defence. He is the only player in County’s squad who has the ability, or at least is willing, to penetrate a defence this way. Nothing came about this chance as he was well tracked, and Scott understandably made less of these runs as he grew tired, but this is something that McStay must think about if he wants an extra attacking option.
County brought on Craig (for Brittain) and Corcoran (for Vigurs) last night as ‘Plan B’. I think the plan was for Corcoran to beat his man and send crosses to the far post, for Craig to get on to.
This never happened for a couple of reasons:
- Corcoran looked completely one-paced and didn’t get past Evans at right-back once.
- Judging his body language from a number of games, Craig hates playing on the right of midfield. Even though he was getting instructions from the touch-line to get into the box and attack the left-back, he just didn’t seem up for the challenge.
Even though Corcoran couldn’t even get past Evans on his own, Morton made sure that Evans had sufficient cover. This picture shows Gardyne coming late into the scenario, to win the ball back, after Corcoran had four Morton players to contend with, with no immediate support from his team-mates.
End of game
Morton replaced Young with Holmes, who was a threat on the counter-attack. This left Tidser sitting behind the other midfielders and he did a good job in keeping Gardyne in check (including a clever professional foul against Gardyne which brought him a yellow card).
At the very end of the match, Wood came on for Scott which left County with not much of a midfield. Having said that, Morton kept plenty players back in trying to protect their lead.
Morton slowed the game right down in the last twenty minutes, but the referee simply added any wasted time to the end of the game. County were fortunate to score from a free header at a corner at the death.
Greenock Morton can feel hard done by, because Ross County barely looked like they could score one goal, let alone two. Morton created enough chances in the first half, with most of their best moves coming from the left wing, to have won the game. They didn’t show any ambition at all in the second half though and they will regret having rested on their laurels.
For County, it’s a case of must-do-everything-a-lot-better. They struggled to get the basics right at times tonight. Lawson and Vigurs can’t play together in the middle of the park unless it is in a strict ‘diamond’ formation, with Lawson sitting deeper and Vigurs more advanced. Barrowman and Scott were County’s best players, by work ethic alone, but they cannot win games on their own.
I really dread Dunfermline’s visit on Saturday.