The long winning streaks of both teams came to an end. Even if County should have won by dominating the second half, both teams will be reasonably content in maintaining their unbeaten runs.
The game was not quite of two halves, but certainly comprised two main phases. Dundee were marginally the better of the two teams up until the point that they scored on 35 minutes. Almost immediately after they scored, central midfielder O’Donnell was sent off and County dominated thereafter. County’s tactical switch at half-time helped their cause, but Dundee’s dogged defending kept the result as a draw. Rab Douglas’s spectacular save close to the end of the match was enough for Dundee to deserve at least a point.
Ross County lined up as expected in this site’s preview to the match. Scott Morrison returned to replace the injured Marc Fitzpatrick, for his first competitive start since August 2011. Vigurs, ahead of him, was County’s best player in the first half, coming off the left flank to combine with Gardyne and the other midfielders.
Dundee replaced the suspended Riley with McCluskey, rather than moving Milne wide-right as suggested in the same preview. Milne did end up playing as a right-midfielder later in the match, after the sending off.
EARLY EXCHANGES; FROM ONE LEFT-BACK TO ANOTHER
Although the first five minutes of the match was played in Dundee’s half, it was Dundee that enjoyed the majority of possession for the next thirty minutes.
There were a number of reasons for this, but arguably the most important will be explained.
Going back to the formations, both teams played rough 4-4-2 formations. County’s was more of a 4-4-1-1, but the shapes of the two teams wasn’t that different. The full-backs in the diagram above are marked with a green line, with no immediate opponents.
When 4-4-2 formations match up, the full-back is arguably the most important role on the pitch (for more reading, have a look at Jonathan Wilson’s ‘The Question‘ article from a couple of years ago, giving Jack Charlton’s 1994 quote on the full-back’s importance a contemporary context).
- Very generally speaking, the full-backs do not have a direct opponent on the park; and therefore
- The full-backs have the space – and therefore the time on the pitch – to influence the match as much as they see fit.
Those principles applied to three out of four full-backs on the pitch in the first half. County’s left-back Morrison was taken off at half-time, because he struggled on his first competitive appearance for months, with constant opposition against Dundee’s forwards.
Of course, all four full-backs on the pitch had a part to play, but it was the two left-backs that had the most impact on the first half, for better or worse.
Jamie McCluskey, Dundee’s right-winger, remained quite high up the pitch, even when Dundee did not have the ball. This made sure that County left-back Morrison always had to keep an eye on over his shoulder. Morrison therefore didn’t always have the time and space as suggested above, compared to his opposite number Lockwood.
When McCluskey did go back to defend, or drifted in-field, or when he swapped sides with Conroy as he did at one point in the first half, then Milne drifted wide right. This meant that Morrison almost always had an opponent to contend with.
Dundee manager Barry Smith would have instructed his left-back, Matt Lockwood, to hit long diagonal balls across the pitch, as this picture illustrates. Lockwood (in white, underlined in green) has a strong left foot and his ability to get the ball early to the far side really tested Morrison. The space between Morrison and the next defender, Munro, is probably twice the distance than the rest of the defenders among them.
Taking the battle to Morrison was the clear strategy, because Dundee right-back Irvine played the ball down the line towards Morrison’s zone, rather than switching the play horizontally. With Morrison the smallest defender on the pitch, Dundee often found that attacking him directly gave them a way into the match, winning a succession of corners, ‘cheap’ free-kicks (though not directly a fault of Morrison’s) and generally encroaching on County’s territory. County invited pressure on to themselves by giving away the soft fouls, and Milne should have scored when he had a free header in the six yard box from a free-kick in a deep position.
County weren’t helped at this stage by their right-back Miller being guilty of giving away possession of the ball easily, inviting more pressure on the defence. His game improved in the second half when he was able to attack Dundee’s defence.
Dundee left-back Lockwood didn’t always have to fire the ball across the pitch. This picture illustrates how well Jake Hyde was able to hold the ball up when accurate balls were played into him. In this instance, Hyde managed to turn on the ball to face goal, but his lay-off never came to anything. His presence, while he had other players around him and Lockwood able to ping balls to him, was a huge threat around the County area. Right-winger McCluskey was the closest player to him at that point and it was interesting to note how far Morrison came out of position to track him at times.
When County were in possession, their left-back Morrison always seemed willing to join in the attacks, but it did not really pay off for him. He got to the bye-line once and put in a dangerous cross, but it was only the one occasion that he was allowed to do so.
County didn’t get the ball to Morrison early enough to get the best out of him. There were a number of times where he was free to have the ball switched to him, but the team were too slow to get the ball to him. This picture shows the potential for a promising move, with Morrison timing his run perfectly during the match, but Lawson’s pass wasn’t accurate enough to pick him out.
It was Morrison’s mistake – a soft pass that fell to McCluskey, who played a through ball to Milne – that led to Dundee’s goal. Dundee were, at that point, reasonably good value for their lead. However, immediately after central midfielder O’Donnell was sent off for a tackle on Vigurs that wholly changed the pattern of the match.
In summary, Dundee were the better team when there were 22 players on the pitch. They used their full-backs better and this was enough to tip the balance of the match in their favour. The sending off changed the complexion of the match altogether, with County looking to make the most of their numerical advantage on the park.
COUNTY’S DOMINANCE IN SECOND HALF
Line-ups from the start of the second half
Derek Adams made a change at half-time, taking off Morrison and putting another centre-forward on, in Steven Craig. The change in formation was likely to happen, given that Dundee were only playing with one forward after the red card. Whether or not Morrison would have been the player taken off, if he had hit the ground running after his prolonged absence, is a moot point.
Iain Vigurs went to left-back. He is of course a splendid player on the ball, drifting in off the left flank in midfield, but he did a solid job getting forward from defence. He was helped by Dundee right-winger McCluskey being taken off, after the substitution, to allow Dundee to keep two natural central midfielders on the park.
Adams certainly appeared to have made the right call, because for the first 15 minutes of the second period, Dundee didn’t have any possession in County’s half. County were able to dominate, because Dundee only had one forward who could not trouble County’s defence on his own. Munro had the beating of Hyde in the air (it took Bayne’s introduction later to redress that balance), while Boyd was quicker to any long balls over the top. Adams could therefore contentrate on getting the full-backs forward, to bring width to the team.
Other than that, County’s full-backs, or more accurately wing-backs, pinned Dundee’s wide players back on top of the Dundee defence. This picture shows how high up the wing-backs were, with Hyde the furthest forward player well inside his own half.
Although Steven Craig didn’t have the impact on the match that he would have hoped for, his role as the second centre-forward gave County the shape they needed to equalise and hope to win with. Again, looking at the picture above, County appear well set to get something out of the match. At this point of the game with a quarter of the game to go, County’s midfield looked balanced. Dundee couldn’t get out of their own half, because Kettlewell and Quinn flanked Lawson in midfield. County’s midfielders managed to win almost every loose ball that came their way, which invited immediate pressure back on to Dundee’s defence.
As Chelsea recently showed in beating Manchester City recently, the key to breaking down a team sitting deep with a man less, such as Dundee’s on the day, is to use the flanks as much as possible. Using the full width of the pitch, switching the play from side to side, is an effective way of stretching a defence, with the final ball played when gaps appear.
Getting the ball to the bye-line, so that the Dundee defenders were turned and facing side-on to goal rather than with their backs to their own goal, made County look dangerous. With Vigurs being played in time and again behind Milne and Irvine, it looked a matter of time before he would score or assist a goal. County had the ball played across the width of the goal-mouth a couple of times without scoring. Dundee’s Irvine and McGregor played exceptionally well in defence in making a number of blocks and tackles close to their own goal.
However, as County were very much turning the screw, Stuart Kettlewell was substituted before he was sent off. This was probably due to a tussle with Matt Lockwood, so that Kettlewell was replaced by forward Kurtis Byrne before he was sent off. The diagram shows the colour-coding of County’s positions in a 4-2-1-3 formation, with green in defence through to red in attack.
This change in formation also brought about a more ‘vertical’ approach in attack i.e. playing straight to the forwards, which appeared out of accident more than design.
Without Kettlewell or Quinn as the spare man to win the ball back and re-start County’s attacks deep in Dundee’s own half, County’s defence were more involved in building attacks, which led to more long balls played towards the strikers. By playing vertical, County got the ball early to their forwards, and anyone else that could get into the box, to pressure the Dundee defence. It didn’t always work and gave easy, pressure-relieving possession back to Dundee more often than not. The vertical approach went against what was working for County previously, when they were getting joy from building the play around Vigurs and Miller high up the pitch and crossing from wide.
Meanwhile, Dundee didn’t look dangerous on the counter-attack, but for this move. With Conroy primed to cross deep to Milne at the far post, Conroy decided to keep the ball and retain possession with short passes among the other midfielders, to preserve the lead that they had at the time.
Ross County did score with increasingly desperate and less organised attacking play at the end of the match, but Dundee found themselves with more time on the ball after Kettlewell was taken off and County couldn’t exert enough pressure to score again.
Dundee will be content that they have not lost further ground to the league leaders, despite having gone down to ten men after 37 minutes. Their bright start in the first half was almost undone in the second, but for a series of last-moment blocks and a wonderful save by Rab Douglas.
In truth, Ross County did as much as they could with their formation to win the match, but the approach at times could have been more efficient.
Ross County are now six points ahead of Falkirk, with a match in hand. A dificult fixture away to Falkirk on Boxing Day awaits.