Ross County increased their unbeaten run in the league to fifteen matches, against a determined Falkirk side who were moments away from victory.
The two teams struggled in severely windy conditions, but it was Falkirk who made the better chances in the second half, even if there were not many clear-cut chances by either team. David Weatherston should have scored with a header late in the second half, which would have finished the contest. Despite Falkirk’s general gain in territory for good spells, their first shot on target was after 70 minutes. County made what appeared to be a defensive substitution just before the first hour was up, which seemed to turn the balance of the match in Falkirk’s favour.
However, in a bizarre twist of determinism, the pattern of the match mirrored the earlier 1-1 draw at the end of August. Back then, there was a scrappy but even first half. In the second half, County performed well, scoring on around 75 minutes and ought to have scored at least another, before Falkirk equalised at the end of the match. It was ironic to see something similar happen again.
The two teams lined up with 4-4-1-1 formations, as expected.
Falkirk’s team only had two changes from the last fixture at Westfield (this site didn’t cover the more recent 3-1 win to County in Dingwall), with Weatherston in place of Murdoch in central midfield, and Bennett replaced by Wallace at the back.
County had a couple of options to consider, but continued with Scott Morrison at left-back after he was substituted at half-time against Dundee last week. Brittain returned after suspension, which meant that Rocco Quinn had to settle for a place on the bench.
Although there was little between the two teams in the first half, it can be argued that Falkirk had the better of possession and territory, for all that is worth.
In basic terms, Falkirk made better use of their wide players to stretch the pitch, particularly with their right-back Duffie. With the formations matched up as they were, the full-backs once again had potentially important roles to play (see last week’s Dundee match for more commentary on this). It was Duffie who looked the best of the four full-backs in possession, thus Falkirk generally looked better going forward.
Duffie looked a little hesitant in defending the bouncing ball in the windy conditions, but going forward he was effective. He scored a goal in the second half that his attacking performance probably deserved.
Falkirk did well to get the ball to Duffie when they could. Higginbotham was always aware of what was going on to his right and brought Duffie in to play when possible. With Weatherston cutting in to bolster the already-packed midfield area (and Sibbald occasionally doing like-wise), it was key to have an outlet.
On a slight tangent, it was interesting to note that County’s deep-lying midfielder Paul Lawson kept his position just in front of and between the two centre-backs (as illustrated above). This was opposed to moving over to close down Higginbotham. Perhaps County thought that it was paramount that the space in front of the centre-backs was not available to exploit, but it meant when Higginbotham moved off-centre, he found space to play-make for Falkirk.
County’s left-back Morrison, in contrast to Duffie, had a relatively wasteful match with the ball (although, to his credit, it must be said that Morrison defended a lot more solidly than against Dundee and it is doubtful that Fitzpatrick would have bettered him going forward).
Morrison might have been instructed to keep his defensive shape and not over-lap to the extent that Duffie did for Falkirk. When he did receive the ball, he often had the whole pitch in front of him, but the actual playing area was very limited. This was because both teams squeezed very high up the pitch, especially in the first half.
The lack of obvious passing options would have been a concern to Morrison. He would have known that his clipped balls into channels were being disrupted by the wind. When he tried to pass inside to Lawson, in this instance, Higginbotham anticipated the pass and intercepted. Higginbotham’s slaloming run with the ball ended in a deliberate foul by Miller close to the edge of the box, which was wasted.
Morrison didn’t look to pass to the inside the pitch much from then on, because of the threat of Higginbotham playing a little deeper than El Alagui and being able to intercept the pass. This didn’t help Morrison’s (or in fact Miller’s) cause, because the clipped balls weren’t too effective against Falkirk’s defence.
County resorted to a lot of long passes throughout the match, not only from the full-backs but from Munro and indeed play-maker Lawson. Lawson’s passes were clever in as much as the chipped balls were designed to spin in the wind and put off the Falkirk defenders. However, McMenamin and Gardyne up front failed to get any joy from the bounce of the ball. Gardyne had one shot on goal at the end of the first half, from indecision by Falkirk right-back Duffie, but the first half on the whole was poor to watch with few attempts on target. Falkirk, by contrast, pinged low balls across the pitch to the full-backs and wide midfielders, although they weren’t adverse to the flighted pass in the general direction of El Alagui either.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half fell in a similar fashion to the first half, with Falkirk generally coping better in the conditions and bringing their wide players into play more.
The most important tactical change to the match occurred just before 60 minutes, when County’s attacking midfielder/forward Gardyne was taken off for Quinn.
Rocco Quinn is more a midfielder than a forward, and although his starting position was similar to Gardyne’s, Quinn did play in a deeper position. This was probably to ensure possession of the ball, but the plan seemed to back-fire.
With Quinn not playing as close to McMenamin as much as Gardyne was, this left McMenamin isolated up front. At times McMenamin was left against three defenders (e.g. if Duffie went forward in attack, left-back Scobbie would tuck in beside the centre-backs for security). Falkirk re-cycled possession from defence more frequently than when Gardyne was on the pitch, so could bring their spare full-back(s) into play even more.
At this stage, midway through the second half, Falkirk had made a number of half-chances by crosses to El Alagui from wide. The over-lapping full-back had a large part to play in this.
Falkirk scored through Duffie’s forward run on 77 minutes. Weatherston and Higginbotham combined on the right hand side so that Duffie could cut in with the ball and shoot across goal. It was a well deserved goal at that point.
Formations during injury time
Ross County didn’t look like they were able to get the ball towards McMenamin in a goal-scoring position, until they made their double-substitution on 83 minutes. Their change to a 4-2-1-3 struggled to break down Falkirk’s defence and it still looked as if Falkirk might make more chances very late in the match.
However, as injury time approached, Falkirk manager Pressley responded to County’s formation switch and included a third centre-back, to ensure that there were at least two spare defenders in County’s attacks.
Falkirk’s defensive switch was partly at fault to their undoing, because afterwards they sat too deep. It took a mis-placed shot by Quinn on the edge of the area for McMenamin to quickly control and shoot, from the right of the six yard box (which was similar to his equaliser against Dundee). If Falkirk weren’t so deep at the end, then McMenamin might not have been in an on-side position, and Falkirk defender might not have deflected the shot into his own goal.
In trying circumstances for both teams, Falkirk used their home advantage to get their full-backs involved in the match more effectively than County did. Higginbotham looked a threat in dropping off the forward line and linking midfield to attack.
County got an equaliser at the end of the match that they barely deserved (in terms of chances created in the second half; their effort couldn’t be criticised). However, just as Falkirk squeezed a point from the first league fixture between the sides this season, County were also able to do so. Ross County’s six point lead at the top of the league table is preserved, while they have a game in hand.
Ross County’s next match is due to be played at home to Partick Thistle on 2/1/12. Thistle now sit fourth in the table and will prove a different threat than in the last couple of weeks.