Ross County 3 – 0 Livingston 28/01/12

Check The Jailender website for a more general match report, from a Ross County perspective.

Colour coding in the annotated pictures is, as usual:

Green = defence
Yellow = midfield
Orange = attacking midfield/wingers
Red = centre-forwards

INTRO

Ross County overcame what was initially difficult opposition, to eventually record a comfortable result.

On paper, County looked like they could cope well in the absence of suspended play-maker Paul Lawson, but the midfield never found its rhythm until County’s first goal after half an hour. Until then, Livingston were able to create pressure by pinning County into their own half of the pitch. County were not able to start moves off from deep and Livingston kept winning possession.

After the first goal, County’s system was slightly tweaked and they were much more comfortable thereafter. In the second half, Livingston went with two centre-forwards to chase the result, but this allowed more room for County to play in midfield.

FORMATIONS

Ross County began with the 4-4-1-1 formation that we have been accustomed to this season, with Gardyne playing behind McMenamin up front. Rocco Quinn replaced Paul Lawson in midfield.

Livingston started with a 4-5-1 formation, that quickly turned into a 4-3-3 in attack. Rory Boulding and Keaghan Jacobs flanked Iain Russell, who looked to run beyond the centre of County’s defence.

EARLY LIVINGSTON SUPERIORITY

Livingston had the better of the first half hour of the game, in terms of possession, territory and chances made.  Regular visitors to Victoria Park will not be used to County struggling in this manner.

There is a tactical explanation for this:-

  1. Livingston’s 4-5-1 against County’s 4-4-1-1 meant that Livi had an extra central midfielder
  2. Livi’s wide men played relatively high up the park and marked Ross County’s full-backs when defending
  3. The balance of County’s midfield wasn’t right for the first half hour

1) Extra men in midfield


The two formations matching up show the numerical advantage in midfield for Livi

Livingston enjoyed the first half hour of the game, because they always appeared to have a spare man in midfield.

County’s midfielders battled well and Gardyne sat a little deeper off the front line at times, but the numerical advantage was clear. Going forward, Scougall would make runs from deep towards County’s penalty area. He was unlucky to be tripped by the edge of the box after some intricate dribbling at one point.

The extra man in midfield sometimes allowed Livingston to try to pick out Russell over the top. Apart from one questionable off-side call, Russell nor his team-mates never beat the off-side trap for the duration.

2) Battle on the flanks

Rory Boulding and particularly Keaghan Jacobs had influential roles in the early passages of the match. While they weren’t attacking, the wide players tracked County’s full-backs, which didn’t let County easily play out of defence. For a relatively large portion of the first half hour, a lot of County’s attempted longer passes down the touchlines were blocked and they would have to start again.

These pictures illustrated three of four opportunities in the first half where Livi got behind County left-back Morrison. Poor decision making and execution meant that they couldn’t capitalise. Russell’s chance, in particular, lacked a certain swag.

3) Lack of balance in midfield

Tactics expert Michael Cox recently explained that Manchester United’s success in recent years is partly explained by the equilibrium obtained in midfield. Last season in particular, they paired a ‘passer’, for example Michael Carrick or Paul Scholes, against a ‘runner’ such as Anderson or Darren Fletcher.

Ross County’s relative success so far this season can also partly be explained in similar circumstances. Stuart Kettlewell is more definitely the ‘runner’ to Paul Lawson as the ‘passer’.

Lawson’s replacement, Rocco Quinn, is more of a ‘passer’ than a ‘runner’ as well, but is much more attacking-minded than Lawson is. While Lawson likes to sit off the back of midfield, to dictate the tempo of the match, Quinn likes to play-make higher up the pitch, closer to the forwards.

County struggled at the back of their midfield, and when their defenders had possession, because they didn’t have anyone in midfield to give the ‘easy’ pass to, as Lawson most often offers them.

It took twenty five minutes to pass for Quinn to pick the ball up from the centre-backs. His early diagonal pass to Brittain on the right wing flew over Brittain’s head and out for a throw in. Quinn is technically a very good player for the First Division, but he will not have attempted many passes like that in recent times, which shows that it is difficult to replace like-for-like, regardless of the resources a team might have.

Without the easy pass through midfield, and the full-backs being hounded, it was up to County’s centre-backs to play long balls to the forwards. Livingston’s defenders largely coped well with the long ball, as most 1st Division defenders do.

Ross County competed well enough when their midfield were in possession in Livingston’s half (and indeed won a few corners from time to time), but the home fans would have been surprised at the lack of territorial dominance.

CHANGES AFTER HALF AN HOUR

Ross County’s first goal came from a corner kick, where Livi goal-keeper McNeil missed a catch and McMenamin finished from a tight angle on his left-hand side.

Livingston left-back Talbot appeared to be injured from what happened at the corner kick, so the break in play after the goal allowed County manager Derek Adams to tweak the set-up of his midfield. Brittain swapped positions with Kettlewell, so that Brittain was in the centre of midfield and Kettlewell made runs down the right flank.

This instantly had a positive effect on the performance of the County team in getting the ball forward more efficiently.

Brittain is arguably a hybrid of the ‘passer’ and ‘runner’ types of midfielder. He was able to compliment Quinn in midfield, by letting Quinn advance forward while supporting from the back of midfield.

One of the first moments in his new role allowed Brittain to accurately send an early pass to the right flank, which allowed County to advance without risking the loss of possession. Similarly, Brittain was always looking for runs forward from Scott Morrison at left-back.

With Livingston behind, they tried to take the game towards County in the last moments at the end of the first half. They didn’t succeed in attacking in the same way as earlier on. This was because they had to break down a more settled Ross County team, from back to front, rather than either steal possession from the full-backs or by hitting on a quick transition because County lost the ball.

SECOND HALF


Livingston at the start of the second half. The midfield and forward line was fluid, with inter-changing roles. Crucially, there was one man less in midfield.

Livingston started the second half in a similar manner to how they ended the first: with a fair amount of possession, but without being able to get beyond the County full-backs and test the goal-keeper.

One big difference was the change in formation, with Boulding coming off the left wing and playing beside Russell. Livingston went with a diamond-like formation in midfield, with Liam Fox sitting off the others. Livingston’s positioning was quite fluent, with Scougall, Jacobs and Bobby Barr drifting into areas of the pitch where the others weren’t.

What was interesting was how make-shift left-back Maurice Ross played further forward than the rest of the defence, to give Livi’s midfield some balance on the left-hand side. He never tried to run beyond County’s right-back Gary Miller, but his positioning, higher than normal on the left, allowed the Livi midfielders to circulate their play more to the centre-right of the pitch.

County, on the other hand, defended with two banks of four as they typically do so excellently. On the whole, County coped quite well with Livi’s attacking intentions.

THE DEUCHAR EFFECT

While Ross County looked relatively comfortable beyond the first half hour, it wasn’t until Livingston lost some of their fluidity that County began to take a grip on the game. Deuchar came on for Boulding and was quite static up front, next to Russell who wasn’t dropping off as much as Boulding once was.

Deuchar is always capable of winning an aerial contest, but he doesn’t seem to fit into the team well anymore, with midfielders behind him who want to play football along the ground and run beyond the defensive line.

This picture shows Barr looking to play in-field, linking up with Scougall. He could have chipped the ball up to Deuchar’s head, but Livi never did that throughout the match. Without using the archetypal target man as a target man, Deuchar’s main strength was negated and his weaknesses exposed.

Livingston became more predictible in attack as a result. Ross County began to win the midfield battle.

Perhaps more importantly to County was that their full-backs were able to play out of defence more capable than before, with two centre-forwards not being able to do the same job of pinning them back as the one centre-forward and two wingers of before.

In-form striker McNulty replaced Russell for Livi on 76 minutes, but he barely got involved in any attack as County looked to close out the game.

LATER STAGES


After the last substitutions

Ross County looked their best in the last fifteen minutes of the match. Livingston goal-keeper McNeil pulled off a number of saves as County progressed.

The last ten minutes in particular saw Sam Morrow play up front in a 4-2-1-3 formation, flanked by fellow substitutes Craig and Corcoran. Morrow looked strong and dangerous; it would be difficult to keep him out of the team if it wasn’t for McMenamin’s goal-scoring form.

The key to County performing so well was probably down to the space afforded to the midfield, a) as players tired and the playing area of the pitch is stretched and b) due to Livi playing with one midfielder less in the second half.

In particular, Iain Vigurs made the most of his late role behind the three forwards. He appeared out of sorts in the first half, but his confidence grew as the match wore on and he clearly relished playing in the central play-making role. With Michael Gardyne leaving to Dundee United in the summer, perhaps he will have the chance to play there more often.

CONCLUSION

While Ross County initially struggled to adapt to creating moves from the back without Lawson, Livingston ought to have taken advantage with their chances made from County’s left-back area.

County addressed their midfield issues a third of the way into the match and they eventually won comfortably, with strong attacking options coming off the bench.

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