Raith Rovers find themselves in an envious position, at the top of the league and with a game in hand over their rivals Dunfermline. Rovers perhaps deserved the win from this match, but it was an even, competitive game without a lot of goalscoring opportunities for either team.
The formation and general tactics were similar to the 0-0 game in Dingwall at the start of the season. To quote the last time I did a report on County v Rovers:
If there was going to be a winner, it was probably going to come from:
1) A set-piece
2) A major defensive mistake
3) Something out of nothing, or
4) Any of the full-backs having a significant impact on the game.
– As the circumstances were similar to the last game, it was no surprise that a set-piece gave rise to the winning goal.
Sorry, Raith Rovers fans, the formation drawing app doesn’t have a white kit
Both teams matched up with 4-4-2. This is appears to be close to John McGlynn’s preferred line-up for Rovers, with a team made up with strong, combative players who don’t give anything away in midfield and defence. Tade of course always makes a menace of himself up front.
I expected McStay to stick to his usual 4-2-3-1, but with Gardyne out injured he played Steven Craig as a centre-forward beside Barrowman. By playing 4-4-2, McStay effectively asked his team to win each individual battle against the opposite Raith Rovers numbers. Given the form of the two teams, that was a lot to ask. The match-winning battles were probably Campbell and Ellis v Craig and Barrowman. I had an idea at kick-off who were going to win that.
I had hoped for 4-2-3-1 from County because it would have allowed an attacking midfielder to play further off the two Rovers centre-backs to try to find space for himself. To see that County have failed to do this in the two home league games against Rovers this season is disappointing.
Craig and Barrowman
I’m not always convinced by Craig and Barrowman playing together, even if they are County’s most recognised strike partnership. Their style of play is too similar in my opinion; they either need a creative ‘number 10’ dropping off them or a pacy striker to run beyond the back-line. In this game, Craig occasionally came short to try to link play between midfield and attack, but more often than not the Raith Rovers defence coped well with them.
Raith’s main attacking threat did not have the greatest start to the game, but his influence grew as the contest progressed. His main marker, Gartland, made his debut for County today and looked very assured at the back, particularly since Tade’s athleticism and work-rate make him such a difficult forward to play against.
Tade was guilty of missing a howler in the first half, an open goal from 10 yards which came from confusion on whether or not a Rovers player was off-side. It was the only time in the first half that County looked vulnerable from open play.
A tactic often used by Tade was to put himself on to Morrison for long balls from the defence or goalkeeper. Morrison was the smallest County defender playing, but County were well aware of this and doubled up on Tade. He never won a lot of balls in the air as a result.
This picture is an example of Gartland doing well against Tade in the first half by clearing the ball while under heavy pressure.
One potential opportunity which could have come from Tade’s work ethic would have been missed when McBride (in the yellow boots, above) didn’t do enough with the space afforded him at the back post. I say ‘could’ and ‘would’, because Tade’s delivery into the box was atrocious!
Just as in the 0-0 match played in September, there was no give nor take in the middle of the park.
Both sets of central midfielders played in front of each other for nearly all of the match. I can think of only one occasion where this didn’t happen, when Fitzpatrick – another debutant for County – burst into the box to get on to a knock-down from a long ball. He hit the post from a volley when he should have scored.
County needed much more like what Fitzpatrick did to create chances, but generally speaking the midfield pairing of Brittain and Fitzpatrick was uninspiring. The lack of forward runs from central midfield is a common theme on this website and it’s a bit of a concern of mine. County just aren’t making enough chances in a game to win on a regular basis, but where are the goals going to come from? If both centre-forwards are being marked out of the game by their opposing centre-backs, something needs to come from central midfield.
Why is it not a worry for Raith Rovers? In my opinion, their central midfield exists to protect the centre-backs and prevent the team from being opened up with through-passes, to then launch balls forward on the counter-attack. It is an effective game plan. County by contrast don’t yet have a settled, effective game plan under McStay and don’t have someone like Tade up front who demands the attention of two defenders at once.
This picture shows how well Raith Rovers’ central midfielders protected their defence in the last third of the game. Any ball played to the feet of a County forward would get intercepted or the forward would be quickly dispossessed.
Vigurs and Scott
County’s threat had to come from their wide midfielders, Vigurs and Jimmy Scott drifting infield. Vigurs went in-field to play ‘in the hole’ like what Gardyne would in a 4-2-3-1, while Scott looked to drive beyond the defenders.
Vigurs had increasing influence on the match by picking up the ball 2/3 from goal and from a central position. With his inward runs, he made space for Morrison, who never got as forward as much as he perhaps could.
Two more pictures show Vigurs’s influence from the centre, with the second showing the space in front of the centre-backs for him to exploit. He made the wrong decision in that moment by taking a snapshot from distance, which didn’t trouble the Rovers goalkeeper.
Scott is at his most dangerous when running beyond the centre-backs. Cambell and Ellis were out of position for the first time in the match, but Simmons made sure he committed a professional foul on Fitzpatrick in midfield to avoid a defence-splitting pass being played. Jimmy Scott is a bit of a loose cannon at times and if he could focus his mind on making this type of run consistently, he would be a much better player.
Threat from full-back?
When 4-4-2 meets 4-4-2, the only ‘spare’ players who are normally un-marked are the full-backs. County normally involve the full-backs in their best attacking moves in the last couple of years, but until Miller was brought on, the full-backs didn’t give much of an attacking contribution.
Marr, who was playing only his second game for County, was pretty solid at the back but never got forward enough to stretch the Rovers defence. The green line across the pitch represents the glass ceiling when it came to Marr’s forward runs.
Gary Miller was brought on for Marr half-way through the second half to provide attacking width down the right-hand side.
These pictures show that Miller had an immediate impact on the game with this forward runs and crosses into the box.
It is easy to say in hindsight, but Miller should have started the game, because County needed to get full-backs forward to make the most of the space in front of them. County need as many attacking options as they can get, on current form. Marr might not have deserved to be dropped after the draw with Dundee Utd – and will probably start ahead of Miller for the replay because he is a good defender – but he wasn’t the right option for today’s match. It is a shame he never got more time on the pitch to have a positive effect.
Raith Rovers aren’t great to watch, but they are an effective team and didn’t get to the top of the league half-way in without merit. They play to their strengths (countering means Tade has space to run into) while minimising their weaknesses (not letting their centre-backs get turned by sitting the midfield on top of them). That is a successful formula for them and it is a credit to their manager, but it doesn’t make for much of an entertaining game.
In contrast, Ross County now find themselves third bottom in the table (accounting for Dundee’s 25 point penalty), with one home win in eight league games and a goal per game average of 0.7. County looked good enough to match Rovers for most of the match, but never really looked like scoring. They will have to quickly learn how to score again if they want to avoid the threat of relegation.