Colour coding in the annotated pictures is, as usual:
Green = defence
Yellow = midfield
Orange = attacking midfield/wingers (e.g. Roberts or Gardyne in a 4-4-1-1)
Red = centre-forwards
Please click on the pictures for further annotations.
This result will feel like two points dropped for Ross County, who appeared to be coasting to a 1-0 win against Ayr, until a wonderful 25-yard Liam Tomsett strike brought parity to the score-line.
Ayr United acquitted themselves reasonably well, considering their squad was quite thin with injuries. They had an extra man – or two – in midfield in the first phase of the match, which allowed them to take the game towards County. However, Ayr rarely attacked with any kind of urgency on a heavy pitch. They never got behind the County defence, despite the potential pace up front.
Ross County tried to make the most of Corcoran’s form on the left wing. However, from this observer, there always seemed to be a lack of ‘bite’ in the middle of the pitch and perhaps a long-range equalising goal wasn’t too surprising as a result.
Ross County started with the same XI that drew away to Raith Rovers last Saturday. The starting formation was a 4-4-2, compared to last week’s 4-1-4-1 where Craig played on the right wing. In the second half of the Rovers match, County used this 4-4-2 set-up. The two players missing from what might be argued as the first-choice line-up were Kettlewell and Gardyne, with Marc Fitzpatrick still recovering from a more long-term injury.
Ayr United had to establish a make-shift defence, with left-back Malone having to deputise in the centre of defence beside Chris Smith. That meant that midfielder Dodd filled in at left-back.
The Ayr formation looked to start as a loose 4-3-3, with Mark Roberts dropping in between the midfield and attack. It was a curious set-up, because forwards Moffat and Parker positioned themselves across the width of the 18-yard box. Michael McGowan played somewhere between the centre and right of midfield. Ayr later went to a 4-4-2 formation, similar to Ross County. Maybe it was intended that Ayr were to start with 4-4-2, or with a 4-4-2 diamond with Roberts at the head of the midfield, but the players’ positioning meant that it was sometimes difficult to pin Ayr down to a rigid system.
The first issue with the way that Ayr set up was with the lack of protection given to the full-backs. With Moffat and Parker high on the wings, and McGowan on right-midfield not doing a lot of tracking back, it meant that County winger Corcoran pitted himself against right-back Tiffoney as much as he could.
Ross County found that they were able to put some early pressure on Ayr by exploiting Ayr’s right-back area. Corcoran put in a dangerous cross early on that just evaded Craig ten yards out.
County went ahead on seven minutes, with a Munro header coming from a loose ball in the box from a corner-kick.
It has been a while that County have started a match with a flat 4-4-2, with two strikers playing off each other. It could stretch back to around the time that Ayr were last in Dingwall, when they lost 4-0.
McMenamin and Craig weren’t on the same wavelength 100% of the time, but did look promising together in stages. The two forwards were tidy in possession and could lay the ball off for the advancing midfielders Brittain and Vigurs, to create chances.
County looked as if they could have gone on to score a few more goals, but the half-chances were not taken.
Ayr had their part to play in the first half. They particularly enjoyed a ten minute spell of possession, where they largely pinned Ross County back into their own half.
The shape of the Ayr midfield meant that they had at least one man spare in central midfield. When McGowan tucked in, it let Geggan take control of the Ayr’s defensive midfield area, while Tomsett tried to get forward to get beyond Roberts ahead of him.
Ross County’s central midfield duo of Lawson and Vigurs – two technically superb players for First Division level – sometimes struggled to cope with the numerical disadvantage. While both players will get ‘stuck in’, against a numerical disadvantage perhaps they missed a destroyer like Kettlewell beside them.
Despite Ayr enjoying a lot of the ball in County’s half, they tried to play short-passing football probably a little too much. Ayr rarely tried to play any balls beyond County’s back-line for Parker and Moffat to run on to, which surprises this site.
Ayr’s passing tempo was quite slow and County were always able to get men behind the ball. Ayr needed their full-backs to get forward and over-lap, or something special to break the County defence down.
Ross County threatened on the counter attack during this spell. This instance shows County defending from a short corner and dispossessing Laim Tomsett, to set Craig on the counter-attack. Craig ran the ball to the other end of the pitch, but also towards the corner where he knocked the ball out for a goal-kick.
At some point during the first half, Ayr reverted to a more rigid 4-4-1-1 formation, with Moffat going to left-midfield, McGowan to the right of midfield and Roberts playing behind Parker.
The change in shape was to what was expected Ayr would play at the start of the match. However, with Ayr enjoying a good spell of possession and territory, it was peculiar to see the adaptation. Ayr never really found much of the ball in County’s territory for the rest of the first half.
It has been no co-incidence that County have enjoyed recent success with the Brittain-Lawson-Kettlewell-Vigurs midfield partnership, that has a lot of experience among them at this level. It was the same midfield that challenged for the league title until this time in 2010 and – excepting an injury to Lawson – took County to the final of the Scottish Cup in the same year.
Prior to the start of this season, there was a lot of speculation – including here – as to how Ross County would line up on a week-to-week basis. There were a number of different combinations available, due to the size of the squad available.
What might be argued as the first choice quartet has recently been disrupted for a couple of reasons: 1) Kettlewell’s short-term injury and 2) Corcoran’s form on the left-wing.
Accommodating for changes in the team means that the established balance has to be re-addressed. The midfield against Ayr of Brittain-Lawson-Vigurs-Corcoran (then Brittain-Quinn-Vigurs-Corcoran) had the technical attributes to hurt Ayr when they went forward.
In observing the body language, and based on the skill-set that he has, it is obvious that Iain Vigurs relishes playing in central midfield. Vigurs has the quality to dictate the approach of attack, going forward. Against Ayr, not everything paid off for him. Vigurs often found himself in promising situations, without finding the desired outcome. Nevertheless, he has consistently been one of the best midfielders in the First Division this season, so cannot be criticised on ninety minutes.
Line-ups after 70 minutes.
However, where County’s midfield did sometimes struggle was numerically in defence. While Lawson did a good job in keeping Ayr’s dangerous deep-lying forward Mark Roberts quiet, it often meant that Vigurs had the others to contend with on his own.
Ayr’s equalising goal was a delightful right-footer, that shone through horrible, snowy conditions.
Perhaps, if Lawson was still on the park, or even if Lawson and Kettlewell had played together, the shot might have been blocked. In this instance, Tomsett had too much space to carry the ball forward and shoot. A manager might not be happy with conceding such a goal, but sometimes it is difficult to legislate against such a good hit of the ball.
Ayr’s right-back Tiffoney received a red card shortly after the equalising goal, which helped prompt Ross County to get the ball forward as quickly as possible. Morrow came on for Corcoran, which gave left-back Morrison space to attack into. Ayr took off forward Parker for Ross Robertson, who sat in midfield while McGowan filled in at right-back.
While Ross County tried to attack at every opportunity from then on, their approach didn’t always work. Their long, direct balls were always stretching Ayr to almost breaking point, but it could be argued that the long passes weren’t accurate enough. Long diagonal passes, across the pitch to the far post, tend to test the defence under pressure more than a ball straight down the middle.
Ayr United showed why they have been such tough opposition to SPL sides in cup competitions.
Ross County were unlucky to not finish off one more of the many chances and half-chances that they created in the first and second halves. Seventeen shots to eight suggests that on another day, County ought to have won this match.
Nevertheless, Ross County are now unbeaten in the league in nineteen matches. They might need to be at their best to beat a resurgent Greenock Morton team on Tuesday 21/2/12.