Colour coding in the annotated pictures is, as usual:
Green = defence
Yellow = midfield
Orange = attacking midfield/wingers (e.g. Gardyne in a 4-4-1-1)
Red = centre-forwards
Ross County will feel as if they have dropped two points, after conceding two goals in the last five minutes to end up drawing with Greenock Morton.
Morton threatened to take the lead in the first half and probably should have done so. Their forwards MacDonald and Jackson missed at least one good opportunity each. Morton’s opportunities to score came in a spell of play where they looked more likely than any other team in the league to beat Ross County at home this season. This was down to the pace and aggression from their forwards and winger O’Brien, supported by Tidser and Bachirou in the centre of midfield.
However, Ross County still competed well and their midfield began to run proceedings. Midfield play-maker Paul Lawson’s influence in the match grew and contributed to the first goal. From that point on, Ross County looked like the only contenders for points in the match, creating an excess of chances that were not converted, but for a trade-mark free-kick from Brittain. Two late sucker-punches gave the Morton team something positive to go home with.
The two teams played similar looking 4-4-2 formations. Ross County’s set-up is more 4-4-1-1 than 4-4-2, with Gardyne dropping deep off McMenamin to collect the ball.
Greenock Morton played a very similar system that saw them draw 0-0 in Dingwall at the start of the season. There were four changes to that team, including veteran goal-keeper Alan Combe and trialist Flannigan replacing Paul Di Giacomo on the right of midfield. Peter Weatherson played in defence, instead of long-term absentee McCaffrey.
EARLY ROSS COUNTY PROMISE
Ross County had the better of the play in the opening five minutes of the match. They found themselves in promising positions, largely resulting from Iain Vigurs’s tendency to drift into the centre of the pitch from the left flank. Morton struggled to defend against Gardyne as well, with Gardyne finding space behind Bachirou and in front of the Morton defence.
Vigurs had a key role to play in the match, helping Kettlewell and Lawson in the middle but also supporting the forwards. The width from Morrison on the over-lap allowed Vigurs to fulfill this double-function.
MORTON’S AGGRESSION NEARLY PAYING OFF
However, Vigurs and his team-mates didn’t have it all their own way.
Vigurs soon found himself up against Tidser and Bachirou, Morton’s two central midfielders. Tidser, Bachirou and O’Brien gave a solid account of themselves against an in-form Ross County midfield. The Morton midfield and attack were combative and aggressive (without using illegal play). Morton played with a high tempo to press Ross County and to initiate attacks as quickly as they could.
Greenock Morton looked a genuinely dangerous team from around 5-25 minutes, where the pace and mobility of their forwards and winger O’Brien caused Ross County’s defence to fall out of position.
The strategy used by Morton seemed to be to get the ball forward as quickly as possible. Tidser and Bachirou didn’t always look to collect from their defence. Morton weren’t shy in playing long balls to quite a short forward line, but the mobility and ‘nippiness’ of the front players meant that Morton won more of the loose balls from the initial headers than one might expect.
Greenock Morton were able to get behind the Ross County defence more often in the first half hour than most teams have been accustomed to this season. It did not take long in the match for the warning signs to be apparent.
There was an excellent chance created for Andy Jackson, primarily from his strike-partner MacDonald’s off-the-ball movement on the left flank. Jackson found himself one-on-one with Fraser, but Fraser stood up well to the challenge and saved comfortably.
Fouad Bachirou was the unexpected architect of a chance for O’Brien. Bachirou found plenty time to look up and play a defence-splitting pass for O’Brien. O’Brien couldn’t react adequately to the marginally inaccurate pass and the danger for Ross County was averted.
It should be noted that Bachirou had the time to play the pass, because his ‘marker’ at the time would have been Paul Lawson. Lawson was sitting in front of the Ross County back four at that point to protect them from passes to be played into the feet of the forwards. This ended up being counter-productive; perhaps Brittain on the far side ought to have picked Bachirou up.
ROSS COUNTY’S RESURGENCE
County took control of the game again after the spell of chances made. There were a few co-related causes for this, but the goal against the run of play certainly looked to have struck a blow into Morton’s confidence. Greenock Morton didn’t look to have the same intensity in their harrying further up the pitch than they had previously, which gave Ross County more time to play football from defence and build some momentum.
One of the key reasons for Ross County growing back into the match was the influence of Vigurs and Lawson in midfield.
With Iain Vigurs competing in central midfield when appropriate, alongside Kettlewell, that allowed Lawson to sit off and begin playing in earnest: a) by reading the play and blocking any low passes to the Morton forwards, and b) dictating the tempo and introducing the full-backs into the attacking moves.
Vigurs has a good understanding of when he should play in-field and when to stretch the defence. With Ross County’s manager screaming from the touch-lines to get Lawson on the ball as much as possible, the strategy was vindicated. An early cross-field ball to Vigurs isolated Morton’s right-back Graham. Vigurs knocked the ball past Graham with ease and assisted Gardyne with the opening goal.
From that point on-wards, Ross County looked in complete control of the match. Lawson’s influence in the middle of the pitch grew, getting the wide players involved as early as possible.
Ross County epitomised their superiority with the better use of their full-backs. Miller and Morrison got forward in tandem. Morton, in contrast, didn’t have the technical ability in the full-back positions to threaten further forward.
Teams after 86 minutes, with the score 2-0
Ross County continued to attack and created a number of opportunities to finish the contest, but they were all missed, mostly failing to test Morton’s goal-keeper. Alan Combe appeared to be struggling with a groin injury, which hampered his kicking of the ball. This pegged Morton further back, territory-wise.
However, just as Lawson initiated a goal against the run of play earlier in the match, Darren McGeouch played a ball over the top of defence that O’Brien chased. He combined with substitute Archie Campbell, who shot without much pressure from the edge of the box. The picture above illustrates the distance between the County midfield and defence, which was surprisingly great considering Ross County were defending a 2-0 lead.
Greenock Morton scored from a penalty at the very end of the match, which came from a corner kick that itself had arisen almost from nothing. Ross County will probably be disappointed to concede two late goals, and might regret chasing a third goal (putting on a winger and a centre-forward late on), but Morton’s mental strength to salvage a draw should be commended. Perhaps Morton manager Alan Moore will feel vindicated for an injury-time penalty, after last season’s 2-2 draw (which injury time in this most recent draw was predominantly due to the referee’s wasted time in sending Moore to the stand for dissent).
Nevertheless, Ross County are now twenty-five matches unbeaten in the league, and lead at the top of the table by twelve points. This Saturday’s match against Falkirk will be the team’s true acid test of the season.