Ross County are a long way from looking like the team that beat Stirling Albion 3-1 earlier in the season, let alone the team that beat Albion 9-0 this time last year.
Stirling set out for a draw today and that was arguably the least that they had merited, on the basis that they hit the post, missed from a few yards out and threatened on the counter at the very end of the match.
Ross County by contrast simply do not look like they are capable of scoring goals at this level of competition just now. From a County fan’s perspective, that was the worst I have seen County play since the season that they were relegated under Scott Leitch.
As Tim Vickery theorises, a manager/head coach has three main objectives on match day:-
- Pick the team
- Select a strategy
- Set the emotional tone for the team
I am not sure I could say Willie McStay got any of those right today, whereas Jocky Scott might have got all three, on the assumption he set the team up for a draw result.
So, 4-4-2 against 5-3-2. It’s not the first that a team has played at Victoria Park this season with three centre-backs and prevented County from winning (see Partick Thistle and Queen of the South). The Beanos always had a spare man at the back, at the expense of lacking much threat going forward, but they still managed to make the best chances in the game.
County set up with another bog-standard flat 4-4-2 formation, meaning they had a player fewer in central midfield, a player fewer up front, but two ‘spare’ players at full-back. This can be an advantage if you have one or two attack-minded full-backs. It wasn’t an advantage for County of course, as their two full-backs do not typically play there.
The picture above illustrates the time that Fitzpatrick had on the ball at times during the match. Marr, on the right flank, had more occasions to get forward and do something constructive with the space afforded, but failed to do so to great effect.
Square pegs; round holes
Ross County had a number of players fielded out of position today:
- Marr at right back (natural centre-back)
- Fitzpatrick at left-back (natural central midfielder)
- Gardyne at right-wing, later left-wing (natural central attacking midfielder)
- Di Giacomo brought on as a substitute at right-wing (natural centre-forward)
It is staggering to think that so many players are used out of position to ensure that a 4-4-2 system can be played, when in basic terms 4-4-2 is trumped by 5-3-2/3-5-2 in key areas of the pitch. McStay might not have anticipated Jocky Scott going with five at the back, but had the personnel on the pitch and bench to do something about it.
Stirling Albion controlled the middle of the park, purely by having an extra central midfielder. Brittain and Kettlewell played in the centre for County again, but struggled to offer anything creatively. County therefore failed to make much happen in an attacking sense and, other than Wood steam-rolling the Albion defenders, had to rely on getting width in the game to get at Albion’s goal.
The picture shows how happy Stirling were in sitting with two banks, of five and three, which put the onus on County to attack. I do not know if Jocky Scott did this because of Albion’s own form, the importance of not losing to their relegation rivals, or because he knew that County have not broken down a five man defence this season.
Gardyne wide right
As suggested a few paragraphs above, Gardyne was one of a number of players out of position today. That is not necessarily a bad thing for Gardyne, in the appropriate circumstance. He can be just as dangerous drifting in-field from wide areas as he can be starting from a central position. I am inclined to think that if he started wide and drifted in-field, Gary Miller over-lapping from right-back would complement Gardyne’s style of play quite well, at least when attacking.
However, what County needed today was someone to get to the bye-line and deliver quick, flat balls across goal and between the goalkeeper and centre-backs for Wood and Milne to finish. With Corcoran completely failing in this regard (despite only having a wing-back to face before finding the bye-line), it was up to Gardyne and Marr behind him to try to do something.
It is not Gardyne’s natural instinct to hit the bye-line: he is a player that wants to link up with strikers around the edge of the box. That was clear today as he always cut inside on to his weaker foot.
This meant that Stirling were able to reset their defence when they were perhaps originally a little stretched. It is much easier for a team to defend with all players facing the ball and their markers in front of them, rather than facing the ball side-on to goal and potentially letting attacking opposition go un-noticed [this article by Joshua Askew has a couple of neat diagrams showing defenders’ blind spots while being side-on to goal].
These two pictures similarly emphasise the point above, where the Albion defence were comfortable defending, with the player on the ball in the second picture within the same field of vision as who was being marked.
Once again in the first half, Gardyne should have gone to the bye-line, but tries too hard to skin players on the edge of the box. By this time, Albion knew what was coming and triple-marked him so that the threat ended there.
The only real hint of a goal from County in the first half came from a succession of corner-kicks.
McHale & Smith
Stirling didn’t offer too much going forward in the first half, but any move that was created invariably went through Paul McHale, who was largely the spare central midfielder for Albion.
McHale played a delicious through ball for Smith around 30 minutes into the game, where Smith was unlucky to see his curling shot hit the post.
Half-time did not bring any changes for either team. Ross County needed to do something, but maybe the County manager thought that a team-talk would be enough to improve his team’s fortune.
Incidentally, when you have two team-mates challenge each other for the same header, you know your team isn’t playing properly for you.
Brittain, Marr and the ghost of Gary Miller
It took until 60 minutes for the first change, with the ineffective Corcoran coming off for Di Giacomo, who went wide-right and Gardyne switched flanks to the left. Gardyne never got the ball switched across to him quickly enough to get a run at Doyle.
Gardyne was replaced by Vigurs, who is another player who if starting wide will drift in-field. With Di Giacomo playing high wide-right, almost as a third centre-forward, and Vigurs cutting in-field on the other side, the only width was going to come from full-back.
Brittain had a strange game. Probably a poor game. He never contributed in an attacking sense, instead ensuring that the ball went wide towards the full-backs. Marr didn’t have a good game and proved yet again that Gary Miller is the correct choice at right-back against teams placed lower in the league, despite a good finish against Cowdenbeath last week.
Marr had so much space to attack that he really ought to have done more than he did. Is it his fault though, if he is a natural centre-back being asked to play such an attacking role? Crossing from deep as this sequence of pictures show certainly didn’t help his cause.
Albion on the counter
While County were desperately looking for a goal, they were caught out on the counter-attack a few times at the end of the match. A simple wall-pass would have allowed Albion in for a goal, but the Beanos couldn’t take advantage of this.
As another aside, this photo on 85 minutes shows what I think was Brittain’s only forward pass of the match
Stirling Albion had a game plan and celebrated with their fans at the end of the game, which showed that they achieved their aim.
Ross County have a number of issues, from a lack of balance in the squad to players’ lack of confidence.
However, with Willie McStay now having left the club (confirmed while this article was drafted), the club have it all to do to avoid relegation.