Well done to Falkirk. It was a niggly, ill-tempered match, but it was a fascinating one to watch from a tactical perspective.
Falkirk were generally the better team and should have killed the game off in the first half, but for some really good saves by McGovern and a lack of cutting edge.
Falkirk managed this with some high-tempo football, with direct play from front to back, as well as pressing County high up the pitch. County never got to dictate the game as they like to do at home, because the defenders were constantly under pressure from Falkirk’s front four to release the ball early.
County, by contrast, were set up to press in the middle of the park (even with the workhorse Wood could not to it all on his own up front). This failed, because Falkirk rarely played much football in the middle third. The Falkirk defenders could therefore pass the ball among themselves until one of them got in a position to make an accurate long ball to Deuchar (or Finnigan).
Both teams started the match in a 4-2-3-1. Ross County were more rigid in their structure, with players pretty much sticking to their roles and zones, apart from Jimmy Scott who occasionally broke forward from deep.
Falkirk’s shape while defending was an orthodox 4-2-3-1, with Deuchar leading the line excellently and winning almost everything in the air. Going forward, Finnigan played very high up the pitch and Falkirk’s shape was closer to a 4-2-4.
Falkirk tried to use the full width of the pitch, which constantly asked questions of the County back four.
Finnigan (11) and Higginbotham (7) were arguably the most temperamental players on the pitch, but they were very effective at what they did: inter-changing positions and dragging the County left-back Morrison and left centre-back McCormack out of position.
Finnigan should arguably have been picked up by one of County’s two central midfielders, as Finnigan was their direct opponent, on paper at least.
However, Finnigan played so far forward (and sometimes so close to Higginbotham) that he was often left free to get on to Deuchar’s knock-downs. This left Scott Morrison out-numbered at left back as shown above.
This picture illustrates how much Falkirk appeared to be a ‘broken team’ going forward, in as much as they had 6 players back, 4 players forward and not much in between to link them together.
This was a weakness of Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s title-winning team at times last season, but the lack of a playmaker was not missed by Falkirk today. They played quick and direct football with early balls to the front men.
Falkirk had several chances in the first half and generally dominated proceedings. County’s players could not get a foot on the ball and had to play testing balls over the top of the Falkirk full-backs to get any territorial gain.
County did have a spell of numerous corners in succession, but Falkirk largely coped well with this.
Second half: how would County respond?
It was obvious that County needed to change things about at half-time to try to gain some sort of advantage over Falkirk.
County’s left winger, Mark Corcoran, could not get in the game at all in the first half, so he was substituted for Vigurs, a left-sided central midfielder. I initially thought it would be a like-for-like replacement in the same formation, with Vigurs naturally tucking in to receive the ball, but there was a change in formation.
The formation changed to something akin to a 4-3-2-1, but with the attacking ‘2’ playing relatively wide and marking the Falkirk full-backs. It was a similar formation to what County played in the Scottish Cup semi-final and final, except Gardyne started in the centre, with Wood out left.
The ploy seemed to be to get Wood to put pressure on and dominate the Falkirk right-back Marr, but any long ball tended to get punted down the middle for Gardyne to struggle against the Falkirk centre-backs.
As well as not getting the proper service to expose the right-back, Wood found himself tracking back too much. County needed to take a gamble and keep men further forward, not have forwards in the wrong place to have an effective counter-attack.
The management team realised this by switching Gardyne with Wood and having a more orthodox 4-3-3. Except Di Giacomo on the other side was tracking back too much as well! There was absolutely no need for him to be as deep as shown in this picture at 0-1 down.
With a quarter of the game to go, it was time for County’s three forwards to stay higher up the pitch and the County midfield three to take a gamble in getting forward. This last picture shows the midfield out-numbering Falkirk, but they posed more of a question to Falkirk by getting closer to the County forwards. County’s back line similarly pushed up a little, which negated Falkirk’s long-ball game to an extent (this is something that could have been executed much earlier in the game).
County had nearly all of the ball and the pressure in the final fifteen minutes of the match, but Falkirk defended excellently and barely let County get a shot on target.
Falkirk’s quick, direct style of play was very effective in unsettling the County back-line and by-passing County’s midfield. They really should have done more with their dominance, particularly in the first half. They saw plenty of the ball, but did not look to play through the County team, who are normally strong at pressing in the middle of the pitch, winning the ball back and then playing the ball quickly on the deck.
County tried some different approaches in the second half but ultimately did not come close enough to testing the Falkirk goalkeeper.
On that form, Falkirk look like a team that will challenge for the title this season, but their style is largely dependent on a target man like Deuchar unsettling a defence and knocking down balls for Finnigan and Higginbotham to get on to, otherwise they might struggle to keep the ball in the opposing half of the pitch, especially without a creative link in midfield.