This was an interesting match on various counts:
- It was Jimmy Calderwood’s first game in charge after McStay was sacked.
- Could County either look like scoring or getting a win, to better their dismal home form this season?
- How would Dunfermline look without Willie Gibson, who starred in the 3-2 victory for Dunfermline earlier in the season, after he was sold to Crawley Town.
Dunfermline showed their quality in phases during the match, helped by their formation allowing an extra-man in midfield, but they never dominated to the extent that they looked certain to win the match. The lack of a dangerous cross was the main concern for Dunfermline and any goal threat came from set-pieces, where they were guaranteed to get the ball into the box.
County were much improved from recent efforts under Willie McStay, but still struggled to make any clear-cut chances. However, it was encouraging on their part to compete so well in the match, despite conceding midfield advantage.
County played a 4-4-1-1, with Gardyne slightly behind Barrowman (although he played quite high up at times and a 4-4-2 notation wouldn’t be inaccurate). Dunfermline started with a 4-3-3, which largely worked to their advantage during the first half.
The 4-3-3 was advantageous tonight for a couple of reasons:
- Three central midfielders against two in a 4-4-2
- Three forwards spread out meant the 4-4-2’s full-backs weren’t spare and had to hurry in possession
Gary Mason was Dunfermline’s defensive midfielder and effectively the spare man in central midfield. County’s Kettlewell and Fitzpatrick were matched against Thomson and Hardie, so Mason sat behind and was largely influential in the first half.
Mason was influential because he had time to read the game and dictate passing moves in triangles with team-mates around the County midfield.
One way County could have countered this would be to have Gardyne sit deeper than normal, so that Mason had to think more carefully about his own positioning.
However, Gardyne played quite close to the centre-forward Barrowman, to try to prevent Barrowman from being isolated. It is a difficult balance to strike and Gardyne didn’t always get that right tonight.
The two pictures above show Gardyne starting in an excellent position for a counter-attack, between Mason and the centre-backs, so that he can collect the ball and run at the defenders (one of his unique skills in the team).
However, he gets too close to the centre-backs by the time the ball is released to him and his small size makes it difficult for him to compete direct challenges with the centre-backs.
One interesting trend in the first half was how Vigurs was willing to play quite high up and in-field. He found a lot of space for himself and it is unfortunate, from a Ross County perspective, that he could not do more with the space afforded to him.
While Vigurs was tucked in quite a lot, this gave Morrison space to get forward into.
The two pictures above show instances in the first half when sponsors’ man of the match Morrison got forward to the touch-line to put crosses into the box.
This is something that County lacked from full-back in the short-lived McStay era and it will be encouraging for the team in fixtures ahead that they can rely on their best attacking full-backs to get forward.
However, County’s full-backs did not always get it their own way.
This picture shows how little time County’s defenders had on the ball, because Dunfermline played with three forwards and pressed from the front. It didn’t help County’s defenders that their central midfielders did not seek to collect the ball from them.
Fitzpatrick was guilty here of not going to his right (and towards the bottom of the picture by maybe 5 yards) to open up a simple pass for Boyd here. Neither Fitzpatrick nor Kettlewell were particularly comfortable in possession of the ball tonight, which put pressure on the defence to clear long to the forwards. It is not surprising that the two central midfielders struggled to play their way out of trouble when they are both naturally defensive-minded players and were up against a combination of three Dunfermline centre-mids.
Perhaps a Lawson (playmaker)-Kettlewell (destructor) combination will work well in the future, as it did for most of last season.
Playing too deep
Although County had a man less in the middle of the park due to their formation, they could have negated this disadvantage to an extent by controlling the space used on the park. A more aggressive off-side trap would have achieved this against Dunfermline, who didn’t appear to possess any threatening pace up front to exploit a high line.
This picture shows the space that Mason had in front of him. If the County line of defence had been higher up, this space would have been squeezed and County’s own creative players would have been closer to the forwards.
There were times when County sat too deep and invited crosses to come in from deep. Dunfermline never really threatened with their crossing from open play and only looked dangerous in the air at set-pieces. This was mainly down to the fact that Graham wanted to drift in-field to influence the game, when he ought to have been supplying crosses from the touch-line for Kirk and Clark to get on to.
The picture above shows Graham picking the ball up to shoot out-side the box. This is generally what he wanted to do in the match, but space was quite often at a premium.
This picture shows one of the rare occasions that Graham got to the line, which stretched the County defence almost to breaking point.
Other second half observations
Jim McIntyre was winning the tactical battle against Jimmy Calderwood by using a 4-3-3. This might not have been pre-meditated though and more of a fluke, because he took off Thomson to put Buchanan up front with Kirk with plenty time to go. This meant that McIntyre dismissed the extra man in midfield to get someone closer to Kirk up front. It seemed a bizarre substitution to make, because County posed no threat through central midfield and had to progress down the flanks.
One could argue that Kirk was becoming increasingly isolated up front at that point, because Graham and Clark had to track back to cover County’s increasingly advancing full-backs, but perhaps a more successful tactic might have been to keep the two wide forwards high up the pitch to call Calderwood’s bluff.
The plan back-fired, because Buchanan hardly got a touch of the ball for the duration of the game and County were able to dominate possession in and play through midfield thereafter. The picture above shows how much space was in midfield after Thomson was taken off.
The game ebbed and flowed after that and although Dunfermline had one clear-cut chance missed by Kirk, it seemed unlikely that we were going to get a goal tonight. County attacked well towards the end of the match without delivering a quality final ball for the forwards to finish off.
Dunfermline might have felt they could have won the match and had tactical superiority for most of the evening, but didn’t do enough with the resources available to them. The team genuinely looked like they were missing Gibson at right-wing to provide dangerous crosses from the touch-line and to torment Morrison at left-back.
County still do not look like scoring any time soon, but with both attacking full-backs providing width and Calderwood willing to give starts to Gardyne and Vigurs, there should be enough creativity to unlock most defences. Maybe Lawson in place of Fitzpatrick is the missing piece in the puzzle.