Dunfermline won the three points here with a close-range Hardie header from a set-piece in the last minute of the game. In truth, the match was very even and both sides could argue that they deserved something from the match, in spite of the lack of chances on offer. The game never turned into much of a spectacle.
The game didn’t settle at all for the first fifteen minutes of the game, with endless stoppages from goal-kicks, throw-ins, fouls and long balls. When both teams began to find their rhythm, the rest of the second half was fairly entertaining from a tactical perspective, with plenty of ball-playing midfielders on the pitch and lots of high-pitch pressing on each others’ defences. County were the better of the two teams at this stage, playing at a tempo I don’t typically see of County unless in a cup tie against SPL opposition.
The second half never really got going in the same way, with Dunfermline perhaps having more control of the game at that point, but they didn’t make any clear chances in the second half until the very end.
County lined up almost exactly as they did against Morton at the weekend, apart from Miller coming in at right-back. That is they played a loose 4-4-1-1, with Vigurs not starting as high up the pitch as against Morton, but still supporting Barrowman whenever he could.
Dunfermline played a more organised 4-2-3-1 formation, with Burke and Mason operating as a double-pivot in front of the defence, which was key to them keeping a clean sheet.
With an attacking quartet ahead of them, the holding midfielders were able to protect their defence and provide an axle for the team.
Given how the formations matched up, one out of Burke and Mason tended to be the spare man in midfield and this tended to be Burke, who is excellent at recycling possession for the team, with Mason the ‘winner’ of the ball.
This picture represents a scenario in the second half, but illustrates Burke as the spare player in a good position to get the ball early to Cardle on the wide-left.
At times when County enjoyed periods of possession, the positioning of Burke and Mason in front of the defence allowed the Dunfermline midfielders to intercept any passes aimed towards Barrowman and Gardyne high up the pitch.
The above picture shows Dunfermline’s defensive shape from their own goal-kick, with Hardie at the tip of the triangle among Mason and Burke.
In open play, Burke and Mason were disciplined, which meant that Brittain was restricted in his options here.
It took early clipped balls into the channels, for Barrowman to chase and hold on to the ball, to gain any real territory towards Dunfermline’s goal. Otherwise it took some special passing from Vigurs and Lawson in particular to get the play behind Burke and Mason, or quick counter-attacks.
Needless to say, Gardyne didn’t have as good a game as he had against Morton on Saturday, but there was much less space for him to operate in.
Joe Cardle had an important role to play for Dunfermline on the left-wing, especially as McDougall was so poor on the opposite flank.
As was the case in the previous game against County in Dingwall, Dunfermline looked their most dangerous, with Ross County their most stretched in defence, when a winger ran to the touch-line with the ball and flashed the ball across goal.
County have missed the ability to pull off a move such as this for the last few years.
Stephen Milne, by contrast, struggled again in the left-wing position.
There were a number of times where County hit Dunfermline on the counter and ought to have got behind the relatively immobile Dunfermline defence, but for Milne (and Brittain on the other side for that matter) not having either the ability nor the confidence to run with the ball down the touch-line. Ross County do need a natural winger at times to balance their team. Instead, the wide player invariably has to pass inside to a central midfielder or even to the full-back behind him.
Cardle showed his value to the team in being able to get to the bye-line, even if he appears predominantly right-footed
It was curious to see that left-winger Corcoran was not even on the bench as an option for Jimmy Calderwood’s Ross County squad.
As usual, the only real width that County got was when Miller bombed forward, but he wasn’t able to do this all the time, with the threat of Cardle pinning him back.
Lawson & Vigurs
I think that Paul Lawson has really come on to some form since his return from injury and he showed against Dunfermline that he is a match for most midfields at this level.
He barely missed a pass all night but I think he could benefit, more than most, in having an option to play a through ball to a flying winger, rather than to wide midfielders who don’t want to get beyond their full-back, or to Barrowman who tries his best against two centre-backs but more often than not cannot do everything himself.
Vigurs is an able deputy in central midfield but maybe he can show more in his game to justify his place in front of Kettlewell. Vigurs has arguably the best first touch and close control in the First Division, but I think he can impose himself on games a little more. I would definitely like to see him stay on with the club after the summer, because he has plenty to offer to the team.
One thing that Milne and Brittain do give from wide midfield is a high work-rate and they, along with Gardyne and Barrowman, kept Dunfermline’s goalkeeper and defence nervous on the ball for most of the match.
Dunfermline’s late pressure
Late in the second half, Dunfermline brought on trialist Jake Hyde following his spell with Dundee and went with a 4-2-4 formation, just as Jimmy Calderwood is famous for doing.
However, they still struggled to make chances until they hit County with a counter-attack and substitute Pat Clarke missed a chance on a near-open goal. Both teams tried to hit each other on the break looking for the win, which isn’t something normally seen at Victoria Park this season.
With the last attack of the game, a needless free-kick was given away by Lawson in the right-back position and Hardie used his height to head home from five yards, with nearly every Dunfermline player in the County box to try to get the winning goal.
Dunfermline were fortunate in the win, although it is hard to grudge them sitting at the top of the table given the attractive style of football that they try to play and their attacking intent. Even through they have earned identical results as title rivals Raith Rovers in Dingwall this season, they have done so playing ‘better’ football.
County on the other hand still look like a team that should be free of relegation worries, but are being hindered by a lack of squad balance and selection issues among other aspects. With away trips to relegation rivals Cowdenbeath and Stirling in the next week, they have plenty football to look forward to.