Ross County won the game comfortably in 90 minutes against a relatively poor Queen of the South side (at least compared to recent performances between the two sides).
Queens were on the back foot early on due to a crucial goalkeeping error. They never really got into the game, which was as much of a tactical issue as it was a form/fitness/mentality issue.
Although County have struggled all season against teams playing with three centre-backs, none more so than against Queen of the South, County used their own formation to make the most of their lead and exploit the space behind Queens’ wing-backs on the counter-attack.
How the teams lined up and matched up against each other. Queen of the South played in their yellow and blue away kit on the day.
Queen of the South played their customary 3-5-2 formation under Kenny Brannigan. Allan Johnston returned to the Queens team and played almost as a third forward behind Holmes and McLaren. McLaren doesn’t normally play so high up the park, but Queens had Weatherston and McMenamin unavailable, so had few striking options. McLaren did go back to left wing-back sometime in the second half after substitutions.
County went with their typical 4-4-1-1 formation, with 9 of the 11 starting players from what was probably Derek Adams’s strongest XI last year (with this match played exactly a year on from County beating Celtic 2-0 in the Scottish Cup semi-final).
3-5-2 v 4-4-2
This tie did not go the way that all the other matches between County and Queens this season (see Ross County 1 – 1 Queen of the South and Ross County 1 – 2 Queen of the South; County also lost 0-3 at Palmerston earlier in the season). Queen of the South try to play to their strengths, having a spare man at the back; three central midfielders dominating midfield; and using Holmes to hold the ball up for a second striker like McMenamin to get on to.
However, during this match Queen of the South’s usual tactical advantages against County’s 4-4-2 (more accurately 4-4-1-1) did not materialise.
Burns, McKenna & Johnston
[Again, defenders are highlighted in green; midfielders (including wing-backs) in yellow; attacking midfielders in orange; and centre-forwards in red. Allan Johnston is inconsistently coloured in this article, but probably should have been orange.]
- More often than not, Burns and McKenna – quite alarmingly – played right on top of each other in central midfield, not combining to any effect
- Allan Johnston, nominally the fifth, ‘attacking midfielder’, played much closer to the forwards, arguably in a loose 3-4-3 formation at times. Curiously, Johnston never supported Holmes nor McLaren as well as he might, which was probably down to fitness.
- Those two factors meant that Queens were being over-run in midfield. Lawson and Kettlewell – and Vigurs tucking in from the left – combined well to retain possession and prevent play going through the middle
Carmichael and Harris are quality players for Queen of the South, but both had far too much work to do on their own flanks in this match.
Essentially, the wing-backs did not know to play against Ross County’s two wide midfielders or their full-backs. With Queen of the South losing the tactical advantage in central midfield, County were free to make the most of their players on the flanks. It was the numerical advantage on the wings that won the match for County.
In the first spell of the match, with the score at 0-0, the wing-backs found themselves marking County’s wide midfielders Brittain and Vigurs, presumably for fear of letting County get in behind them to expose the three-man defence high up the pitch.
As the picture above shows, playing against the wide midfielders meant that the full-backs had plenty time to bring play forward. Fitzpatrick is improving in his unaccustomed role at left-back, but could have done better with all of the generous possession he had without any real pressing. Instead he hit a number of ‘percentages’ balls down the left channel, which more often than not were won by Reid and Lilley in defence.
Ironically, it was one of these aimless long balls that Barrowman chased that led to the opening goal!
Another problem with being out-numbered on the flanks was that when a wing-back had the ball going forward, they were quickly double-marked by the opposing wide-midfielder.
Queen of the South struggled to get into the game for the first half an hour, but managed to get into it more so before half-time. They had to use their wing-backs higher up the pitch to support the front two or three, but this ran the risk of County getting behind the defence from the flanks.
This is exactly what happened here for the second goal. Harris is caught too far up the pitch to catch up with Brittain, who sets Gardyne off to send a low cross in for Vigurs to finish. Carmichael is also caught ahead of Vigurs, but was closer to him during the transition than Harris was to Brittain. Carmichael really ought to have done more to get ‘goal-side’ of Vigurs, who finished excellently from inside Queens’ box.
In the second half, with McGuffie switched from right centre-back to right wing-back, County had a lot of space to counter in on their left-hand side. McGuffie didn’t do anywhere near the running that Carmichael had (Carmichael being moved to the left before he was subbed) and was caught up-field in this instance. Fitzpatrick gets forward to a point, but could have progressed to really exploit the space behind the wing-back.
Playing McGuffie as a wing-back was surprising, because he looks a natural centre-half who doesn’t have the pace nor the technique to operate effectively on the flank.
Comparing attacking play
The two teams had subtlely ways of attacking when in a decent spell of possession.
This picture shows McLaren coming deep to collect the ball, with Burns and Johnston joining the attack. However, with McLaren under pressure from Kettlewell, he had little option up front to either get the ball behind the defence or keep the ball in the final third. The Queens attack was too flat, with County’s back four competently defending with their backs to their own goal.
Other than that, Queen of the South often relied on early balls to Holmes from the wing-backs. Holmes was marshalled pretty well by Boyd and Flynn. Queens clearly missed McMenamin’s understanding with Holmes, as too often Johnston and McLaren never made the most of Holmes’s knock-downs.
Ross County, by contrast, were able to attack from a variety of angles, including getting the ball to right-back Miller on the overlap when Queen of the South’s central defence were set.
Conclusion Neither team were perfect, but Ross County gave a good account of themselves in the first half, attacking with verve and variety that was enough to win them the match. After winning the midfield battle, County won the match on the flanks by over-working the Queen of the South wing-backs.
Queen of the South’s normally reliable 3-5-2 set-up didn’t suit the personnel available to them on the day. A fully fit Queens squad might have been a much more difficult challenge.