As usual, the colour co-ordination in the illustrations is as follows:
Green = defence
Yellow = midfield
Orange = attacking midfield (as the ‘3’ in a 4-2-3-1, or as Higginbotham is shown as a support striker)
Red = striker(s)
A more detailed match report can be found on the Jailender website.
A draw might have been a fair result to the objective observer, but it will have been disappointing for Ross County to be set to win the match, then lose a late goal that could have been prevented.
Falkirk enjoyed the best of the first half, with their young forward Kallum Higginbotham dropping off the forward line and troubling the County defence. His forward partner El Alagui tormented County’s centre-backs for the duration of the match and got the goal he probably deserved by the end, even if his goal was against the general run of play for the second half.
Ross County’s performance was interesting from a tactical perspective. A change in formation after half an hour, presumably as a reaction to deal with Higginbotham’s threat, helped County get back into the game. It appeared that County would win after Steven Craig’s goal on 75 minutes, but perhaps they ought to have been a goal up by then.
4-4-2 formations matching up
The two teams started with standard 4-4-2 formations. Falkirk lined up largely as expected, with Higginbotham playing as the support striker to El Alagui’s target-man role. County dropped Byrne to the bench to allow Craig to start again, as he scored 3 goals in the previous 2 games as a substitute.
In terms of chances created in the first half, Falkirk might have only just bettered Ross County, but it was certain that Falkirk had the best of territory and possession.
What was key to Falkirk’s progression was:-
- Farid El Allagui’s dominance in the air, winning his fair share of headed balls against Munro and particularly Boyd. This dragged County’s centre-backs towards their own goal.
- As County’s defensive line retreated, space was left for Higginbotham to drop in to. He could collect passes from Falkirk’s midfielders and look to spread the ball wide, which in turn would allow crosses to come in for El Allagui to win.
This picture shows El Allagui winning the ball in the air unopposed and with Higginbotham ready for the knock-down. In this instance, County’s shape was compact enough to deal with the eventual threat, but it did mean that Falkirk could keep possession high up the pitch. That helped to drag County’s midfield backwards. It was difficult for County to counter when sitting deep, a problem exacerbated by their goalkeeper Fraser’s poor distribution.
Going back to the illustration above, Ross County’s strict 4-4-2 meant that neither the central midfielers wanted to mark Higginbotham when he dropped deep. This is the classic downfall of the 4-4-2 system and is the reason why Michael Gardyne has become such a prominent player in recent years in a similar old-school ‘inside-forward’ role (Gardyne played on the left-wing in this match, but the point stands).
This second picture shows Higginbotham dropping in to his own half to help his team in possession.
What was alarming was how high up Boyd went to track his movement, rather than passing on the responsibility to a midfielder. Higginbotham successfully retained the ball and managed to spray the ball wide to Duffie at wing-back. With Boyd out of position, Fitzpatrick tucked in to cover. That left a huge space for Falkirk to attack down County’s left-hand side of the pitch. Ross County were fortunate that Duffie isn’t a particularly good attacking full-back and Falkirk failed to take the opportunity afforded. If it was County’s own Gary Miller in a similar circumstance, one would wager on him taking the ball to the edge of the box and laying on a chance for a forward.
At their best, Falkirk had El Allagui dominate County’s 18 yard box, but unfortunately for him his knock-downs never quite reached a Falkirk attacker. Higginbotham was good at dropping off, but with time he will be able to read his strike-partner’s play better and anticipate where the ball will drop in the box.
Thus Falkirk had El Allagui and Higginbotham gave Falkirk the best of the play in the first period, but Ross County’s manager Derek Adams changed the formation after 30 minutes that changed the pattern – if not quite the outcome – of the match.
Falkirk’s 4-4-2 against County’s 4-2-3-1
Ross County went to a 4-2-3-1 formation, putting natural centre-forward McMenamin on the right wing, having Brittain beside Lawson in central midfield and giving Rocco Quinn more of a licence to support Craig further up the pitch.
At times, the formation resembled a 4-1-4-1, with the first ‘1’ being Paul Lawson. Lawson was instructed to sit in front of the defence and protect the space that Higginbotham would otherwise try to exploit. Lawson’s central midfield partner Richard Brittain was the mediano, nominally a defensive-minded position but effectiely as an ‘all-action’ midfielder who got forward as well.
With Lawson marking tight and with County’s back-line able to push higher up the pitch, Higginbotham had few options available to him.
Lawson’s second aim was to do what he does best: collect the ball from the centre-backs and distribute the ball wide with accuracy. Lawson started the match too high up the pitch to do help the defence, when he had a relatively equal role with Quinn in central midfield. The change to 4-2-3-1 brought more defined roles that helps Lawson’s game, because he could concentrate on his strengths. From a slow start, Lawson eventually had an excellent game.
County on the wing
What really changed the pattern of the game was Ross County’s use of wingers in the match.
When County changed to the 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1, McMenamin was put out on the right and Gardyne remained on the left.
Gardyne had a good game against Queen of the South recently, but struggled to have an impact on the match against Falkirk. This picture shows why, with Jay Fulton doing an excellent job in helping his right-back to double-mark Gardyne on the wing. McMenamin on the other wing doesn’t have the skillset to be a winger, but looked to get in to the box when he could and still played quite well compared to recent centre-forwards put on the wing for County. In fact, both players probably had Ross County’s two best chances to score for County before their goal, with both shooting from inside the box.
It was Corcoran’s introduction on the left-wing that got County behind the full-backs for the first time. Corcoran had an excellent half hour at the end, closing down the Falkirk defenders with Craig, in addition to attacking around and beyond Falkirk’s right-back Duffie.
County’s goal came from County’s Fitzpatrick inadvertently nut-megging Duffie and putting in a whipped cross from close to the bye-line for Craig to glance in to the corner. Fitzpatrick pulled off the assist when it looked like he might be replaced by Scott Morrison, because Fitzpatrick’s passing before then had been clumsy at best.
What of Falkirk? They tried to counter-attack when they could. Falkirk’s manager Pressley didn’t have much of an answer to County’s numerical advantage in midfield and introduced like-for-like substitutions.
Having said that, Falkirk were still always threatening on the break, because El Allagui was such a potent presence up front. El Allagui hurt County’s centre-back Munro towards the end of the match and out-jumped both the County goalkeeper and replacement centre-back Flynn to a cross to head a goal in. El Allagui perhaps was justified a goal from his general play, but Flynn didn’t even have time to warm up at that point and Munro might not have been caught out in the same way.
At half-time, it looked like Falkirk might have gone on to win the match.
However, County’s re-organisation helped them take the initiative and the scoring lead, before El Allagui’s late goal against the run of play. Falkirk had the upper hand because of Higginbotham’s movement and El Allagui’s ability to keep two County defenders at once. County later had the upper hand because Lawson sat in Higginbotham’s space and spread the ball around with little pressure from the Falkirk midfield. On the whole, a draw might have been a fair result.