Ross County 1 – 1 Celtic 18/08/12

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This is the third time that Derek Adams and Neil Lennon have faced each other as managers.  Each contest has been captivating in its own right.

In this match, a typically stubborn Ross County side fought for their share of the points against a Celtic team who were protecting some of their injured players for a Champions League qualifier this coming midweek.  Ross County will be disappointed to drop two points after conceding the equalising goal at the very end of the match, but Celtic had more chances to score.


1) County’s reactionary philosophy and Celtic’s own reactions

The starting formations lining up and matching up.  As usual, the colour co-ordination in the Subbuteo illustrations are Green: Defenders (centre-backs or full-backs); Yellow midfielders and wing-backs; Orange for attacking midfielders; and Red for strikers.  While Celtic’s formation here is shown to be symmetrical, Izaguirre was typically much further forward than Matthews at wing-back.


With a number of attacking players (including Hooper and Forrest) not available, Neil Lennon started the match with a surprising 3-5-2 formation.  It was a surprise because Ross County were always likely to play with one striker, leaving at least one of Celtic’s three centre-backs redundant (assuming the general school of thought that in defence, there ought to be one more centre-back than corresponding centre-forward).

County did indeed play a variation of 4-5-1.  The surprise in County’s team was the inclusion of Corcoran on the left-wing, which freed up Vigurs to partner Kettlewell in the middle.  Rocco Quinn made his first start of the season on the right flank, as Brittain deputised for Lawson in the midfield-anchor role.  This 4-1-4-1 was not a surprise in itself, because it seems to be Derek Adams’s ‘big game’ stock formation, which was used in cup matches against SPL teams last season (including against Celtic last year and arguably against Celtic in the semi-final win in 2010).

Ross County’s style of play at the beginning of this season has generally been a reactionary one.  County’s back four and goal-keeper have started all three league matches and it is clear that they do not find it comfortable to beginning attacking moves from there.  Michael Fraser, the goal-keeper, rolled the ball out once to Fitzpatrick in this match but has otherwise punted every other collection of the ball into the opposition half. That has meant County relying on winning loose balls, tackles and interceptions higher up the pitch in order to re-gain possession of the ball.  That is the price paid for Tokely’s defensive strength and lack of technique at right-back.  County will become more progressive from defence through midfield as the season develops, but the conservative strategy has worked thus far.

Celtic took the run of play to County for the most part, which was expected and can be illustrated by the match statistics.  However, Celtic rarely managed to break County down to the extent that they looked very likely to score and it took a different type of reaction for Celtic to recover a point from the match.  Lennon ended up using three different formations by the end of the match to get the necessary goal, which was probably a necessary move as Celtic were lacking ideas in attack by the last quarter of the match.  It took a wide, ultra-attacking 4-4-2 formation at the end of the match to consistently get behind County’s defence at left-back, which was from where the equalising goal was scored.

2) The spare men in midfield

Celtic’s deep-lying midfielder Wanyama was nominally one of Celtic’s ‘spare men’ on the pitch (along with the redundant centre-back), with no direct marker when the sides matched up.  This meant thathe ought to have been able to recycle possession trouble-free.  In practice this did not always happen, because Kayal would push further up the pitch from Wanyama and Ledley, generally leaving a 2v2 scenario in central midfield.  Lennon could be heard from the dug-out calling for more urgency from his midfield.



Celtic were more tidy in possession than County, as anticipated, but they did not dominate the midfield the way that they would have liked.  Vigurs and particularly Kettlewell are known for their tenacity and they rarely let Celtic play through the middle of the pitch; Celtic relied on getting forward by involving their wing-backs and by diagonal balls towards Samaras.  Wanyama and Ledley generally did a decent job in recycling possession (helped by the fact that Celtic had one extra defender to play the short game from defence), but they always looked vulnerable to the midfield press which would occasionally expose their centre-backs.

In contrast, Brittain sat between Ross County’s defence and midfield and was, for the most part, County’s un-marked player on the pitch.  The Ross County captain and sponsors’ man of the match reprised his role against Celtic in 2010 by passing through midfield when he could and by intercepting any passes that were attempted by to the feet of Samaras and others in Ross County’s centre-back zone.


The picture immediately above shows Celtic’s ‘redundant’ centre-back Mikael Lustig try to play out of defence towards Samaras. Brittain was positioned perfectly to intercept and begin an attacking move for County.  This was not an exclusive moment in the match, with Brittain, Vigurs and Kettlewell dispossessing Commons on a number of occasions when he found himself around the inside-forward position.

As Brittain was County’s free midfielder, he often had time to pick a pass.  County’s progression from full-back was missed to this extent, because neither Fitzpatrick nor Tokely wanted to over-commit with the threat of Commons and Samaras in the channels behind (although it should be noted that Fitzpatrick delivered a couple of dangerous first-time crosses in the opening half hour of the match).  Earlier this year, County’s full-backs would break beyond the opposition defence to create chances for McMenamin up front, but the attacking ambition has recently been sacrificed for defensive assurance.



Both Brittain and Wanyama had opportunities to shoot by advancing from deep midfield.  Wanyama’s long-range shooting left something to be desired, but Brittain scored with an exceptional free-kick and later hit the crossbar from range.


3) Penetration had to come around County’s defence

Celtic’s best opportunities would arrive from possession on the flanks and the ability to play beyond County’s full-backs.



In theory, the match-up between Izaguirre and Tokely on Celtic’s left side looked to be the more likely contest where Celtic would create an opening.  In fact, Izaguirre managed to get to the bye-line on a number of occasions, but his delivery rarely found its target Samaras at the far post.

Celtic’s best chance from open play – apart from the goal that Commons scored – arrived from a long diagonal ball from Mulgrew towards Samaras, who knocked the ball down.  Commons’s close-range shot was saved when through on goal.

With no James Forrest on the right flank, Celtic missed the same kind of attacking threat on the right (until later changing to a 4-4-2).  Matthews was superb defensively – County’s left-winger Corcoran had a quiet game – but the right-wing-back never got to the bye-line in the same manner as Izaguirre. It took Kayal to make outside-right runs to stretch that part of the playing area.

Ross County’s best open-play opportunities also arrived from the left flank, when Fitzpatrick and/or Vigurs would combine with Corcoran to get 2v1 against Matthews.  County still require an equivalent threat from the right, which is missed since previous right-back Miller’s departure to St Johnstone.  Having the touch and technique from Vigurs to compliment Kettlewell’s late runs into the box might make up for Gardyne’s linking play between midfield and McMenamin, but the ability to genuinely stretch the play on the right flanks looks to be a missing ingredient towards scoring from open play.


4) One overload too many

With Brittain having put Ross County ahead shortly into the second half and with Celtic still using three at the back against one striker, the onus was on Lennon to change his team to get a result.



After 64 minutes, Celtic took the ineffective Lustig off to introduce Tony Watt.  Celtic put Wanyama in defence to keep three centre-backs, but dropped Commons to a deeper position within a 3-4-1-2 formation. Little seemed to change with the formation match-ups, other than Commons now directly fell into Brittain’s territory.  Commons had licence to drift to either flank to find space, as he typically does, but Brittain did not wish to allow him any time to shoot or create from outside the box.




With 13 minutes of regulation time remaining, Celtic sacrificed Wilson at the back to change to a 4-4-2 formation.  Slane was introduced on the left wing to no great effect, with Commons drifting inwards from the right (and Watt outwards from the centre).

With the extra width, Celtic began exerting a lot of pressure, with shots being blocked inside the penalty box and successive corner kicks being earned.

At that point in the match, with County’s back four defending so narrow,  extra diligence was required from County’s midfield to keep the defence protected in the middle and on the flanks.



However, the equaliser arrived from space found outside County’s left-back.  Wanyama found the space to play a pass to the over-lapping Watt in the last moment of the match.  Fitzpatrick was tucked in to support the centre-backs who were being overloaded by Wanyama (who at that point was a roaming centre-back), Commons and Samaras. Fitzpatrick’s left-flank parter Corcoran was lost further up the pitch in an effort to support McMenamin.  Corcoran’s position seems to have been a strategic decision by Adams to help County retain the ball on the counter, but it meant that County’s defence on the left side was exposed.  Watt’s strongly-struck shot from the right side of the box was saved by Fraser but the ball rebounded to Commons to tap in.



On the whole, County’s midfield was more balanced than Celtic’s.  Ledley, Kayal and Wanyama all looked to play a similar kind of role. This contrasted with County’s midfield three, where Brittain was the influential deep midfielder behind the thrust of Kettlewell and touch of Vigurs.

Lennon’s tactical reactions eventually recovered the situation. It could be that Adams’s loyalty to the same XI throughout the 94 minutes contributed to the equaliser being conceded.

A draw was a fair result at the end, with Celtic being wasteful with their opportunities in front of County’s goal against an exceptional Ross County defence. Both teams had good chances to score at least another goal and both were unlucky to hit the woodwork.

Ross County are now 37 matches unbeaten in league competition.


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Ross County 0 – 0 Motherwell 04/08/12


Ross County passed their first test in the Scottish Premier League by holding an enterprising Motherwell side to a goalless draw.

Motherwell played the game on the front foot and at times justified their position as ‘the best of the rest’ from last season. Motherwell showed a balance of physical strength and searing pace on the flanks.

However, Motherwell were met by a stubborn, well organised Ross County side who were themselves not shy in playing attractive football when the opportunity arose. The defence of both teams won out, with neither goal-keeper being truly tested in the match.

Some tactical themes were apparent during the match and these are discussed below.

1) Two interpretations of 4-2-3-1

The two teams lining up in 4-2-3-1 set-ups. The second picture illustrates the teams matching each other, with Murphy and Daley changing positions for Motherwell and Vigurs and Scott swapping for Ross County later in the first half.

For the second season in a row, Ross County began a league campaign with a  4-2-3-1 formation. Looking at the team lines, it was a surprise to see Richard Brittain and Iain Vigurs quite so high up the pitch in attacking phases, with Martin ‘Jimmy’ Scott playing ahead of Lawson and Duncan in midfield. Perhaps of greater surprise was the inclusion of Ross Tokely at right-back, ahead of new signings Kovacevic and Bateson.

Motherwell made one change to the team that narrowly lost at home to Panithinaikos in midweek, with Omar Daley replacing Henrik Ojaama. Daley started on the left of the band of ‘3’ but later switched with Murphy to play closer to Higdon up front.

While the two teams used the same system in a nominal sense, they were used in different ways. As always, a formation or system is entirely neutral; the distinguishing features are found in the manner in which it is used and by the players who use it.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams was the type of players used in the respective bands of ‘3’, in the attacking-midfield section of the 4-2-3-1 formations. Motherwell effectively had three forwards in these positions, with Daley, Murphy and Humphrey all comfortable on the wing or coming inside. All three have the skillset of upper-SPL class wingers and remained high up the pitch throughout the match in support of centre-forward Higdon.

In contrast, Ross County used three natural central midfielders behind McMenamin. While all three are used to playing anywhere across the midfield (with Vigurs and Brittain particularly used to playing the wide positions in a deeper four-man midfield), they have the attributes of typical central midfielders rather than wingers. Their natural inclination might have been to sit deeper behind McMenamin, but they had to drop back to support County’s full-backs out in any event.

The lack of pace in Ross County’s full-back positions meant that Vigurs (later Scott) and Brittain had to support in defence to create two banks of four. This was done to some degree of success, with the defensive organisation carried forward from last season’s accomplishment, but it meant that all but McMenamin were defending close to County’s own 18 yard box. Motherwell’s full-backs were rarely troubled to the same extent.

With Richard Brittain having to defend so deep at times to help Tokely behind him, it meant that on occasion he found himself in a position where he could not start attacking moves. The inevitable clearance to a free Motherwell defender brought another turnover of possession and invited more pressure, of which County generally coped with competently.

2) Penetration on the flanks but resilience in defence

On paper, it was apparent that the match could have been won or lost on the flanks. Ross County’s main apparent weakness in the lack of pace at full-back contrasted alarmingly with the exceptional pace of Motherwell’s wide mifielders.

However, Motherwell never made the most of their advantage on the flanks. They rarely isolated or out-numbered County’s full-backs. When Motherwell did get to the bye-line, County’s centre-backs and goal-keeper managed the centred crosses with aplomb.

Ross County’s right-back took the sponsor’s man of the match award. County saw the best of Tokely in defence because of the diligence of Brittain in front of him, so that Tokely was not too often exposed to Daley or Murphy mano-a-mano. This meant that the majority of Tokely’s defending came from attacking crosses at the far post which were delivered from County’s left flank.

While Motherwell could not get behind Tokely, they had more joy attacking former Motherwell player Fitzpatrick. Most of Motherwell’s attacks started on the left and their most dangerous play arrived from a switch in play to Humphrey. Humphrey’s first touch let him down on more than one occasion.  He ought to have set up a number of goalscoring opportunities.

After the mid-way point of the first half, Motherwell swapped Daley with Murphy, presumably to allow Murphy to get a run at Tokely. Murphy never got behind Tokely until late into the second half, when Murphy’s cross was sliced into the crowd.

The switch in play exposed Fitzpatrick and the space around the left-back was so apparent because Vigurs’s positioning in front of him was more loose than Brittan’s on the other side. County swapped Vigurs with Scott in order that Scott could better protect Fitzpatrick from being caught in a 2v1 situation against Humphrey and Hately. Scott’s protection of the left-back was reminiscent of the difficult time that former County defender Scott Morrison faced against Willie Gibson for Dunfermline in 2010.

3) Ball-playing midfielders had the biggest influence for County

Motherwell almost always looked comfortable in possession until the point where they would attack County’s third of the pitch. Motherwell’s midfielders Law and particuarly Lasley could recycle possession among themselves and the defence. With County’s band of ‘3’ at least fifteen yards deeper than Motherwell’s equivalent, it meant that County’s striker McMenamin often found himself playing ‘piggy in the middle’ among the Motherwell players. It was further up the pitch that Motherwell lacked the assured touch, with their crossing failing to meet Higdon despite promising positions being taken up.

Ross County could not play out of defence in the same manner as Motherwell, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Motherwell’s band of ‘3’ remained high up the pitch almost without exception, which meant that County’s full-backs could not collect from the goal-keeper. Secondly, County’s centre-backs would too often look down the pitch and would play a long pass towards McMenamin that was lost, rather than looking for Duncan or Lawson in midfield.

It took around quarter of the match to pass for the game to stretch enough to allow Lawson to begin to dictate County’s play. The home team’s best moments came when Lawson had the time to lift his head and combine with Vigurs. The two players combined well in making triangular passing moves with the other players, but no distinguishable chances were created in open play. County looked most dangerous from Vigurs’s set-pieces, with the height and strength of Munro and Tokely causing problems to Motherwell’s defence.

Brittain was not involved in the match in a creative sense as much as he would have liked. When County got forward, Brittain played high and wide against Hammell, but never had the beating of him. One surprise over-lap by Tokely in the second half brought some penetration from the right-hand side, but otherwise Brittain found himself cut off from the linking play among Vigurs, Lawson and Scott. Brittain deserves his place in the starting XI for countless reasons, but the wide-right position in a 4-2-3-1 does not best suit his style of play without a marauding right-back behind him. Gary Miller’s move to St Johnstone is notable to that extent, but there are other mobile full-backs in the squad that might bring the best out of Brittain in that position.

4) McMenamin’s isolation will be a problem throughout the season

Colin McMenamin was the top scorer in the First Division last season, but it will be a surprise to see him near among the SPL’s top scorers in this campaign. That is not a slight on McMenamin but a judgement on the circumstances. In this match, McMenamin was more than occasionally isolated against the Motherwell centre-backs due to how deep County’s midfield had to defend to protect the centre-backs.

McMenamin’s presence was in contrast to his opposite number 9 Higdon:

  • Higdon’s sheer physicality allowed him to hold the ball up against County’s centre-backs, and
  • Higdon always had three other ‘forwards’ around him, whereas McMenamin had five midfielders behind him.

Ross County’s centre-forward’s play largely involved chasing balls into channels in an effort to bring his team’s attacking midfielders into possession.  McMenamin has always had clever movement and he occasionally showed the relative lack of mobility in Hutchinson and Ramsden by winning free-kicks in dangerous positions.

However, at least a handful of McMenamin’s goals last season arrived from cut-backs at the bye-line by County’s full-backs.  He might have to expect less of this in the future.

5) More time for Ojaama might have made the difference

At times in the match, Motherwell looked a very balanced and accomplished team.  They looked on the verge of scoring on a number of occasions, but either the final ball never arrived or the execution was not clinical.  Only once did they really get behind the County back-line (which was Murphy’s skewed cross late in the match) and only once was an odds-on chance created, when Higdon headed over from cross range following a deep cross from the right flank in the first half.

Perhaps the missing element to the team was a player to link the midfield to attack.  Motherwell started with three winger-type forwards behind Higdon in the band of ‘3’, but none were creative play-makers.  Henrik Ojaama is more of a striker than a play-maker, but his ability to draw players out of position and beat his marker in any area of the pitch (reminiscent of Uruguyan live-wire Luis Suarez) was missed earlier on.

Ojaama had around twenty minutes on the pitch, playing behind Higdon and latterly on the left flank.  Ojaama did not make a telling contribution to the last phase of the match, but had he been given more time to link with Higdon and the wide players, he might have tipped the balance that could have given Motherwell three points.


Ross County generally defended strongly against a quick and skillful Motherwell side.  There is room for improvement from both sides.  A draw was a fair result based on the lack of obvious goal-scoring opportunities made by either team.  Motherwell’s strength on the wings brings a variety to their play but an apparent reliance on Ojaama to create and score could be a concern. Early signs show, though, that they could challenge for second place in the table.

Ross County, meanwhile, showed plenty promise in midfield from Vigurs and Lawson and a defensive resilience that should help avoid the damaging score-lines that Dunfermline suffered from last season.  However, Derek Adams’s Ross County sides have always relied upon their full-backs over-lapping and this will have to happen with more consistency if County are to create enough chancesto be safe from relegation through the season.

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