Aberdeen hosted Kilmarnock in their fifth match of the Scottish Premiership season, with the hosts coming into the match looking for their fifth consecutive victory in all competitions, whilst the visitors had faced a difficult start to the season, with just one victory from their opening six fixtures. The match was played in front of 300 Aberdeen supporters, as fans begin to be eased back into stadiums. Played at a good tempo, it was an entertaining contest, with both sides looking for the victory. Aberdeen were 1-0 winners in the end, thanks to a first-half goal from Ross McCrorie.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by both sides, and how these contributed to the outcome of the match. Further analysis will look at how these tactics interacted with each other, as Aberdeen kept the visitors at bay.
Derek McInnes opted for an unchanged side from his side’s 1-0 win over Hibernian before the international break. They continued with their 3-4-2-1 formation. Captain Joe Lewis was in goal, behind a back three of Tommie Hoban, Scott McKenna and Andrew Considine. Matty Kennedy and former Celtic man Jonny Hayes played as wing-backs, with Lewis Ferguson and Ross McCrorie in the centre. Ryan Hedges and Scott Wright played off of Marley Watkins, who led the line.
Alex Dyer made one change from the side which defeated Dundee United 4-0, continuing with their familiar 4-4-2 formation. Danny Rogers continued in goal, with Callum Waters, Stuart Findlay and Kirk Broadfoot keeping their places in defence. Ross Millen returned from suspension at right-back in place of Zeno Ibsen Rossi. Former Rangers man Chris Burke started on the right, with Greg Kiltie lining up on the opposite flank. Captain Gary Dicker continued alongside Aaron Tshibola in the centre of the park. Eamonn Brophy and Nicke Kabamba started in attack.
Aberdeen’s attacking threat
While Aberdeen have faced criticism for their lack of creativity and attacking spark, this game began to show signs of improvement in this regard. Their lineup was a good show of intent by Derek McInnes, as he named five attacking players from the start. Marley Watkins was the focal point of the attack with Scott Wright and Ryan Hedges given licence to roam off of him. Both players played narrowly, which allowed Jonny Hayes and Matty Kennedy to get forward from the wing-back positions and get involved in attacks.
As shown above, the front three are close together in the centre of the park. The Kilmarnock defence was disjointed as Aberdeen counterattacked. This meant a lot of bodies were in the centre of the pitch. Matty Kennedy had pushed forward from the right-hand side into a large space where Scott Wright spread the play to. The narrow front three often acted in this manner, pulling the full-backs inside, creating space for Hayes and Kennedy to get forward into. This can be seen by the fact that Kennedy and Hayes were the two most frequent crossers, attempting seven and four crosses respectively.
As shown below, the wing-backs also got into the box at times. The front three are once again close together in the central area of the park, however, this hadn’t caused as much disruption on this occasion, with Kilmarnock’s defence well organised. Matty Kennedy got forward with the ball as Hedges looped around the defence to run into the box. Scott Wright’s movement across the box had created the space for Hedges to attack into. Similarly to Kennedy’s forward run, Hayes had gotten forward to attack the back post, occupying Ross Millen at right-back. Getting this number of bodies forward into the box made Aberdeen dangerous when they got into the final third.
As mentioned earlier, Aberdeen got bodies forward on the break. This was another feature of the home side’s play. They looked to transition quickly, with movement in the frontline, and bodies breaking forward from midfield. This led to the only goal of the game after 16 minutes. Scott Wright drove forward with the ball into the box; Marley Watkins then ran towards the near post, dragging the Kilmarnock defence to that area, leaving space on the edge of the area. Ross McCrorie’s bursting run forward was picked out by Wright, allowing the midfield to turn the ball into the net with a tidy finish. Kilmarnock struggled to deal with the bodies Aberdeen threw forward at times, with Brophy, Kabamba and Burke generally left high up the park.
Aberdeen’s defensive shape
In the defensive phase, Aberdeen were structured, and looked to deny Kilmarnock space to attack. Wright and Hedges dropped back from their attacking positions to track the Kilmarnock full-backs when they attacked. This allowed Aberdeen to get more bodies into defensive areas to nullify Kilmarnock’s threat. As shown below, the defence sit in a deep line. Wright closed down the overlapping Millen, while Hedges joins the defence, with Waters on the other side. Matty Kennedy man-marked Kiltie and followed him inside. Therefore, Hedges dropped into the defensive line.
This defensive shape is clear again below. Hedges is once again on the right hand side of Aberdeen’s defence. Matty Kennedy is narrow again; however, this time, he picks up Aaron Tshibola, as Kiltie moves forward. Ferguson tracks his run while Kennedy picks up Tshibola. This meant that Aberdeen’s defensive shape was more flexible, and denied space for the visitors to play in.
The effectiveness of this system can be seen below in Kilmarnock’s shot map. Only one of their shots was from within the width of the goal, and none had a higher xG than 0.29. This means it was unlikely Kilmarnock would score. This was largely thanks to the defence blocking off passing lanes, and their discipline to track their opponents and their runs. This has been an element of Derek McInnes’ side which has long been admired, as they regularly work hard to stifle opposing attacks. This is clear, as his side have conceded just one goal so far this season.
Kilmarnock’s defensive structure
The visitors were also relatively strong defensively, and did well, despite Aberdeen’s threat. As shown below, their two banks of four sat close together, attempting to close the spaces which Aberdeen were looking to play in through Wright and Hedges. The defence and midfield worked hard throughout the game and saw relative success in breaking down Aberdeen’s attacks. It was more often on the break when this structure became more disjointed, as this was when Aberdeen were able to play through them.
This organisation was paired with hard work, as mentioned. Their efforts to close down in numbers can be seen below. As Wright has the ball on the left-hand side, five Kilmarnock players surround him. Kirk Broadfoot stepped out of defence, while Millen has Hayes picked up on the touchline. Tshibola and Dicker both block passing lanes centrally, which further denies Wright’s options. Kilmarnock’s pressing intensity was generally better throughout the match, with an average PPDA of 8.3, which was almost half of what Aberdeen managed. This further demonstrates the work ethic Alex Dyer’s side showed, and, had it not been for Aberdeen’s quality on the break, the result may have been different.
Kilmarnock’s attacking struggles
As mentioned earlier, the visitors struggled to break down Aberdeen’s defensive block. As shown below, Kilmarnock struggled to get on the ball in attacking areas. The full-backs, Millen and Waters, got high up the park to form a four either side of Tshibola and Dicker. On the near side, Burke is wide; however, Millen cannot get the ball to him. Kiltie on the other side looks to make a run behind the defence, but again can’t be found. There are two large pockets of space where these players or the strikers could have dropped into, looking to create a different option for Millen to look to build an attack from. While Kabamba asked for the ball, he was tightly marked by two defenders, making it a riskier pass than is required.
Millen was again left with little options in the example below. With the ball played to him on the touchline, he was closed down by Marley Watkins. Tshibola and Dicker were spread wide in the centre, and neither was in a position which would allow Millen to change the focus of the attack. Ahead of him, Chris Burke is tightly marked, so can’t receive the ball. There is once again a large space which Burke could have dropped into, or one of the forwards could’ve dropped off into. This resulted in Millen playing a long ball forward, which was easily dealt with by Aberdeen’s defence.
Overall, this was an entertaining match, which was fairly end to end. Aberdeen’s attacking play was refreshing, in comparison to what they have served up at other times. The fluidity of the front three caused Kilmarnock problems, and pulled the defence side to side, while it was the danger on the break which eventually led to Aberdeen’s goal, which proved to be decisive. The hosts also looked solid defensively, as they stifled Kilmarnock’s attacks, and didn’t allow them any space to cause problems. The visitors dealt with Aberdeen’s attacks fairly well but gave up a few too many chances. Offensively, they looked toothless and didn’t pose too much of a threat to the Aberdeen defence. This was largely due to their lack of playmakers and players looking to get between the lines.