Ross County and Dundee United have both made promising starts to the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership season. The Staggies came into the match with two victories and draw from their opening three fixtures. Meanwhile, the visitors had one victory one draw and one loss from their first three fixtures under new manager Micky Mellon.
Ross County started brightly with victories over Motherwell and Hamilton before a disappointing draw with Kilmarnock. Stuart Kettlewell has been pleased with the start his side have made to the campaign and would have hoped to continue with that momentum against Dundee United.
Micky Mellon has started to put his stamp on the premiership’s newest side with an opening day draw with St Johnstone followed by an impressive victory away to Motherwell. Following a midweek defeat at the hands of high-flying Hibernian United would be looking to bounce back on their visit to the highlands.
It was the visitors who were eventual 2-1 winners thanks to a late goal from substitute Nicky Clark. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by Micky Mellon and how these helped lead his side to their second premiership win of the season. Further analysis will look at how the home side fared and what caused them to suffer their first defeat.
The home side made two changes from their midweek draw with Kilmarnock. Ross Laidlaw started in goal behind a the same back four as their opening three matches, former Liverpool man Connor Randall, Coll Donaldson, Alex Iacovitti and 18-year-old Josh Reid. Ross Draper and Ian Vigurs continued as the deeper midfielders while Harry Paton started as the attacking midfielder, replacing Regan Charles-Cook. Michael Gardyne kept his place on the wing with Ross Stewart lining up on the other side as a wide target man. Billy McKay returned to lead the line, replacing Josh Mullin.
The visitors returned to their 4-1-4-1 formation having used a back three against Hibernian. Benjamin Siegrist was in goal while Kieran Freeman made his debut at right-back. Mark Connolly played alongside Mark Reynolds in central defence with Adrian Sporle replaced the injured Jamie Robson at left-back. Callum Butcher played as the holding midfielder with Ian Harkes and Peter Pawlett ahead of him. Manchester City loanee Luke Bolton played on the right with Logan Chalmers replacing Nicky Clark to start on the left. Louis Appere kept his place at the top of the pitch.
Ross County’s forwards were moved around frequently in the match playing various roles as substitutions were made. This saw Ross Stewart, in particular, play four different roles. There was a flexibility to the visitors game too, while they lined up in a 4-1-4-1 in possession, off the ball, Freeman often tucked into a back three with Luke Bolton playing as the wing-back.
Dundee United’s build-up play
In their opening fixtures, United had demonstrated varying patterns of build-up play. On the opening game of the season, Callum Butcher had been the central figure as they looked to build from the centre of the park. While they had still looked for this influence in their other two fixtures, there was less of an emphasis on him. Against Motherwell and Hibernian, arguably stronger opponents, there was a greater focus on getting the ball wide avoiding the congested central areas.
In this match there wasn’t an overly dominant trend however the wide areas were slightly more prevalent. As shown by the pass map above, the most frequent link-up came between Sporle and Chalmers on the left with 15 combinations, I will look more at these later. The other full-back, debutante Freeman, was also heavily involved.
The former Southampton youth player linked up frequently with Luke Bolton up his flank, and with Ian Harkes in the centre having 10 combinations with each. As United looked to build attacks Harkes often dropped between the County midfield and attack forming a 4-2-3-1 shape. This creates more options and shortens passing lanes, as shown below.
Thanks to Harkes dropping deep Kieran Freeman is now presented with three options. Luke Bolton is up the line however, is picked up by the full-back, Appere is further forward in the centre however, has two defenders in the passing lane. Therefore, Harkes movement then makes him both the easiest and shortest pass. Despite this, Freeman attempts a progressive pass into the feet of Appere. Harkes earlier movement had attracted Ross Draper to move out to him which left space behind which Harkes could then move into. This allowed him to receive the ball when it reached Appere and create a dangerous attacking situation.
As I mentioned above, the most frequent link-up came down United’s left flank. Logan Chalmers stayed tight to the touchline, particularly in the first half. This dragged Connor Randall out wide and forced Coll Donaldson to also move over to cover this space. This left a large space between Chalmers, and the ball, on the touchline and Iacovitti in the centre. To take advantage of this, Sporle regularly Under-lapped Chalmers before making an in-to-out run when he received the ball. This saw the left-back make two key passes in the game, the most of any United player.
When playing out from defence, United did struggle at times. Neither Connolly or Reynolds is the most technically blessed of players which showed at times. Shown Below is an example of Reynolds on the ball. The captain has options to either side with Sporle at left-back and Butcher in the centre of the park. As well as these he has former Aberdeen teammate Peter Pawlett ahead of him centrally.
Rather than finding any of these options, he opted to attempt an early long ball to Appere. The forward was being marked tightly by Iacovitti which continued throughout the match. Of the 12 duels between the two, the defender came out on top 75% of the time. This gives an indication of the lack of success United had when attempting passes like these.
Target man Ross Stewart
The main focus of the vast majority of Ross County’s attacks was Ross Stewart. Standing at 6 foot 2 inches it’s little surprise that 12 of Ross Laidlaw’s 17 successful goal kicks were aimed towards the forward. Although originally a central striker, Stewart has frequently been used in wide areas for Ross County. This generally allows him to take advantage of his physical presence against smaller full-backs rather than tussling with central defenders. It wasn’t only goal kicks which were aimed towards him though.
As shown below, Coll Donaldson aimed long balls towards him in the attack. A s the ball was played forward Billy McKay in the centre moves towards that side as he looked to latch onto the knock down. Harry Paton also gets beyond McKay as they get more bodies into the box. Utilising Stewart’s size against debutante Freeman was a move which saw relative success for County without producing a goal.
Most of County’s corners were also aimed towards Stewart. As shown below, Stewart took up a deep position where the ball was played out to. The forward would look to either header the ball into the centre of the box or knock it down for a teammate on the edge of the area. It was these knockdowns which led to the home side’s opening goal. Following the below corner, the ball was once again launched towards Stewart at the back.
In the second phase of the corner as defenders made their way back, Stewart touched the ball down for Coll Donaldson to Volley home from the edge of the box. This is a facet of Stewart’s game which can make him particularly dangerous. While both of his goals this season have came from the penalty spot, he demonstrates a threat in build up play thanks to this ability to set up teammates.
Ross County’s build-up play
Similarly to United, County had varied success with their build-up. As mentioned above Ross Stewart was their main out ball however, this wasn’t all they had to their game. Mainly in the first half, they demonstrated fluidity to their front line. As shown below, The ball into McKay triggers Gardyne and Paton to move around him. As McKay moves wide Gardyne tucks inside taking Freeman with him, creating space.
This space is driven into on by Paton who makes the in-to-out run. While this link-up is happening on the left, United defenders are dragged over to close down. This isolates Ross Stewart on the right flank which will give County an out ball as they progress up the park.
When coming out of defence the County defenders were allowed a fair amount of time on the ball. At times, this saw Donaldson and Iacovitti Drive forward with the ball into midfield. However, more often they either played a long ball to Stewart which saw relative success but is still a riskier pass than was required at times.
As shown below, Donaldson is put under slight pressure by Appere as he approaches halfway. Rather than playing the simple pass to Randall on the touchline or inside to Vigurs, he played a long ball towards McKay which he had little chance of winning. This decision making can be likened to that of Mark Reynolds mentioned earlier where a bit more composure could’ve helped his side keep the ball and progress it more patiently.
While United built a lot of their attacks patiently, they were also a threat on the counter. Due to their four across midfield they were able to commit bodies forward. This was also aided by pressing to cause turnovers. Below, as they forced a turnover in the centre of the park, bodies spring forward for United as they create a 4-on-3.
Appere leads the charge driving forwards with ball while Chalmers and Bolton get forward on either side with Harkes coming from deep. Appere’s ball wide was ahead of Bolton as he raced onto it but couldn’t poke it past Laidlaw and into the goal. This happened on a few occasions where they managed to outnumber County thanks to their quick transitions.
Their high pressing can be seen below. As County attempted to play out, Appere and Chalmers pressured Donaldson and Randall forcing the ball forward towards Draper. As soon as this pass was rushed United’s midfield press was triggered. Butcher snapped into a challenge with Draper winning the ball allowing his side to counter thanks to the high volume of players up the park.
This was a very end to end match with neither side really getting much dominance. Chances weren’t too common with United’s clinical edge ultimately seeing them get the three points. While the home side looked dangerous at times they were perhaps too reliant on Ross Stewart to create chances in attack. Had the midfielders gotten on the ball more they could have taken advantage of United’s high pressure and played around them. Overall, Micky Mellon will be encouraged by the consistent nature of his side’s performances as they begin to create an identity. Their use of the ball in wide areas has particularly stood out so far while the bodies they can commit forward from midfield has also caught the eye.