Thursday, 22 November 2012

Danny Lennon's St Mirren: Where Has It Gone Wrong?

It’s quite strange to note that out of about 150-odd posts, there are only six about St Mirren.  The first was four years ago and about the position of our manager at that point – Gus MacPherson.  Ironically four years on, it his successor – Danny Lennon – who is the subject of the ire of the St Mirren supporters.  This will be perplexing in particular to those people on the outside who saw the fine football we produced last season.  So where did the six defeats in a row come from?

In truth even when St Mirren were playing well but being profligate with our chances, St Mirren were still too light at the back.  Darren McGregor missed most of last season with a knee injury, and is missing this season with another knee injury, in theory while we were bringing in the likes of Thompson, Hasslebank, Teale etc, we should have been looking at our defensive areas as well and brought in another central defender.

Danny Lennon tries out his Cloughie impersination on Gary Teale with little effect

The failure to provide adequate cover at the back was not a huge issue last season, but Lennon’s change in formation for this season has seen this issue come to the fore alongside another issue with Lennon’s recruitment policy – the failure to bring in another defensive midfielder to replace Stephen Thompson.

Last season St Mirren mostly deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, occasionally venturing into a 4-1-4-1 formation and also deploying a 4-3-3 formation at times (like the Scottish Cup tie at Hearts).  The split midfield consisted of Thompson & Goodwin acting as the more defensive midfielders while 3 of Hasslebank/McGowan/McLean/Teale or Carey (with the addition of Dougie Imrie from the January transfer “Window”) took up attacking positions in advance of Thompson & Goodwin but playing just behind the forward (mostly Steven Thompson).  This formation took St Mirren to 8th but instead of last season being the foundation to better things, St Mirren has instead regressed.

St Mirren lost Hasslebank, Tesselar and Stephen Thompson during last summer, but brought in the defender Dummett (on loan), the young midfielder Robertson and forwards Parkin & Guy.  The idea of playing two up front has obviously been foremost in Lennon’s mind as this season St Mirren have mostly played a variation of 4-4-2 (with the exception of the 5-0 hammering by Celtic that saw St Mirren play a 3-5-2 formation).  The problem with the formation deployed this season is that the 4-1-3-2 formation has not provided enough stability at the back, or provided St Mirren with enough grip in midfield.  The loss through injury of Paul McGowan has meant a loss in creativity for St Mirren, but the loss of grip in midfield has been a major cause of St Mirren’s decline this season.

In the last home match, against Aberdeen, St Mirren had problems in passing the ball into central midfield areas (both McLean & Robertson had a serious off day), this resulted in St Mirren giving the ball away in key area’s.  Aberdeen’s first two goals came from misplaced passes into central midfield areas.  Aberdeen’s well organised pressing meant that St Mirren only really had any joy down the flank’s – from which they were able to have the better of the first half.  In the second half, Aberdeen simply pressed home their advantage while completely nullifying any effectiveness that the St Mirren midfield might have had.

So, how do Danny Lennon & St Mirren take things forward?  I think that Lennon needs to change to a formation that will provide defensive stability, much like the formation Lennon had last season (which provided the platform for much of the attacking football from last season).  He might go back to 3-5-2, but after the horrors of the Celtic game much work will have to be done to make a back three work.  That and i'm not that sure that Lennon knows how to make 3-5-2 work.  The other option being discussed in less and less hushed tones is the replacement of Lennon.

We are still a bit off of that course of action happening.  However that outcome may well come a bit closer to happening if Dundee win on Saturday at Greenhill Road to overtake St Mirren & push them into the relegation spot.  If it’s not crucial for the board, then Saturday’s home match with Dundee will probably act as a tipping point for the fans. 

In this respect, Saturday’s match is a must win match for Lennon who will need something to see him to the January window.  Defeat could well be the beginning of the end for Lennon.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Playing With Spin

While one pair of heavyweights do battle in Australia over the crown of Test Crickets best team, another pair of contenders for the crown begin their battle from Thursday.  While South Africa and Australia slug it out to be number one, India and England are attempting to get back on track after being deposed as number one.  In India’s case there is the additional incentive of revenge after England’s 4-0 series win last year ended India’s time at the top of the tree.

Gatting cuts during England's sucessful 1984/5 test series win in India

The strange thing is that both sides are at a transitional phase.  India has seen the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman since that crushing series defeat.  Dravid’s replacement is Cheteshwar Pujara, who has already scored a test hundred in his 5 tests, with Virat Kholi in place as Laxman’s replacement.  Kholi has already scored two test hundreds in his ten tests.  Still there though to guide these promising players is the little master Sachin Tendulkar, only on 15,533 test runs (at an average of 55.08) with 51 test hundreds to his name.  Virender Shewag will be opening once more, while the dangerous all rounder Yuvraj Singh returns to the squad after successfully fighting a rare form of cancer.

Also returning to the India squad is Harbhajan Singh, who will be key in spearheading India’s spin attack.  Yadav & the old warhorse Zaheer Khan will be the new ball bowlers, however it will be the spin bowling of Singh, Ashwin and the left arm spin of Ojha who will be key against opponents with a perceived weakness for spin bowling.

England also have team building issues of their own.  The retirement of Andrew Strauss opens up a vacancy at the top of the England order, with Nick Compton the likely favourite for that position.  There is still a position in the middle order up for grabs, with Johnny Bairstow favourite to retain the position he occupied in the latter part of the South Africa series, while they have injury problems with their fast bowlers.  Steven Finn is a doubt for the first test while Stuart Broad is returning from injury.  On the upside, Pieterson is back though one wonders how long he will stay in the right frame of mind for the test series.

It has been said before, but key to England’s chances of pulling off an unlikely win in India will be how their batsmen handle the conditions, particularly the spin friendly conditions.  One of the reasons that England lost top spot in the test rankings was their poor record against Pakistan and Sri Lanka last winter, yet here we are in a country where England’s record is not good.  Since the war, England have come away from India with series wins twice (3-1 in 1976/7 and 2-1 in 1984/5).  In that last series win, England posted first innings scores in excess of 400 three times.

Of course England could surprise us all and show a degree of adaptability which was hidden in Sri Lanka and in Abu Dhabi earlier on this year – as they did when they surprisingly drew in India in 2005/6.  I suspect however that this will not be the case, which is why India remain favourites to win this series

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

On Gardening Leave…

While the debate over who should become the manager of the Scotland national team has been rumbling on for the best part of 3 weeks, the SFA finally got around to a decision which, in it’s delivery, asks serious questions of those in charge of our game.

Regan & Ogilvie announce the removal of Levein as Scotland Manager
The first thing to say is that the SFA have at least made the right decision.  Levein’s predication for using tactical solutions ill fitting of the players available has been a big factor in every reverse.  Levein’s inability to pick a side capable of holding on to the ball was the biggest contributory factor in his downfall though.  We might have players available better than those available under messers Burley, McLeish, Smith & Voghts but they still give the ball away far too often – the nadir being that first half against Belgium.  He was the best available option at the time for the SFA, but if things are not working out decisions have to be made.

That the SFA made the right decision is only part of the story though.  The main story though has been the shocking shoddy processes behind the decision.  Indeed it should be pointed out that technically, Levein has not been sacked.  He has been relieved of his position as Scotland Manager and put on “gardening leave”. It should also be pointed out that no meetings on the subject were scheduled until last Friday, when discussions rumbled on throughout the weekend until concluding yesterday when Levein finally learned of his fate.  Sure Levein was on holiday, but even so soundings and initial discussions could have taken place.  Certainly the way the news leaked out, rummors on the twittersphere around Lunchtime yesterday followed by the BBC breaking the news around about half past 4.  Even the admission that Levein had planned to see out this campaign before quitting seemed to have backfired on the SFA, with Regan admitting that one of the reasons for his decision was Levein's plans after this qualifying cycle.

While one would hope that the SFA find some employment for Levein while he is still under their employ, attention should now turn to who Craig Levein’s sucessor should be.  On that score, there is near consensus with the name of Gordon Strachan cropping up time and time again.

Strachan is possibly at the optimum age for an International coach.  His time at Celtic was by common consensus a success, building expertly on (while creating his own template) the Martin O’Neill years.  Three successive Scottish Championships, one Scottish Cup and two League Cups were won by Strachan at Celtic – though arguably his biggest achievement was taking Celtic into the knock out stages of the European Cup two seasons in a row.  True he didn’t exactly set the heather alight at Coventry, Southampton or at Middlesborough.  He did keep Coventry and Southampton in the English Premier League though – an achievement beyond his immediate successors at both clubs.  He also took Southampton to their first English FA Cup final since 1976 – losing 1-0 to Arsenal in 2003.

Of the other main contenders, Walter Smith has done the job before (with some degree of success) but may well have to overcome resistance from the Tartan Army.  Joe Jordan has a patchy managerial career but has had a renaissance recently as ‘Arry Redknapp’s assistant at Tottenham, while Owen Coyle was sucessful at Burnley but took Bolton down from the English Premier League.  However there are two interesting, if slightly leftfield, names being mentioned.

Rob who write’s the “Left Back in the Changing Room” blog mentioned Rafa Benitez – “he's available, he's used to dealing with incompetent superiors, he's used to dealing with high pressure, he's a fine cup manager (which is what Scotland needs if you think about it) and he seems to understand youth development (as the current crop of LFC youngsters attests).”  Craig Brown, no stranger to the Scotland job himself mentioned the current under 21 coach, Billy Stark “It wouldn't surprise me, although I think it would surprise most of the media, if Billy managed to impress enough to be offered the job…  I was the Under-21 coach and they gave me the job, just as Billy Stark's the Under-21 coach, and I had four qualifying campaigns and managed to get out of the group on three of them”.

Stark’s name is interesting, he is the kind of candidate that the SFA might have considered several years ago.  With tickets to sell though, there is only one name that captivates the Tartan Army.  The question though is if firstly the SFA share the Tartan Army’s ideas on the next Scotland Manager and secondly if the SFA and Strachan can strike a deal.  Unless there are reasons, Strachan is the only name in town.