Season Preview 2011/12 – The First Division Opposition

This is part two of the rosscountytactics season preview. Part one can be found here and is worth reading to get up to speed with Ross County’s current squad.

This article will discuss the other teams in the First Division, attempting to piece together their likely line-ups and how a Ross County XI can set up to exploit those teams’ weaknesses.

There is nothing scientific about the content of this article.  It is based a lot on speculation, a bit on others’  opinions on their favourite teams and little on experience in watching football at this level. So with that in mind, please take each comment with a pinch of salt, but do enjoy.

Ayr United


Ayr are shown in red and white because the formation-drawing app does not have anything close to their home kit.

  • Ayr are one of two promoted teams this season. When gaining promotion from the SecondDivision, Brian Reid used a 4-3-1-2, similar to County’s 4-4-2 diamond, with Trouten playing  behind the front two.
  • However, it is doubtful that we will see Ayr attack Ross County with a 4-3-1-2, at least in Dingwall, given the difference in resources available to both teams.
  • Ayr are likely to play 4-4-2, but face problems balancing the midfield.  Trouten, Keenan and Geggan all like to play in the centre of the park, so Trouten is the most likely of the three to move out wide.  McGowan is right-sided, but is more of a wide midfielder than the other four, so based solely on that he might start on the left-hand side.
  • Ayr’s biggest strength is in the experience of their two centre-backs, who are veterans at First and Second Division level.  Robertson has arguably been Partick Thistle’s best player for a number of years, while Campbell is Ayr’s current longest-serving player at the club.
  • However, their biggest strength might also be their biggest weakness.  Both defenders are on the wrong side of 30 years old and Robertson in particular has a distinct lack of pace compared to some forwards in the division.
  • The defence will therefore be encouraged to sit in, so that opposition forwards cannot exploit any space behind.
  • The midfield, with battling qualities but not a lot of finesse, might also have to sit deep to protect the defence, which will leave a lot of work for the strike partnership.
  • Up front, Wardlaw brings a lot of SPL experience to the team, while Moffat has recently come from junior football but is very pacy and will run beyond opposing defences in an instant.
  • With Ayr sitting deep, it will be important for County to have some natural width in the team.  Keeping Corcoran wide left with over-laps from Morrison will help keep the Ayr defence stretched.
  • Corcoran is the only winger in the County squad, but either Brittain or Quinn would offer a different option on the right wing as they can deliver quality early crosses and would also have Miller over-lapping from right-back.


Barry Smith did such an excellent job keeping Dundee away from relegation last season, despite the 25 point ban, that Dundee are the bookies’ favourites for promotion this year.

Dundee have signed Steven Milne (freed from Ross County) and Graham Bayne, who was recently at Dunfermline. Higgins, Harkins and Forsyth have gone and have probably not been adequately replaced, but there is still a strong core to a squad there and will still finish high up the table. They do look short of a strong central midfielder to assist O’Donnell. Ross Chisolm was recently signed from Arbroath, but Dundee could probably do with better depth there, with right-back Gary Irvine not being a terribly convincing deputy.

  • Barry Smith likes to play a 4-4-2, so County would do well to play Gardyne off the main striker
  • Riley and Conroy will likely stay wide, so there should be plenty space to dominate in midfield
  • At the same time, a more disciplined 4-4-1-1 rather than a 4-2-3-1 might be appropriate, so that County’s full-backs don’t get exposed to Dundee’s wide players
  • The key to beating Dundee would be to win the midfield territory and keep possession, to patiently bring the full-backs into play
  • Gardyne ought to have space to run with the ball at the centre-backs.
  • Dundee’s defence is their strongest unit and is arguably SPL standard, so it is unlikely McMenamin or whoever else up front would get much penetration on their own.
  • When attacking, Vigurs drifting in from the left flank would prove useful in forming triangles with Gardyne, McMenamin and an over-lapping Morrison fron left-back. Morrison would of course have to keep an eye on Riley attacking behind him.



Falkirk Manager ‘Elvis’ Pressley has his work cut out this season to get his team challenging at the top of the table. Falkirk made known their financial troubles towards the end of last season and have shorn themselves of most of their highest earners.

As a result, Falkirk still only have one recognised forward at the time of writing.  There is still some squad re-structuring required before the start of the season. With left-winger Flynn recently moving to England for £150,000, there should be funds for a couple of new players.

A stab in the dark at what a Falkirk team might look like for the new season, against what County could play against them

There are a lot of potential changes to the team still, but some observations can be made:-

  • Darren Dods is a great leader on the park and will deal with most physical and aerial challenges, but he is quite slow now.
  • Scobbie similarly is a natural centre-back and isn’t as quick as a typical full-back.
  • Until some new faces arrive, Falkirk might suffer from the lack of experience in wide areas.
  • Higginbotham is now the main attacking threat and is capable of playing anywhere behind a main striker. If he were to play ‘in the hole’, then Pressley would look at a new right-winger instead.
  • Derek Adams might be tempted to match Falkirk with a 4-4-1-1.  In theory that might work, because apart from the odd exception, County’s XI looks to be better on paper at least.
  • However, Pressley likes to compress the active playing area on the pitch, achieved by playing a high defensive line.
  • There might be less space for Gardyne to dominate in, so if he were to play then he should probably start high wide-left.
  • A 4-3-3 formation with direct balls over the top would threaten the Falkirk defenders’ lack of pace. If the Falkirk defence then sat deeper, it would give County’s midfield space to dictate.
  • Starting with Byrne/Craig and Corcoran on either side of McMenamin would put some serious pressure on the Falkirk back-line.

Hamilton Academical

Hamilton come in to this season as the relegated team from last season’s SPL. In that sense, they enter the division as a bit of an unknown quantity.  On account of them coming down, they will be one of the favourites to be promoted this season.

Billy Reid is famous for bringing through a number of young players at Hamilton (MacArthur and McCarthy at Wigan the obvious exmaples).  The team normally plays a possession-based system, but have the players to strike on the counter-attack.

Hamilton sometimes played an unorthodox 3-6-1 formation last season, so it would be no surprise to see them do something similar this year.

It would certainly be a novelty in the First Division to see a team playing with so many midfielders.  It will be fascinating to see how well the team will do in the Division, where time and space in the middle of the park is often at a premium and where only the best players find time for themselves. It will be particularly interesting to see how Derek Adams will set out his Ross County team to avoid conceding the middle third of the pitch.

  • The first thing worth pointing out about Hamilton have a strong back three, but they do not appear to be especially comfortable in possession of the football.
  • The temptation would therefore be to put at least two forwards against them.  A match-fit Sam Morrow or Garry Wood might act as a good foil for McMenamin, for their work ethic, to chase down any defender who has the ball at their feet.
  • Team captain Alex Neil has a lot of responsibility to collect the ball from the defenders’, to recycle possession, rather than for the defence to punt long to short forwards
  • The Hamilton team will depend a lot on the full-backs/wing-backs giving width in an attacking sense.
  • This allows County to get away with having a narrow midfield, with their full-backs meeting Hamilton’s during attacking and defensive phases.
  • The danger will be Dougie Imrie and/or Willie McLaren.  If only one starts, he will have a free role behind the striker and will drift in to spaces behind the opposition’s attacking full-back, before then attacking the 18-yard box with a diagonal run.
  • If Imrie and McLaren started together, behind and around the main striker, that would really suppress County’s full-backs.


Livingston are the other team to be promoted this season, after they won the Second Division by a huge margin.

Livingston seem to have invested in returning to the First, because they have released a number of players over the summer which might not weaken the first-choice eleven too much, but leaves a lack of cover in a few positions.

There is some inexperience in midfield and defence, but the forward-line is promising. Iain Russell scored goals for fun in the Second, while Kenny Deuchar can be an asset for any team in the division if he remains match-fit.

  • Gary Bollan tends to favour a 4-4-2 formation, so we should see few tactical surprises from his side this year.
  • Rather, they will be hoping that their goals scored will keep them away from the threat of relegation this year. At the time of writing, Livingston have gone one year undefeated at home in all competitions (and friendlies), so they will be banking a lot on their home form, which could see them comfortably safe.
  • Russell will be looking to feed off knock-downs from Deuchar, who can cause any side great problems with his size and strength.  Kyle Jacobs can strike the ball well and will similarly look to make the most of the loose ball around the edge of the box.
  • It is almost impossible to out-compete Deuchar in the air, so it would be crucial for one of the central midfielders, Brittain and Duncan, to sit a little more deep and restrict the space for Deuchar’s knock-down to fall in to.
  • To counter this, high defensive line by County would therefore restrict Deuchar’s influence in the match, because a) Deuchar couldn’t run beyond the defensive line, and b) there would be less space for Brittain and Duncan to cover.
  • However, Russell has enough pace and skill to trouble County beyond the last line, in which case Boyd might be a better option at the back than Munro.
  • There is typically space to be found thbetween the lines of midfield and defence in Livingston’s 4-4-2 formation.
  • Either of County’s stock formations would potentially trouble Livingston. Vigurs, Quinn and Gardyne in particular have the ability to play between the lines.
  • A narrow 4-2-3-1 formation would probably be ideal.  Quinn, Gardyne and Vigurs naturally want to play centrally, which might cause confusion among the Livi defenders as to who should mark County’s players.

Greenock Morton

Morton might have only finished 3 points above County last season, but they have held on to most of their squad and have improved their striking options.

Alan Jenkins left to play part-time football in Ireland. He was their midfield dynamo and a large source of the team’s goals last season, so his loss will be felt. A lot of creative responsibilty will now be borne by Michael Tidser, a strong midfielder with an eye for a pass and a cultured left foot.

  • Morton are another 4-4-2 team, but with their midfielders can play something resembling a 4-4-2 diamond.
  • Fred Bachirou didn’t particularly impress in Dingwall last season but has a solid repution. He can capably sit at the base of the diamond, with Tidser at the tip.
  • County’s best bet at beating Morton would be to match up the formations at home and take the game to them. County probably edge Morton in midfield, competing with the same numbers should not be an issue.
  • Morton tend to play with wide midfielders in their team eg O’Brien and Fitzharris.  If those players start wide, County could potentially cut off their supply by congesting the centre and pressing Bachirou.
  • The use of mobile forwards would stretch the Morton centre-backs.
  • Away from home, County could possibly play a 4-4-1-1 with Gardyne playing deep so that County dominate the midfield and hit Morton on the counter.
  • Morton’s threat comes from the right-hand side, with Fitzharris more than capable of delivering for the strikers, while any crosses poorly cleared can be smashed home by the oncoming Tidser.   Graham can offer some support to Fitzharris on the over-lap, which County will need to pay attention to, particularly if Vigurs drifts in from the left flank.

Partick Thistle

Partick Thistle have largely the same squad as last season (as the season before). John Robertson, a highly influential centre-back in the last two to three years, has left for Ayr but Thistle should not be too weakened in defence.

Jackie McNamara has taken the over the squad and appears to have the team playing in a more progressive fashion than the borefest of Ian McCall’s 3/5 at the back strategy, that relied a lot upon defensive solidity and scoring from set-pieces (see 0-2, 2-2 AET and 0-0 last season).

  • A lot of creativity falls on the shoulders of Chris Erskine, who is increasingly coming on to his game.  Erskine started out as a winger, but is increasingly being used behind the other forwards.
  • The Jags will likely start with either a 4-3-1-2 formation (very similar to County’s often-used midfield diamond) or a lop-sided 4-3-3, as illustrated above.
  • Negating Erskine’s ability by the use of one, or two, defensive midfielders would blunt a lot of Thistle’s attacking options.
  • Doolan scored 14 goals last campaign, going through a feverish half-season scoring streak.  He is quick with a gorgeous first touch, so will find a lot of goal-scoring chances for himself.
  • The Jags remain a threat at set-pieces with Archibald and Kinniburgh strong centre-backs.
  • How best set up against Thistle? There are two apparent options options:
  • 1) Set up 4-2-3-1, with Quinn, Gardyne and Vigurs behind McMenamin, keeping the playing area narrow and therefore dominating midfield, or
  • 2) Play a similar looking 4-2-1-3, but with pacy forwards supporting McMenamin instead of creative midfielders.  This is a more high-risk approach in terms of keeping possession and territory, but County’s forwards would either get behind or pin back Thistle’s full-backs, with the former exposing the Thistle centre-backs and their lack of mobility.
  • If County kept that band of ‘3’ high, supporting the stiker, that would encourage quick counter-attacks, but would involve calling Thistle’s bluff.  If it worked, it would mean that Gardyne could find a lot of space for himself to run in to with the ball at his feet.
  • A lot of Thistle’s attacks in open play last season were biased towards the left-hand side, with Paddy Boyle giving the team some thrust from left-back.  Boyle’s replacement Aaron Sinclair is by all accounts an improvement on Boyle’s game, so it would be crucial to keep both Sinclair and Paton uncertain about going forward.
  • Stuart Bannigan has been playing as Thistle’s holding midfielder during close-season.  Although it is reported that he is accomplished on the ball and can find time for himself to dictate play, it would be amiss for County to not press him intensely when on the ball, to cut off the supply for Erskine and co.

Queen of the South

Queens will be an interesting watch this season, if only to see how they contrast from last season. The squad has changed almost completely wholesale (indeed Quinn and McMenamin joined Ross County from there). New players, new experienced manager in Gus McPherson = many variables.  They have in fact been the most difficult team to write about in this article for that reason.

With the budget at Queen of the South reportedly decimated compared to recent years, not too much will be expected of them.  Queens have added some strength and experience in Mark Campbell in defence and Stephen Simmons (as uninspiring as he can be, at least he provides tactical discipline) in midfield.  Ultimately, they might not have enough experience up front and could struggle to score enough goals to keep away from the second relegation spot.

  • Gus is likely to stick to the 4-4-2 formation that served him well at St Mirren, which plays into County’s hands to an extent.
  • A 4-4-2 diamond  for County would still match the midfield numbers, but allow Gardyne to find space between the lines
  • a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 would almost guarantee midfield domination, with Gardyne more keenly supporting the striker, but the midfield would have to get forward to support.
  • McGuffie – who is understood to still be unsigned –  is not really a right-back and Queens might have a replacement by the end of the transfer window.  If McGuffie consolidates his position there, then Queens will struggle to get one or both full-backs forward.  It is possible that McGuffie and Reid will swap roles, but Reid is not much of a right-back either.
  • Neither McKenna nor Simmons look to get forward and support the strikers.  A lot of creativity will therefore fall on the wide players.  Alan Johnston is around 37 years old now and has experience but not the pace to be a major threat on the wing.
  • Danny Carmichael is normally a left-sided midfielder (and indeed played very well as an attacking wing-back against Ross County last season).  In the absence of any other forwads, he will be asked to support Kevin Smith up front and represents their biggest attacking threat.
  • County will have to ensure they have enough width to stretch and perhaps get behind the Queen of the South defence.  Corcoran would hug the touch-line more than Vigurs would on the left of midfield.  Brittain naturally tucks in of course, but can tuck in and cover for the over-lapping Miller.

Raith Rovers

John McGlynn’s Raith Rovers team were the metaphorical dark horses last season, finishing second behind Dunfermline and pushing them nearly all the way.  Many expected Rovers to struggle in the bottom half in the Division, much like Ross County did.

One factor to their success was the amount of crucial goals that John Baird got.  He was supported by the unique Gregory Tade, who terrorised defences and indeed himself at times with his raw physicality and erratic technique. Tade has since moved to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Rovers will have to adjust to his absence.

Another aspect was the defensive solidity and the amount of clean sheets McGurn kept.  Will Rovers continue to win matches 1-0 this season?  Time will tell.

  • McGlynn loves to have Rovers play with a classic 4-4-2
  • Indications from friendly matches appear to be that Rovers are playing less of a long-ball game than last season.  Without Tade to chase on to balls into the channels, they are attempting a more patient, short-passing approach
  • A short passing game would suit the likes of Walker and Hammill in midfield, but it remains to be seen whether or not there is enough physical strength and/or tactical subtlety in midfield to maintain that style.
  • County should play a 4-2-3-1, putting Lawson and Duncan on to the Rovers central midfielders
  • The County full-backs can press on to Hammill and Williamson, knowing that Rovers do not get their full-backs forward as much as they perhaps could.
  • Dyer (or Ellis, if Hill features at centre-back) and Donaldson would then have to concentrate on County’s band of three.  Quinn and Vigurs would naturally be playing narrow enough that the full-backs might not know whether to track them, or to let the spare centre-back pick up the County midfieder.



Please once again consider the point that until competitive matches have taken place, it is difficult to predict how each team will line-up, and if there will be any kind of common theme in the selections from what has been speculated here.

Enjoy the coming season.


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