A week is a long time in football so a lot has happened since my last match preview last month ahead of the Stranraer game.
In that preview I was extremely complimentary of the players given our strong league position tucked in behind Celtic with a game in hand. I discussed our points tally improvement as well as progress made in terms of goals scored and conceded. Importantly I also discussed the character of the team with what seemed an improved belief in the squad when it came to adversity. Winning at Parkhead at the end of 2019 was clearly evidence of that after disappointment at Hampden.
Unfortunately, since then we've went backwards in frustrating style: losing to Hearts and drawing at home to Aberdeen, meaning we've dropped five points in six days, falling behind Celtic again and minimising any supposed title challenge in short order. The manager has since spoken of 'missing a spark' and he's right. Suffice to say we've not played well in any of our five games in the new year and although we won our first three, unconvincing and functional were as good any 'praise' got. As such, it wasn't a huge surprise that we struggled against Hearts and Aberdeen: two physical outfits that usually cause us problems.
The reasons for this loss of form are less easy to put a finger on. Yes, we've been without a combination of key players since the winter break: Morelos was suspended for three matches, Tavernier has been injured for all five and Ryan Jack has missed the better part of two games. Arguments can be made for the likes of Goldson, Davis and Barisic but, in my opinion, the three that have been unavailable are our three best players and any team would miss such. Even worse is that those you'd expect to step up such as Davis, Arfield and Kent haven't played well recently either whilst no-one else in the team (aside from perhaps McGregor and Goldson) have found the level of form they had towards the end of last year. All things considered, when you're not sure of an answer, the simplest solution is best so any lack of quality is demonstrably down to the loss of key players: either via their unavailability or just a loss of their form generally.
Yet other worries also persist.
Our preferred 4-3-2-1 system has worked well for the last nine months or so. Within this setup our football is good to watch and usually played at a high tempo with various players capable of creating or score goals; especially with the focal point of Morelos. However, when the tempo is missing and when teams pack their defensive areas, we can struggle and that has been fairly obvious in recent weeks. Yes, aside from the Hearts game, we've still dominated most of the matches (and should do so at Ibrox in any case) but we have failed to reliably breach defensive setups when faced by them. Opposition sides haven't necessarily parked the bus per se but they're working very hard across medium blocks and in half-spaces to stifle our creative outlets. Davis becomes anonymous, Kent can't find space, Kamara continually turns back, Defoe isn't physical enough and our full-backs are closed down very quickly too. Indeed, it's often left to the centre halves to make the play and you'll even find any opposition attacker trying to limit Goldson's use of the ball.
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Quite simply teams aren't giving us the oxygen to breath and we don't have the imagination to combat this. So much so that, for the first time in a fairly long period of time, we changed system at least twice in our most recent match against Aberdeen. First of all, Sheyi Ojo was brought on to play more as an orthodox winger as opposed to one of the 'double tens' we usually deploy. That didn't work so we even tried a 3-5-2 later in the game with two men up front and new signing Ianis Hagi trying to play vertically from deeper positions; again without success as Aberdeen sat deeper and deeper towards the final whistle. This shows finding the missing spark isn't necessarily as simple as changing the formation, though it can be argued without being more flexible across more games, subtle changes won't work when used 'off the cuff' or when under pressure.
And that last word is proving interesting as well. I mentioned character above and, as much as it's difficult to suggest this team lacks it (see our December results), in certain positions we do seem to lack belief. Not necessarily when reacting to tricky situations but when put under pressure ourselves. For example, we've done very well in Europe this season with little expectation at the start of the group stage. However, as soon as we were expected to qualify, our form wasn't quite as good. Similarly, when behind Celtic in the league, we seem to tick along fairly well but as soon as we become de facto favourites, we look lost. We couldn't beat a ten man Celtic side in the League Cup Final and twice this season we lost league title initiative almost as quickly as we grabbed it. That should interest Steven Gerrard and any sports psychologist.
A final valid point, and I don't need to wear tin foil whilst making it thanks to Rick Roberts' fine polemic on the site yesterday, is the effect of the officials. A common sight this season has been opposition teams attempting to disrupt games right from the first whistle. Not only do we see a large number of niggly, cynical fouls made throughout games but time wasted as well. Bizarrely, officials don't seem keen to clamp down on either of these so we find a general lack of rhythm to our matches, decreasing our tempo, increasing player knocks and generally stopping us playing our usual game. OK, it's hardly a scientific answer but it is a factor nonetheless and one the manager and players can't really account for - or even change.
All the above should represent food for thought for Gerrard when attempting to find our spark. There's no doubt in my mind losing our three best players has affected us most of all and contributed more than anything else to our loss of momentum. Having James Tavernier back for the visit of Hibs will help and getting Alfredo Morelos' mind back on the job will be key to any aspirations of success we have. Yes, Ryan Jack remains injured but good sides should be able to cope with that so Gerrard and his coaching team will be eager to prove that on Wednesday night. After all player form is partially their responsibility with team selection, the system(s) used and how we deal with gamesmanship all part of how players will perform.
With all that in mind, I'm hoping for a proper reaction at Ibrox tomorrow and I suspect we'll see some changes to reflect that. Tav should return to the starting XI and I think the likes of Katic and Kamara would benefit from a rest too. Kamberi will miss the next two games of course but having Hagi and Stewart available should help creatively if Hibs fancy playing for a point. Meanwhile, the combination of Aribo, Arfield and Hagi allows for flexibility in attack with all three capable of drifting wide and supporting the attack or making passes from deeper positions if required.
We certainly have plenty of options so finding a spark needn't be as complicated as at first glance. If only football was as simple as that...
Possible team (4-3-2-1):
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