Scottish Premiership 2020/21: Ross County vs Motherwell – tactical analysis
The penultimate game of matchday 1 of the new Scottish Premiership 2020/21 season came at Dingwall as Ross County hosted Motherwell. An unwanted trend continued for Motherwell under Stephen Robinson as they have failed to win a season-opening game with the Northern Irish manager at the helm as Ross County beat the Steelman at home for the first time since November 2017.
Stuart Kettlewell took on the role of Ross County manager for 2020/21 season, having shared the role last season with Steven Ferguson who moved up to the chief executive spot in the club leaving Kettlewell to his own devices. The Scotsman’s sole managerial tenure started perfectly as Ross Stewart converted a first-half penalty to give The Staggies the lead where they eventually won out against last season’s third-place team whilst also keeping a clean sheet as they ran out 1-0 winners on the night.
This tactical analysis will focus on the tactics of both teams and explain how Ross County started brightly and did well to disrupt Motherwell with their well organised defensive shape. This analysis will also look at how Robinson tweaked his team shape slightly after conceding the first goal to create some half chances. Robinson made some personnel changes in the second half which added promise but ultimately this analysis will show how Motherwell came up short in the end.
Ross County had a huge problem with conceding goals last season as they leaked 60 goals which was the worst rate in the league. It was no surprise that Kettlewell looked to strengthen this area in the offseason as he handed debuts in defence for new additions Alex Iacovitti who was signed from English League Two side Oldham who slotted straight into the left centre-back position and Conor Randall who came in from Bulgarian side FK Arda Kardzhali as he came into start at right-back for The Staggies. The other new addition was the promotion of local academy prospect Josh Reid who impressed Kettlewell which merited giving him his debut at left-back.
Stephen Robinson also handed debuts for his summer additions as Ricky Lamie came into partner Declan Gallagher in the heart of defence just as they did when they both played for Livingston. Nathan McGinley was the other new signing to make his debut for The Steelmen coming in from Forrest Green Rovers and taking his starting berth at the left-back position.
Robinson also gave starts to players who have returned from long term injury layoffs the first being in goals as Trevor Carson played for the first time since 2018/19 season. The other addition has long been awaited by the Motherwell faithful and Robinson who would have been delighted with the return of the talented David Turnbull who suffered a knee injury which kept him out for the majority of last season, the 21-year-old took his place in a more advanced position on the left-wing for this opening game.
Ross County’s early impressive attacking play
In the lead up to this game, there was a lot of focus on how Ross County would reduce the amount of goals they conceded last season. Kettlewell addressed that his side had worked on their defensive frailties but interestingly he also eluded to his team working on producing more sustained and purposeful attacking play this season as an area to offset/counteract his side leaking so many goals. Kettlewell’s outlook was if his team could play more on the front foot it would naturally mean that the opposition would be defending their own goal thus spending more time away from Ross County’s goalmouth.
Ross County certainly showed this by coming out with more attacking intent than the Steelmen. Kettlewell’s side did not look to play through the lines in a bid to progress the ball but instead, they played with a more direct style looking to play over Motherwell’s midfield block. Ross County looked to play long balls up to Billie McKay who was their lone forward, The Staggies midfielders then surrounded and supported McKay by positioning themselves ball side of their markers to pick off any knockdowns or second balls.
These long balls were designed by Kettlewell to bring his sides to play up the pitch as they were well set up to claim the ball deep in Motherwell territory, as we can see below. Both the right and left midfielders tucked around McKay giving the striker multiple options in which to find with his header down.
Countless times in the first quarter of an hour Ross County won the second balls off either McKay or Ross Stewart would come from the left-wing and be found with diagonal balls forward. Once Ross County won the ball from this favourable tactic they then started to put together some good combination play from this more advanced position.
Kettlewell’s side committed men over around the ball and looked comfortable in possession as they overloaded one side of the pitch normally, we can see this from the move below. This sucked in more Motherwell players who looked to match them and create numerical equality and try to regain the ball back.
Ross County were able to play around Motherwell’s attempts to nick the ball back and smartly switch the point of the attack out to the opposite wing which had acres of space due to Motherwell’s players being drawn across. As a result, Ross County’s right-back moved into to this space and hit a deep cross that eventually found its way to Stewart who was free at the back post but his shot was well saved onto to the bar by Carson from point-blank range, a very fruitful attacking period for Ross County who stunned Motherwell.
Robinson tweaks his team’s shape to get a foothold in the game
Along with being impressive in terms of how Ross County attacked Motherwell they were also equally as good without the ball as they set up with a well organised defensive shape. Motherwell in possession played in a 4-3-3 formation as Liam Donnelly played as the single pivot, Mark O’ Hara pushed up into more advanced position playing as a right-central midfielder. Kettlewell’s men matched up well with The Steelmen as they played in a 4-2-1-3 formation which formed into a 4-4-1-1 formation at times.
When Motherwell looked to play out from the back Ross County’s front three would position themselves in a narrow shape while Harry Paton was tasked with man-marking Liam Donnelly. This disrupted Motherwell’s play as Ross County essentially shut off the central area of the pitch so The Steelmen could not progress the ball through Ross County due to their well-organised shape, as evidently shown below.
Motherwell were either forced to play long and direct which suited Ross County or as we see above they are forced to play the ball back as Declan Gallag, in this case has not got any clean forward options to progress vertically. Motherwell’s most creative and threatening players were nullified as a result of Kettlewell sides defensive structure. Overall Ross County controlled the game both in and out of possession and deservedly took the lead just after the 20-minute mark.
Robinson needed to change things with their inability to get a foothold in the game while also being a goal down. The Northern Irishman smartly tweaked his teams shape as he instructed Mark O’ Hara to start off in his advanced position pinning his marker back before dropping off and positioning himself alongside Liam Donnelly forming a double pivot.
O’Hara’s marker tended not to follow him out in order to keep his shape and protect his backline. O’ Hara could then offer himself as an option to receive the ball in space and so Motherwell could progress the ball cleanly through the central channel, as we can see shown below.
The Motherwell midfielders deep positioning forming a double pivot created a 2v1 situation as Paton could not cover both midfielders, as shown above. This causes the Ross County midfielder to hesitate so he is unable to get to either Donnelly or O’ Hara and Motherwell can easily bypass him, as we can see below as the move develops. Donnelly plays the ball across to O’ Hara who attacks the space in front of him with purpose.
The Motherwell midfielder is then able to find Turnball who has come in slightly off his wing and he plays the first time through ball in behind for Chris Long who did not look across the line and hold his run on time and is called offside. This particular passing chain became quite frequent as O’ Hara picked up the ball in his deep position in space and dribbled forward to find Turnball coming into a central position between the lines off the left-wing, he would then play a through ball in behind for Long.
Motherwell created some half-chances as Long hit the post from one of these passing moves. This tactical tweak gave Robinson’s men had more attacking threat but they could not find the breakthrough before half-time.
Motherwell’s poor positional structure
Lang who played on the left-wing as Turnball moved into the right central midfield position. Motherwell strangely went back to the 4-3-3 formation that Ross County were able to match up well against and disrupt The Steelmen as they did against the same shape in the first half, as aforementioned. As a result, could not play through Ross County instead they had to play around The Staggies’ defensive shape trying to progress the ball down the flanks but this was easily dealt with by Ross County early on.
The Motherwell manager brought in Sherwin Seedorf to provide more width and pace on the right as Jake Hastie struggled to have any effect on the game. Motherwell instantly started to construct more attacks down the right-hand side as a result of Seedorf’s positioning out on the touchline in space and the threat he can cause with his pace. Motherwell could easily find and progress the ball out to Seedorf, however, he was often left isolated on the right as there was a lack of structural connection with the Dutch winger, as we can see below.
In the move above Seedorf receives the ball out on the right and is stood up with good pressure coming from the Ross County left-back Reid. Seedorf does not have any help as Motherwell’s right-back is positioned too deep and does not support Seedorf which gives the license for Ross County left-winger Stewart to come back and double up on the Motherwell replacement.
Motherwell could have still retained the ball in the situation even with Stewart coming back to create a 2v1 but Turnball’s poor positional play does not provide an option inside as he too far up the pitch instead of positioning himself in a more adequate area providing an option for Seedorf to access (as highlighted by the black circle) so that he could evade the pressure, but because of this poor structural setup from Motherwell on the right, Ross County are able to win back the ball.
Motherwell did correct this problem as the game wore on, Grimshaw started to provide supportive overlapping/ underlapping runs which drew Stewart away so he did not provide a double-up on Seedorf and Grimshaw’s runs also provided the Dutch winger with space in his 1v1 battle to deliver dangerous crosses into the box. The first move in which Seedorf was provided with supportive runs from his full-back resulted in him putting in a dangerous cross into Lang setting up a guilt-edged chance for the new man but he disappointingly headed straight at Carson from close range.
Motherwell continued to attack down the right and started to provide adequate good structural connections with Seedorf through good combination play, as we can see in the move below. Gallagher has no options through the central area of the pitch so dribbles out to right, Grimshaw has cleverly inverted his position in the space as Seedorf has pinned Stewart with his wide positioning. Grimshaw receives the ball off Gallagher as a result.
When Grimshaw receives the ball this causes Stewart to jump out of his position providing pressure from behind, but note now as circled in red, Donnelly has positioned himself well to provide an option inside so Grimshaw can easily play past and bypass Stewart. When Donnelly receives the ball he engages Ross County’s left-back Reid who gets drawn out of his position and into the half-space position towards Donnelly.
Seedorf makes a third man run as he keeps his width to maximise the spacing make it more difficult for Reid to make an effective defensive recovery. Donnelly plays a through ball in behind into the space for Seedorf who runs onto the ball and has enough time to set himself and pick out Lang at the back post with his cross, this well-engineered attacking move from the right ends up with Ross County conceding a penalty.
Liam Donnelly missed the resulting penalty and Motherwell stopped accessing Seedorf out on the right even though he was causing problems and creating chances. It was a huge momentum shift as The Steelmen struggled to provide any clear cut opportunities on goal after this and to make matters worse Motherwell were reduced to 10 men as Lang got sent off as Robinson’s men left Dingwall with nothing in the end.
Stuart Kettlewell’s side thoroughly deserved to take all three points from this game as they provided a great direct attacking style which created good opportunities for The Staggies and really troubled Motherwell. Ross County were also good on the other side of the ball as they disrupted Motherwell with their well organised defensive shape which The Steelmen found it difficult to break down. Kettlewell will have enjoyed the application of his team in this opening game as they had great energy and intent which they will hope to bring to the next game against Hamilton.
In contrast, Motherwell were sluggish and lacked any innovation or creativity for large parts of the game, which was mainly down to Ross County’s setup, but Robinson went away from what made his team so successful last season as they lack width and pace to stretch and trouble Ross County. The Fir Park faithful will hope Robinson rectifies this for their next game at home against new boys Dundee United.