Ross County will reflect on what could have been as they come away empty handed after initially taking the lead in this crucial bottom of the table clash. The Staggies general play still showed the infinite improvement John Hughes’s arrival has sparked, but we are still giving away the same cheap goals that have been the achilles heel all season.
Here’s how the teams lined up:
Motherwell started the game on the front foot, but for the first 10 minutes they didn’t really offer that much offensively and were nearly caught out on a number of occasions as their high line (more specifically Mugabi and Gallagher)was exploited by the hugely pacier Regan Charles-Cook and Jermaine Hylton, with Oli Shaw dropping deep to pick the ball up in midfield almost playing as a false 9.
The first problem came for County through the tenacious Tony Watt, who somehow while on the ground poked the ball through to Devante Cole who hit it against the onrushing Ross Laidlaw from close range. The Staggies didn’t concede on this occasion, but this was one of the key areas where the game was won and lost- Tony Watt’s underlapping runs and willingness to scrap for anything.
Bevis Mugabi and Declan Gallagher are both very reliable centre backs, however as I spoke about earlier they don’t have a lot of pace about them. This is the main area in which County threatened in the first half. Leo Hjelde, who in the first half was excellent at left back played a tantalising ball forward which Jermaine Hylton latched onto, easily evading the defence of the Steelmen. His shot was saved by Liam Kelly in the ‘Well net but the ever poaching Oli Shaw was there to tap home.
The remainder of the half was end to end football, but neither Ross County nor Motherwell managed to score a goal in the time between Shaw netting and the half time whistle. Hjelde had his part of the pitch on lockdown despite giving away a few fouls near the halfway line and being booked right before half time as a consequence. Regan Charles-Cook and Jermaine Hylton continued to threaten, the latter volleying over a tricky shot that came to him at the penalty spot. Motherwell had the most possession, but were largely contained to hopeful shots from around the penalty area, with only a number of corners to show for it. The Steelmen finished the half in the ascendency, but the Staggies went down the tunnel at the break with a hard fought 1-0 advantage.
Everyone has a plan… until it needs to change
Graham Alexander deserves a huge amount of credit for his side securing 3 points. Him and his team displayed something that turned the game on its head. Adaptability. In the first half Charles-Cook and Jermaine Hylton were running rampant on the counter attack. In the second, neither had an effect. Why? Motherwell sat slightly deeper, almost inviting County onto them, and when the Staggies found no space in behind to run into, it was Motherwell’s turn to strike on the counter. The ball came to Tony Watt on the edge of the box after Hjelde failed to intercept, and he showed the strength and will to get a shot off. It was saved by Ross Laidlaw, however Devante Cole, the man whose goals in recent games against St Mirren and Rangers came from close range, was there to stab in from within the 6 yard box.
This marked a change in the game, ‘Well were no longer throwing men forward to no avail- they were picking their moments. They usually came forward through Jake Carroll, finding Watt’s dangerous underlapping runs between Jason Naismith and Callum Morris.
At the 70 minute mark, Naismith conceded a corner, which I was initially relatively comfortable with as Motherwell had many, many corners in the game and looked completely ineffective from them. What was to follow I feel sums up the season for County from a defensive point of view. Bevis Mugabi was given time and space in the area to head home under absolutely no pressure. The man who was supposed to be tracking the Ugandan international was Alex Iacovitti, who thumped the turf in frustration while the Motherwell players celebrated. It was a shame for the Staggies number 16, who had shown a marked improvement from recent weeks, but it shows that while the side has come a long way under John Hughes the cheap goals we gave away under Stuart Kettlewell will continue to hurt us no matter how good the rest of our play has been.
It’s a sucker punch, and it really drives home that the relegation battle is set to go down to the wire.
Star Wars Ross County: A New Hope?
The final 20 minutes was largely consumed by an obvious display of the Staggies slowly running out of ideas. Motherwell were more than happy to sit back and allow hopeful crosses to come into their penalty area. They knew that we posed little to no threat with no space in behind to run into. There was however, one slightly unexpected point of positivity. Blair Spittal. You would have been forgiven for thinking that a player only off the back of a League 1 loan spell wouldn’t offer that much off the bench, however the man returning from Partick Thistle looks like a new signing. He was the most lively figure in a County shirt in the second half after coming on to replace Charles-Cook and you would assume has given John Hughes food for thought on his next starting lineup given that he didn’t need to get in behind the Motherwell defence to look a threat. I think he could give us a bit of what we were missing today, creativity on the edge of the attacking third- who can create something without being in space.
Back to Back Lanarkshire
In a week, the Staggies travel to face Hamilton. This is another crucial game in the dogfight at the foot of the table. On paper, we have enough to take all 3 points. Given how inconsistent we remain (we haven’t won 2 games on the bounce since the opening games of the season, strangely also against Motherwell and Hamilton) it would be arrogant to compare the two sets of players and dismiss Hamilton. Last time we did that we were on the receiving end of a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the men in red and white. The team must stay focussed and make sure this sickening defeat doesn’t get to their confidence too much.