The league split is wasting no time in bringing in the near season defining matches for Ross County, as they travel to Ayrshire to face a Kilmarnock side only one point behind them in the relegation playoff spot. It’s a game even more important than when the two sides met a month ago, with the Staggies having failed to build on their 3-2 win, and Killie seemingly being on the rise.
Huge match. Worst time.
Ross County come into this match in 10th place, safe from relegation as things stand, but there are only two points that separate the Staggies, Kilmarnock, and Hamilton at the foot of the table. This, combined with County’s demoralising and embarrassing defeat at the hands of rivals Inverness, means that Killie are all too aware Ross County are at a point of weakness.
In contrast, after a slow start, new manager Tommy Wright seems to have his Kilmarnock side playing the way he wants them to. Their most recent league match ended in a 4-1 victory against Motherwell. Despite Well’s league position, they’re a fairly tough side to beat, so to see them off so convincingly shows that Killie have truly turned a corner under their new manager
The Staggies dominated large spells of the game in their last meeting with tomorrow’s opposition, but it will be a huge ask to do so again. If County find themselves with a relatively long spell of possession, they must take advantage of it. Despite their good result against the Steelmen, the defensive fragility Killie have shown across this season won’t have disappeared within a few weeks.
Kilmarnock- How might they set up?
Since Tommy Wright took the managers post at Killie, their formation has been very flexible- largely helped by Ross Millen’s ability to play at right back or on the right of a back three. They started with this back three the last time they played County, but it’s worth noting that they threatened the most when they switched to a 4-4-2 midway through the second half.
At the start of his tenure, Wright favoured playing two strikers in the form of Kyle Lafferty and Greg Kiltie. However, after the latter’s injury against Ross County, he tweaked his system to play Lafferty up top, with Rory McKenzie playing in behind him.
Through the bad results to the good, Wright has consistently favoured a midfield pairing of Gary Dicker and Alan Power. This is an experienced pairing that knows how to go about taking a game by the scruff of the neck, and despite having frustrated some of the Kilmarnock support this season, they’ll be a tough nut to crack. In recent weeks, County have been exceptionally poor in the transition from defence to attack, so Dicker and Power will be hoping to make this flaw all the more miserable.
Goalkeeper Colin Doyle has played every minute under Wright.
Possible Kilmarnock lineup:
McGowan – Broadfoot – Medley – Haunstrup
Dicker – Power
Burke – McKenzie – Pinnock
How might the Staggies line up?
Last time out, John Hughes recognised that his three at the back setup wasn’t working, and switched to a back four. This was a step in the right direction, but the midfield remained a problem area. Hughes deployed Stephen Kelly, Charlie Lakin, Iain Vigurs and Michael Gardyne in a midfield diamond (Kelly sitting deep with Gardyne further forward), which not only didn’t help us going forward but allowed Inverness to stretch the game with attacks of their own.
The introduction of Regan Charles-Cook and Jermaine Hylton gave County the width they were crying out for, and despite going on to concede another goal without reply, the two wingers gave the Staggies a lot more attacking threat.
It’s always hard to predict the formation when John Hughes is your manager, but I expect him to revert to one man up front- he’ll know when something isn’t working it’s time for change. This raises questions about personnel, however. Billy Mckay’s recent goalscoring form would suggest he’s a shoe-in, but Jordan White could potentially be more suited to being the lone focal point with his ability to drag the team up the pitch with his hold up play.
The running theme is the midfield problem, and a change is clearly required. Me, along with the others at Staggies View, want to see Ross Draper and Harry Paton return to the side along with Iain Vigurs. Draper, while slightly unorthodox, can attack effectively, and can finish in and around the penalty area when the opportunity arises. He’s also a significant presence for Dicker and Power to think about.
Harry Paton is a ball carrier, plain and simple. He’ll try and force the transition from defence to attack if it isn’t happening. It didn’t work when he played against St. Johnstone, but a player of his talent is always capable.
Possible Ross County lineup:
Naismith – Donaldson – Iacovitti – Tremarco
Draper – Vigurs – Paton
Danger man- Kyle Lafferty
Lafferty has six goals in three matches, and despite three coming against League 2 Stenhousemuir, he is by far the biggest threat in that Kilmarnock team. Under a really good manager in Tommy Wright, Lafferty has and will continue to thrive. Even though County beat Killie in their last meeting, Lafferty scored a brace.
To have a chance of winning again, the Staggies must be switched on from minute one to minute ninety to stop the Northern Irishman from punishing them once more. The loss of strike partner Greg Kiltie to injury has shown no sign of slowing him down either. Come the end of the season, Lafferty may be the difference between survival and relegation for Kilmarnock, let alone the difference in tomorrow’s game.
Staggies One to Watch- Jermaine Hylton
Despite being one of the first names on the team sheet at the start of Hughes’ tenure, skilful winger Hylton has been limited to substitute appearances in recent weeks. He is capable of giving any Scottish Premiership full-back a torrid time, so I believe Hylton starting could give County a huge boost tomorrow. When he came on along with Charles-Cook against Caley, he showed he should have been on from the start, getting the Staggies on the front foot with his dribbling and his cutting inside causing problems for the Caley ranks.
Despite having only one goal to his name in the Ross County shirt, Hylton has to be a nailed on starter, he can cause problems for the opposition anywhere on the pitch with his mazy, driving runs.
Sadly, nobody in the County faithful can say that they’re particularly confident at this moment in time. Their defeat to Inverness last week summed up their entire season. It’s been poor. Even still though, for the players to believe, we, as Ross County fans, have to do our best to support them in any way we can. So despite the dire result last week, and the major consequences losing tomorrow could have, I hope the Staggies go into tomorrow’s match with motivation coursing through their veins, and above all, hope in their hearts.