Optimism is in short supply as the Staggies travel to Tannadice to face a Dundee United side who are coming off the back of a romping 3-0 victory over an Aberdeen side under new management. With three matches to play, every game is a cup final for County, but many questions remain over their ability to stay in the Premiership.
Where do Ross County stand going into this game?
The Staggies are in dire form- without a win in five matches. They’ve shown glimpses of the play that saw them defeat the likes of Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs, but have let themselves down in the moments that truly counted, giving away cheap goals and failing to take their chances at the other end.
After months and months of chopping and changing, manager John Hughes has stuck with the same formation for the last three games- a flexible diamond in midfield, with four at the back, and two strikers (namely, Jordan White and Billy Mckay) up front. This formation has seen County become somewhat disjointed at times, but has also facilitated them to pass the ball around more and generally look more threatening- the players have stopped simply punting the ball up in the air and hoping for the best.
Along with this change in formation, personnel has been changed in favour of the more experienced heads, with the likes of Ross Draper, Michael Gardyne, Keith Watson and Billy Mckay being favoured over the likes of Harry Paton, Jermaine Hylton, Coll Donaldson and Oli Shaw. This has caused the Staggies to be a lot more composed in general play, and also helped the younger players still in the side play with increased maturity.
Hughes deserves credit for these changes, but there are still question marks over his management- at this stage of the season, promising changes aren’t enough, Ross County need points on the board. Sitting in 11th place, the relegation playoff is looking more and more likely. Of course, the worst case scenario of automatic relegation isn’t off the table yet, County sit only three points ahead of Hamilton, with a worse goal difference.
Opposition Focus- Dundee United
You would be hard pushed to find a worse time to face this Dundee United side.
After their 3-0 battering of Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup, Micky Mellon’s men will naturally be brimming with motivation to get into the side that plays Hibs in the semi final. Despite having nothing to play for in the league, they will be fighting for every inch, and will try and snuff out any hopes County have of walking away with points.
The Tangerines have switched between four at the back and three at the back throughout the season, but the past few weeks have seen them deploy a 4-3-3. This was successful last week, but actually saw them smashed 3-0 by Kilmarnock in their most recent league match.
Against Aberdeen they played three natural strikers up front (Nicky Clark, Lawrence Shankland and Marc McNulty) which raised the eyebrows of many, but ultimately proved a Mellon masterstroke. If this front three faces County, they’ll be looking eagerly at the Staggies’ dreadful defensive record. Speaking of which…
Danger Man: Marc McNulty
McNulty is not the most reputable player in the United front line, but with three goals in four matches, he is the man who poses the biggest current threat. His two composed finishes past Aberdeen (formerly of County) stopper Gary Woods show that if the Staggies give him space, he will punish them no questions asked. With County’s tendency to be slack in defence, through a lack of focus perhaps, I’m not confident that McNulty will be kept quiet.
McNulty’s intelligence sees him get in behind defences regularly, and with Alex Iacovitti and Keith Watson letting this happen regularly in recent weeks, it will be interesting to see how John Hughes plans to stifle the in form forward.
County One to Watch: Billy Mckay
This week, the choice is simple.
Mckay has been the main source of goals for County in recent times, and if they are to stay up, the Northern Irishman will need to be on top form for the rest of the season. His hold up play has been as incredible as his goalscoring, which helps the Staggies move up the pitch when things aren’t necessarily going their way.
Missed sitter against St. Mirren aside, he has been lethal in front of goal recently in particular, and will be looking to score the goals he is known for- those inside the box. It’s infinitely important that County get the ball to their number 9.
As pointed out before, optimism is in short supply for County. To a man, they’ll have to be at their best, and the question marks over their capability are gargantuan. However, getting behind the boys is vital. They need all the support they can get, and that needs to come from us- the fans. We all love them, and hopefully they can hugely subvert expectations and get the job done.