Ross County are preparing for their biggest game of the season on Saturday, and not in the way you might expect.
The Staggies’ upcoming clash with Aberdeen is not a relegation decider, but a last gasp attempt to infiltrate the top 6 before the Scottish Premiership splits and the door slams shut.
Aberdeen are one of Scotland’s biggest clubs in stature, but have been misfiring all season. Stephen Glass was recently replaced by Jim Goodwin in the Dons dugout to add to the chaos of a season at Pittodrie that has never been settled. This means that County, while wary of threats such as 4th top scorer in the league Christian Ramirez, must be somewhat confident of taking the three points that are mandatory for them to break into the top half of the table.
In terms of form over the past five matches, Ross County would seem to be the team to bet on, with three wins, a draw and a loss, in contrast to the Dons’ one win, two draws and two losses. Aberdeen, especially at Pittodrie, cannot be underestimated though, as the performances that they have turned in at home see them 5th in the home table across the course of the season.
This is why County must exercise caution- it doesn’t seem that the many factors that have made this campaign one to forget for Aberdeen manifest themselves as much in their home matches as they do in away matches. To back this up, they sit 10th in the away table.
Something that is bound to make this contest a battle is team shape. Jim Goodwin’s Aberdeen deploy a very similar formation to Malky Mackay’s Ross County, with three recognised central midfielders, so the battle in the middle of the park will be crucial to establishing a foothold in the game. These central midfielders are likely to come in the form of Lewis Ferguson, Ross McCrorie and Connor Barron, which no matter how much you can point to their club’s league position, is one of the best midfield blends in the country.
What approach should County take?
I will not go so far as to say that being dominated in the midfield at times will lose County the match, especially as it is an away game, and that the Staggies have found success countless times across the season by going long to Jordan White and allowing him to hold it up. However, it’s important that the team recognises the periods of play in which they can begin to move the ball around Goodwin’s men, even if only to give themselves a break from pressure.
The reason why this is so important is that simply sitting back and conceding possession to Aberdeen is what afforded them the equaliser (Ross Laidlaw howler aside) at the start of the season, all those games ago. With the acquisition of Jack Baldwin, this County team is now at a point where they could likely allow cross after cross to come flying into their penalty area safely. It is anyone’s guess where a second ball will land though, so that style of defending is unsustainable in a match of this magnitude.
With that thought fresh in the mind, I believe that this is the team Malky Mackay will send out of the Pittodrie tunnel at 3pm on matchday:
Randall – Baldwin – Iacovitti – Vokins
Spittal – Tillson
Hungbo – Callachan – Charles-Cook
I don’t think that there’s justification for too much change, as the performance and result against Hearts was very positive. However, Harry Paton is currently a man out of form and I expect Blair Spittal to drop into midfield where he can dictate the play. Joseph Hungbo is a consistent thorn in the side of whoever he plays against and I expect that to be the case straight from kick-off on Saturday.
Will they do it?
I genuinely believe so.
There has rarely been a moment in my lifetime where I have dubbed a County side as “lazy.” These are all professional footballers after all and they have worked their whole lives to pull on the shirt.
That said, his current group of players is arguably the first since the legendary squad of 2015/16 that you can point to every single player and say without doubt that they are willing to run through a brick wall for the badge on their chest. That assessment includes the players we have on loan, which speaks volumes to how Mackay sells his vision for the club to every player who walks through that front door.
My words could come back to bite me, especially considering results must go our way elsewhere, but when I look at Ross County now, I see a team that through hell or high water, will get the job done in the most important moments.