The O’Connor Manifesto
If the season to date has confirmed anything about this current Dons incarnation, it’s that we’ve become the flat track bullies of the top flight. The calibre of our squad is such that we’re normally able to dispatch the bottom six sides with relative ease. However, if you take the last 3 games against the other teams in the top 5 (or last 2 games against Rangers cos y’know lack of data and all that), the return is a measly 5 points from a possible 33. Apart from the slightly fortuitous victory against Rangers at Pittodrie earlier in the season, the team has two scoreless stalemates against St Johnston to show for their efforts in those eleven games.
Anyone who watched the recent back-to-back defeats to Celtic and Rangers couldn’t have avoided noticing the flaw which lies at the heart of our struggles against the better teams in the country. It is an issue disconcertingly familiar to all of us who watched on last season as the team were unable to sustain a spirited but ultimately distant title challenge. The gaping chasm in our central midfield area has continually proven to be our undoing in the big games. It is an issue which desperately needs to be addressed if we are to have any hope of rescuing our season.
While no one could accuse the other sides in the top 5 of being overtly physical, they are all built on engine rooms which are able to press teams high up the pitch, are tenacious in the tackle and have the mental toughness to weather periods of the game when the opposing team are in the ascendency. At the moment Aberdeen simply don’t play anyone in midfield who fits that bill. The two deep lying midfielders in Derek McInnes preferred 4-2-3-1 formation are normally perm of Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean or Graeme Shinnie – none of whom are either physically imposing or adept at tackling.
Shinnie’s work rate and enthusiasm can never be questioned and this alone ensures he is reasonably effective when deployed in what increasingly looks like an unfavoured midfield role. Against better players, however, his lack of experience in that position means he is often overrun and left chasing shadows.
McLean always has, and always will, be an attacking midfielder most comfortable playing behind the striker and this is obvious whenever he is pressed into defensive duties. He’s been shoehorned into this deeper role as a result of James Maddison’s arrival and decent form. Willie Miller’s recent uncharacteristically outspoken questioning of his status as an automatic pick tells its own story.
Then we have the enigmatic Ryan Jack whose role is often reduced to that of taking the ball from this centre halves and playing it short, the retention of possession at all costs seeming to be his only instruction from the manager. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the physicality to really dominate the likes of Scott Brown and has never looked fully comfortable with the defensive aspects of the game. The recent victories against Partick and Inverness which saw Jack deployed in a less stilted role where he was given license to get further up the pitch with less onus to be protect the back four were his most confident performances for a long time.
The resultant sum of these parts is a central midfield that is far too often pushed back, overrun and offering very little in the way of protection for our central defence.
This core weakness has been evident for a long time and has only been exacerbated by the departures of Barry Robson and Willo Flood who were at least able to add a degree of experience and tenacity when called upon last season. It was assumed when these two were released that space was being made in the squad for a player that would provide a solution. Yet here we are no closer to having a holding midfielder worthy of the description. This might seem like gross negligence on the part of the management team however they do actually have a player in the ranks who has experience of excelling in that position – step forward Anthony O’Connor.
24 four year old, Irish youth international O’Connor signed for the Dons as a free agent during the summer. A product of the Blackburn youth academy, O’Connor spent the last four seasons plying his trade in the English lower leagues for Burton Albion and Plymouth Argyle.
Despite being deployed a centre half for Aberdeen, it’s clear that O’Connor was signed as the much needed midfield enforcer. McInnes suggested as much when he was signed “He can also play as a screening midfielder and can give us a bit of presence in the middle of the park… he is the one who is doing a lot of the work that needs to be done in any team”. A number of Plymouth and Burton fans I’ve spoken to unanimously agree that defensive midfield is his strongest and most natural position.
If O’Connor was signed to play there, why has he barely featured in that role? The answer is simple – he’s been drafted into a centre half berth to provide some stability to an area which has otherwise been in a constant state of flux this season.
The campaign started in similar fashion to the last with Reynolds and Taylor looking like they’d nailed down the starting spots at the centre of the defence. However, Ash Taylor’s continued erratic form led to him being dropped with O’Connor drafted in beside Reynolds. While O’Connor has remained in-situ Reynolds increasing tendency to be easily muscled off the ball has meant he’s also been in and out. Latterly, Andy Considine has entered the equation and his pairing with O’Connor has looked like the most solid combination at McInnes’s disposal.
If a winning team is built on a consistent defensive partnership, it is no wonder the team are struggling to establish any kind of form: in the 26 competitive games this season the centre back pairing from one game to the next has changed no fewer than 13 times, with six different partnerships thrown into the mix. There is no way any semblance of understanding can be established with such frequent changes. The lack of protection being afforded by that central midfield only exacerbates the frailties of the defence – something’s got to give.
Despite the need for stability and his solid showings in defence, I’m advocating moving O’Connor into his favoured defensive midfield role. His presence would bring some much needed calmness and mental resolve to the midfield battle and stop us being overawed early on in games. O’Connor’s physicality means he’s unlikely to be bossed in the way that Jack and Shinnie can be.
As well as the positives O’Connor’s would bring it the midfield, this shift would also enable others to perform to their potential.
It would allow the permanent reinstatement of Graeme Shinnie at left back and the dispelling of this notion of him as a holding midfielder. This is a guy who was the best left back in the country a few seasons ago when he captained ICT to the Scottish Cup. Played in his natural position for a sustained period, he and Hayes could form the most potent left side in the league.
Having O’Connor in the midfield engine room would also give James Maddison the minder he’s been crying out for. It is abundantly clear our referees are more interested in conjuring up bookings for imagined diving than providing him any sort of protection to Maddison from some of the treatment being dished out by the more agricultural players in the league. If the ref’s are not willing to do their job, O’Connor would provide a pretty formidable deterrent to those wanting to dish out the shithouse treatment.
So what of those capricious centre half slots if O’Connor is needed in midfield?
There will be those, like myself, who have been impressed by the embryonic partnership between O’Connor and Considine which has shown signs of promise in the four games they’ve played together in the past month. There will be many who’ll advocate giving this paring an extended run to see if it develops into a long term solution.
However, the main reason I have for gambling on this switch is I just can’t see us recruiting anyone in January who fits the defensive midfield bill better than O’Connor. Greg Tansey has been touted and while he’s a tidy enough player he doesn’t have the required combative element to his game.
The gamble of removing this season’s most consistent centre back from the back line options can be mitigated by sorting out some issues which have been festering for too long.
As far as the Ash Taylor Experiment is concerned, to bastardise an Ebbe-ism: the operation was a failure, the patient is very much dead. The vast majority of the support seems to be of the same opinion. Although Taylor possesses all the raw ingredients to be a brilliant centre half his lack of positional awareness and horrific levels of concentration mean he can no longer be trusted.
Mark Reynolds has gone from being touted for a Scotland call-up a couple to staring down the barrel of the Pittodrie exit door in the space of a few short seasons. Reynolds’ best spell for the club undoubtedly came when he was partnered alongside Russell Anderson. Since Anderson’s decision to retire at the end of the 2014-15 season, Reynolds has never looked comfortable when paired alongside the erratic Taylor. And this should come as no surprise.
I was reminded this week of Derek Rae speaking on the ByTheMin Aberdeen podcast in January this year, when he had the following to say about Reynolds: “I’ve spoken to a couple of people who’ve played with Mark Reynolds before and they’ve got great respect for his defensive abilities and for his pace but what I keep hearing is he does need somebody, in an ideal world, to guide him through the game. Russell Anderson was that person so he could make the decisions for Mark Reynolds.”
It may seem bizarre from the outside looking in that a 29 year old, highly experienced player like Reynolds needs someone to talk them through a game but there’s no denying that Reynolds’ best spells in his career have come playing either alongside Stephen Craigan at Motherwell or Anderson with Aberdeen.
With that in mind, the top transfer target in January has to be an experienced centre half who can bring out the best in Mark Reynolds – who I still believe is the best, most natural centre half at the club. If this experienced, calm head isn’t able to coach Reynolds through games and back to his best form, then the ever dependable Considine can step into the breach won’t let anyone down.
Someone in the Steven Anderson mould would be an ideal candidate. Despite having been around for what seems like forever, he’s only 30 and has a few, good seasons ahead of him. He’s shown remarkable consistency over the past few seasons and can take a large part of the credit for Joe Shaughnessy’s emergence as one of the most promising defenders in the country this season.
If these areas are not addressed in January and the window is spent continuing the fixation with accumulating a squad of attacking players who’ll never see the light of day, any aspirations of silverware can be abandoned. To be the best we have to start beating the best.