I’ll try and refrain from using the cliche “a game of two halves” during this match review but it is going to be difficult given how things developed last night (although technically it was actually a game of 59 minutes and 31 minutes).
In the 59th minute last night Robbie Neilson decided that after an hour or so of a system that involved our two top scorers sitting on the bench he would bring Pavol Safranko and Nicky Clark on to play in a recognised 442 (you know, the thing we’ve all been crying out for this season).
Once Safranko and Clark arrived we witnessed half an hour of high tempo, high pressure football and Ayr United could not cope with it. Some people would ask, why aren’t we playing like that all the time? This is especially true after a first half that was as ineffective as we have seen in recent months.
The match last night was, on paper, massive in terms of us securing 2nd spot but the build-up by the club felt pretty underwhelming and both the crowd and atmosphere early on reflected that. In the opening spell it felt like an end of season fixture with little to play for and maybe it is now the case that the club (and by association, the fans) now know that the playoffs are our big hope of promotion so we are just biding our time until we get there. There is still work to be done on that front but we are now in pole position for 2nd.
Robbie Neilson also decided last night that he wanted to experiment with the starting 11 once again, despite two decent performances in the last fortnight (albeit with two poor results). We changed our shape slightly and he started Osman Sow who has been out of the picture in recent weeks (and had some difficulties back home in Sweden if you read the papers). It was a surprise to us all and it didn’t quite work as Neilson would have hoped.
To be fair to Sow he does look like a player who should come good but he isn’t the type of target man that strikes fear into rough and rugged central defenders in the Championship. He’s absolutely massive but doesn’t leap for the ball in the same way that Safranko does. He does have decent technique but he seems to want to wait on things rather than attack the ball. What we ended up doing for the first 45 last night was launch the ball towards Sow hoping for him to hold the ball up and bring others into play.
Our shape in the first half meant that the two wide players, Robson and Pawlett, were far too deep to cause any problems running in behind. It also meant that McMullan, who was trying to play off Sow, was left isolated and he hardly had a kick of the ball in the opening spell. With a central midfield two who were trying to play a bit further forward it needed someone to control the ball in the middle but Ian Harkes probably had his worst game for us and we lacked any control in the midfield.
Similarly to other games this year the issues did not necessarily stem from the back four in many ways. It was the lack of control in the midfield and the lack of penetration in the forward area that held us back. It then gave Ayr confidence to pass the ball effectively and play with pressure. They were quicker to every pass and we could not cope. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this over the course of the season.
The one constant danger defensively last night was Paul Watson yet agin struggling to cope with Declan McDaid. I’ve heard Ayr fans talk about McDaid being quite inconsistent this season and that he saves his best performances for us. Yet again Watson found life with the wide man difficult. He stood off him because he knew McDaid had the beating of him pace wise and it meant that anytime Ayr wanted to drive forward all they had to do was get the ball out wide and allow McDaid to run fairly unchallenged down our right hand side.
After a pretty rotten opening hour things changed with Safranko and Clark injecting the side with an attacking threat but also, in Safranko’s case, a real desire to get on the front foot physically. This seemed to lift the entire team and all of a sudden we were first to loose balls, we were playing with purpose and we had Ayr rattled.
The two standout performers in this 30 minute spell were undoubtedly Safranko, who scored an absolute peach, and McMullan. For Paul McMullan it was great for him to finally get a goal and hopefully he can go on a decent run with confidence and take his chances more regularly. As for Safranko, I cannot fault him in games like this. He, bizarrely, still has some detractors online but when you look at his qualities and what he can bring to the right system it is very much a case of him being almost unplayable at times.
I would urge Neilson to try a 442 in the remaining games and if possible to try and build a partnership between Safranko and Clark (and at times maybe try Safranko and Sow).
Last night showed that when we are doing the right things we can beat anyone in this league. We showed it for large spells last week too. It is just that consistency and the ability to be more clinical and more aggressive from the first whistle.
Player Ratings (largely based on the last 30 minutes. Let’s face it, the first hour would be everyone getting a 2 or a 3) –
1 – Benji Siegrist – After recent struggles he didn’t put a foot wrong all game to be fair. 6
44 – Paul Watson – Struggled with McDaid but grew into the game. Still not a right-back. 5
30 – Mark Reynolds – Defensively under no massive pressure but he was wasteful when distributing the ball. 5
55 – Mark Connolly – Similar to Reynolds, defensively did pretty well but poor distribution. He also has a bit of a 50p head when dealing with high balls. 5
3 – Callum Booth – Didn’t get involved enough and was pegged back in the first half. Taken off after 60 minutes. 4
47 – Ian Harkes – Poorest game for United. Couldn’t connect with his passes and too soft physically. We need a midfielder to control the ball in games like this. 3
18 – Calum Butcher – A quiet first half but played well when we were on top and holding to a lead. Did the hard work off the ball late on to win a few 50/50 battles. 6
17 – Jamie Robson – Not as influential as in previous weeks and did not have the better of the opposition fullback which limited him. 5
50 – Peter Pawlett – I find him very frustrating. He has games where he controls things but has others, like last night, when he maybe doesn’t impact the game enough. Looked absolutely shattered after 75 minutes. 5
9 – Osman Sow – I look at him and recognise that he has some quality but he is obviously not fit and still not up to speed. 5
7 – Paul McMullan – A fantastic closing spell after a fairly quiet first half. Deservedly got his goal and worked his socks off. 7
10 – Nickly Clark – Still maybe doesn’t get involved enough on the ball but causes real danger with his movement and his positioning.
14. Pavlov Safranko – Not sure why he started on the bench but what an impact when he came off it. Ran the Ayr defence ragged, held the ball up, chased everything and scored a peach of an equaliser.
Man of the Match – In the stadium the sponsors gave this to Safranko and although I would love to give it to him it probably should go to McMullan in this instance. I was really pleased to see the little midfielder get a goal after so many weeks of half chances and poor decision making. I really hope that this is a little spark that can encourage him to be more clinical.
Up Next – We now have three fixtures of the league campaign left. We begin with Inverness away next week, followed by Falkirk at home and then a trip to Cappielow on the last day.
Looking at the run in for Ayr you would think that 4 out of 9 for us would do but I would hope that we have enough to remain unbeaten for the last three games. If we can get 7 points out of these fixtures then we would be in a decent position heading to the playoffs.
What Neilson might want to do is experiment a little with different combinations and tactical styles to see if we can find one or two extra little tools to use in the playoffs.