25 goals in five games. Dunfermline Athletic – the League One title favourites – are in many aspects exceeding the expectations of pundits and supporters alike.
To understand the goal glut you have to look at the basis of the formation that Allan Johnston settled on early in pre-season (4-1-3-2). A very attacking setup that looks to flood the final third of the pitch with the front five residing deep in the opponents half.
The basis of any good side is the solidity and support it offers through the spine, and at the base of this column, strength is apropos. The centre-half pairing of Ben Richards-Everton and Callum Fordyce were not at the club last season. However, it would be understandable if you had thought that they had been together for some time, considering the understand between the pair and how their style of play complements the other.
Richards-Everton is left footed and resides on that side when he is not off on a jaunt and for that reason he is the ball playing defender. He is always looking to take the ball from the keeper – Sean Murdoch – and build an attack, whether that be a pass into the middle or lofting a ball into space for the winger to run-on-to. He takes risks but is very calm and composed, he does not look to smash the ball into row Z when he feels a bit or pressure, he believes in his own ability. At six foot three inches tall, with an athletically strong build it is no wonder he possess the courage he does. He has the power to do the gritty side of the job but also the pace to dribble his way out of trouble, if necessary.
Having just turned 23, Fordyce was made the new captain on the cusp of the season. He is the better defender of himself and Richards-Everton and is the covering stopper that breaks up play and makes the easy pass out to Williamson or Andy Geggan. He posses a smaller, stockier frame to that of his colleague, although he will still battle and win against the wiliest of target men in the air – a style used by many lower league operations.
Jason Talbot was signed to be the starting left-back, but he has only 45 minutes to his name after a two-game suspension for a dangerous challenge that earned him a red card in a friendly. Having no other full-back in the first-team, the wildcard that filled in the gap was Lewis Martin – last season’s starting centre-back. Martin has surprisingly been effective from that area of the pitch. He has not been caught out positionally and has the chances to help overload the flank with Joe Cardle when the opportunity presents itself. While Johnston has not deviated from the adage of ‘if it is not broke don’t fix it’ Talbot should be installed sooner rather than later as Martin’s future lies in the back two and not out wide.
What both options give is the allowance to cover for Cardle’s lack of defensive work rate. It has improved since his last spell at the club, but “Super Joe” looks ordinary when trying to impede his man going towards his own goal. Your typical full-back that offers solidity, and the option to come across as a centre-half when necessary allows the former Ross County winger, the freedom to hit on the counter.
On the right side, Ryan Williamson plays as a wing-back. Defenders have still not figured out how to stifle his love of getting down the flank and putting in a cross for the striker. He has got his head up in the final third this season, meaning his end product is much more effective. He is constantly darting past Michael Paton and giving his opposing number problems. These problems arise from the two-on-one situation that leaves the left-back in limbo. The centre-half may have to come across which creates a mismatch and the opportunity for Paton to swing a ball into the penalty box or drive and move the ball around until a massive gap opens up for a clear shot on goal.
In midfield, the Pars are setting up with one in the middle of the park. Andy Geggan likes to drop deep and pick up the ball for the second phase of the attack. He constantly just keeps ticking things over and is always an outlet to reset the attack when the front five are swarmed by teams that sit in their own half. The weakness in this formation arises from this position, but not because of the Glasgow-born midfielder’s ability to play the position. Where Dunfermline have been caught out, and conceded, tends to be on the counter. One pass that breaches the half-way line and all of a sudden the Pars are under the quash as the other side are through against the back two and can find space on the right because of Williamson’s constant marauds up the park. A need for another body that can sit in as well as Geggan would at least allow for him to cover at right-back and slow down the counter. It is imperative that a defensive midfielder is signed, considering if the former Ayr United utility man is injured or suspended, then it will render the formation useless as no other player in the side can play that role as effectively as he has.
The three that are stationed behind the front two is where the best football is being played. Joe Cardle, Shaun Byrne, and Michael Paton, all have that eye for a pass that takes a defender out of the game. That is backed up with the three combining to create nine goals. Cardle has his patented cut inside that every player seems unable to defend, Byrne has the best range of passing in the side, and Paton is comfortable on the ball and positionally aware of what is going on around him. Allowing for him to release the attacker at the right moment. Paton is understated as a player but is perhaps the most important facet of the attacking trio. His ability to put a cross in a undefendable area has been shown as he picks out Faissal El Bakhtaoui at the back stick for an easy header all too often. Cardle is certainly up there as one of the best players in the league having competed in the Premiership and at the age of 28, is nowhere past his peak as he has given full-backs a torrid time of it in this early stage of the campaign as he jinks right past them. It is refreshing to see Byrne played in a position that suits his passing style. He is always looking to thread that intricate pass through the last line of defence.
This is the biggest pertinent difference to the shape and style of last year’s disaster. Under Jim Jefferies and John Potter, there was an insistence in playing four across the midfield, a move that is sensible in this division as most teams set up a flat 4-4-2. However, the Pars never had the rough and tumble style that matched up with the part-time counterparts, and because of that you needed that extra body in the centre to help pass around the cloggers and win the battle in a more aesthetically pleasing way. That was not even the biggest complaint, it was shunting Byrne and Josh Falkingham out wide. Neither who excel on the flanks as their attributes do not facilitate the requirements out there. It is even more remarkable that the club lacked any wide men, considering Neil McCann – a very capable winger in his time – was on the coaching staff for three seasons.
It was all fur coat and no knickers with them. They could comfortably control the game and pass it around on the edge of the oppositions box, but in terms of end product it was wasteful in terms of finishing and chance creation. Now you will see them flying out the traps and putting the game out of sight before the half-time interval.
There will be a lull after an hour – like there was last season – but chances will still be finished off to push the scoreline into the embarrassing range. This is down to, but not exclusively, because of the width.
The front two have been immaculate with their prowess in front of goal. Michael Moffat is having to play a more focal role – rather than the penalty box poacher – which to his credit helped El Bakhtaoui score a double in each of the opening four games. Speaking of the young Moroccan, his emergence as a frontline striker has been remarkable. Considering his ability as more of a wide player, he has always had the ability to beat a man and score from range, but now he is finding himself in the right positions in the box to get on the end of a head height cross, and being more direct using more of his pace than trickery to beat the last line of defence and get a shot off. Moffat allows those to play off him as he attracts attention of more than one defender with his ability with the ball at his feet facing towards goal, his close control is exceptional, and giving his ability as a finisher, he can convert chances – giving he does not have too much time to think about it.
If the good run continues, it is conceivable that Johnston can replicate what he achieved at Queen of the South in this division four years ago – a Challenge Cup and a resounded League One title – giving the full-time status at the club. We won’t really know how good this Pars side really is until the fixture against Dundee and quarter of the league season has passed. Although I am certain the five goals a game average will not be the end result, the Pars have racked up this total quickly while not playing at their best so far this season.
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