In and around the penalty spot: Why the Pars have been struggling as of late

An underwhelming Dunfermline side were dispatched four-nil by a rampant Buddies outfit in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup at St.Mirren Park.

The loss coincided with a decline in performances within the last fortnight. The Pars were not hitting top form even though they salvaged a draw at home against playoff contenders Airdrieonians. They also came through three-nil victories against League Two champions Albion Rovers, although Johnston stated himself that the side have played better in the past and taken nothing in terms of points.

You cannot discern what has brought this upon the Fifers. However, I may have two ideas of how it has come about.

This crop of players may be believing their own hype as they have proven themselves as capable opponents against both Dundee sides. You align this with the failings of previous iterations of those that have worn the black and white stripped shirt. You can see those parallels to a certain extent.

Although, I do not think that is the case. I think it is something more quantifiable.

I look at the formation (4-1-3-2). It is an unorthodox way to set up a side. Only one midfielder in the middle of the park to protect the back four. I have never been a believer in being light in numbers in that position. Where football, in general, is at present, is about control in that area and play a possession based game or break on the counter. That is what it is in the most simplistic of terms for teams that like to play with the ball on the deck.

Through this formation, Dunfermline have been susceptible on the counter, and it is obvious to see why. You have a marauding right-back whose main emphasis is overlapping Michael Paton. So in actuality they will have six attackers in the opponent’s half of the pitch. This bombardment of bodies in front of the box leaves Andy Geggan to cover the middle third of the field and to get back to fill in on the right in the second phase of a defensive set.

League One teams usually set up with a 4-4-2 or a derivative that can morph into two banks of four while defending. That formation can work, as the Pars struggle to break down sides who sit on a goal lead. However, it seems to be more of the follies in Johnston’s side that let themselves down, rather than the opposition dominating proceedings.

Dunfermline were not up to their required standard in the first half against Ayr United, who scored from their only two visits to the box.

Even giving the resolute defending and exemplary display of Greg Fleming in goals, it can be debated that Ian McCall’s men were fortunate to win the match. The first goal is an instance that backs up my issues with the formation. Although oddly the breakdown at the back came centrally.

Alan Forrest led the counter and played the forward pass that rendered Geggan impotent. Josh Falkingham never tracked his continued run and Craig Moore executed a back heel that put the winger through on goal. As a result, the centre-half Ben Richards-Everton had one of two options to choose from. Either he could have slid in having anticipated a first-time shot or stayed on his feet and waited to intercept. He opted for the former. However, Forrest touched it by him and slotted it past Sean Murdoch. Now as you watch the footage back, you can see it was a well-executed counter attack. However, neither full-back is in frame until the teenager is bearing down on goal.

This passage of play could have been resolved if Falkingham was playing alongside Geggan and not as part of the attacking trio. I would suggest a 4-2-3-1 as the preferred system.

Now you compare that to the second half of the Dundee match in the second round of the League Cup. Paul Hartley’s men were in the ascendancy for much of the second half and were sucker punched twice on the counter late on.

You break that down though and what you seen was a 4-2-3-1 at times even a 4-5-1 to stifle a Dee attack. It worked, the wingers – Joe Cardle and Michael Paton – covered the full-backs diligently and offered Greg Stewart very little room to manoeuvre and create anything of note.

Then in the next round against the city rivals, that plan worked well in the second half once again. All three of the midfielders were breaking up play and finding pockets of space to bypass the pressurising pair of Aaron Kuhl and John Rankin.

Eventually, the tired legs seeped into the Pars players minds and there was no stopping the talented youngsters skipping through the two lines of defence, and put the tie out of sight within the first half-dozen minutes of extra-time.

Dunfermline’s biggest defiances are at the back. Two of the starting back four have had broken legs, one of them being the best young prospect at the club – Ryan Williamson – and the other the newly signed and installed captain – Callum Fordyce. Jason Talbot had been suspended and dealt with some niggling injuries. As a result, Lewis Martin split time between the two full-back spots until Marc McAusland and Shaun Rooney were signed to the club.

So the solidity and familiarity of a settle starting back four of Williamson, Fordyce, Richards-Everton and Talbot have not played together. Three players have been at right-back, four at centre-back and two at left-back by the 12th game of the season. Not due to form or figuring out the best setup, but through injury.

Now with such an overhaul of footballers – 11 came in and 17 went out over the summer. It is best to protect what is a makeshift backline. If there was a more conservative approach to the match on Saturday, it would have made for a more competitive cup tie.

It is also unlikely if Dunfermline are promoted, they cannot get way with being as open as they have been against part-time players, and they will be playing times akin to St.Mirren on a more regular basis who if you give them a chance to exploit a weakness they will not be as slack about punishment as inferior side might. So, why not prepare for that style right now.


You can follow @MichaelWood_SJ on Twitter.

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