Motherwell fell from their place as one of the most consistent sides in the division to relegation battlers last season. Craig Cairns looks at whether a similar struggle awaits.
Overall, the 2014/15 season was a disaster for the Fir Park side. After finishing in the top half for five years in-a-row, including three consecutive ‘best of the rest’ finishes – as well as qualifying for Europe in five of the previous six seasons – Stuart McCall’s Motherwell struggled for any kind of consistency. By November, the club had only registered two wins and a draw in its first 12 league matches, leaving them second bottom and giving McCall no choice but to do the decent thing and walk away.
His replacement inherited a bit of a mess though, paradoxically, still faced a difficult task in replacing Stuart McCall due to these achievements. Ian Baraclough lifted the team initially, watching from the stands as his new side conceded a last-minute equaliser against Ross County, before taking charge for two 1-0 victories against their other relegation rivals.
Despite the initial progress, Motherwell reverted back to their early season form – worse, in fact – when they embarked on a run in which they only took one point from a possible 24. If the new manager’s comments about “winning the SPL” seemed preposterous when he was appointed, they were even more so now. It became clear that Motherwell would be involved in a relegation fight right until the end.
And so it was. With three matches remaining, Motherwell ensured they would not be relegated through the sole automatic spot. They failed to lift themselves any higher than 11th, though more than outperformed Rangers in the play-off final, wining 6-1 on aggregate to secure their Premiership stauts.
As well a few regulars over the past few seasons, many of the disappointing signings and younger players who failed to impress have been released, leaving room for Baraclough to shape the squad the way he’d like.
Connor Ripley, another former England youth, has been brought in to replace goalkeeper George Long, while young defender Kieran Kennedy has been added after his release from Leicester City. Louis Laing has signed permanently from Nottingham Forest and he is joined by former Celtic defender Joe Chalmers – a tall, powerful left-sided full-back who can also operate in the centre – to reinforce their precarious backline. Motherwell had the joint second worst defensive record in the league last season and much of their success will depend upon how much these signings improve this area.
Baraclough has also dedicated many hours to sorting out his attack after the departures of John Sutton and Lee Erwin – who scored 21 goals between them last season. In response, he has added three new strikers. The predatory Louis Moult joins from the Enlgish lower leagues along with the industrious Wes Fetcher, while David Clarkson returns to the club after his eight goals for Dundee last season. Although Baraclough has done well to address this quickly, it remains to be seen if all or any of the three strikers signed can replace Erwin and Sutton’s goals.
You can read more about Motherwell’s striking options here.
Baraclough will be looking to build upon a good recent home record and the momentum – even if stuttering – they gathered towards the end of last season. He came to the club with an impressive record with Sligo Rovers, securing their first league title in 35 years as well as the Irish Cup. Motherwell’s abominable cup record under his predecessor is certainly something he has been appointed to address.
Although adaptable, Baraclough usually likes to line up with two out-and-out wingers in either a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, getting the ball to his dangermen as quickly as possible. The majority of Motherwell’s goals under Baraclough have come from wide areas: Lionel Ainsworth has scored six and assisted five of Motherwell’s last 32 league goals; Marvin Johnson has scored one and assisted six across the same time; while 14 of the 32 goals over that time have come from either crosses or cutbacks.
When Baraclough was appointed, he spoke about the importance of promoting youth. The likes of Luke Watt and Dom Thomas made impressive, if fleeting, appearances last season under difficult circumstances and it will be interesting to see if they – along with Jack Leitch and David Ferguson – have any place in the Motherwell first team this season.
Had Erwin still been at the club, he’d have been selected here without question. Motherwell’s objective for the most part towards the end of last season was to get Erwin on the ball as often as possible, no matter where in the opposition half. He had the ability to carve out goals for himself or others from fairly innocuous areas.
Around the same time Lionel Ainsworth – who, like many in the squad, had performed poorly until then – sparked some of the best form we have seen from him in a Motherwell shirt. Although positionally different from Erwin he will be key to the way Motherwell attack this season, especially due the way the manager likes to set up his team.
Moreover, if Motherwell have failed to adequately address their defensive issues, attack may be the only option for them, as has often been the case in recent years. McCall’s team were known for outscoring sides, as opposed to protecting leads, and the early indications are that Baraclough likes to do the same. The talents of Ainsworth, if he can remain on form, will be vital to this.
Four Areas Motherwell Must Improve this Season
Highest on this list has to be the defence. Motherwell’s clown-shoe defending resulting in them conceding 63 league goals (1.8 per game), but it was the manner in which they did that caused most concern. Laing, himself culpable, and the unproven duo Chalmers and Kennedy are the only recruits in this area so far.
Dan Twardzik was the standout performer for Motherwell last season, until the new manager took over, and has barely been used since. George Long eventually proved his worth to the side though was not without his blunders. A steady pair of hands between the sticks is vital for ‘Well and hopefully Ripley is the man to provide them.
3. Away record
Motherwell recorded just three wins and a draw – that’s 10 points from a possible 57 – away from home in the league last season. Further, they lost away to Stjarnan in the Europa League qualifiers and exited the League Cup at News Douglas Park. The one silver lining is their 3-1 victory at Ibrox, though they will need to improve their away record if they are to realise their top six ambitions.
4. The cups
Motherwell supporters have not been treated to a decent cup run since, what feels like, 1991. They watched as their side exited both domestic cup competitions at the first time of asking last season and have exited the Scottish Cup in the round they have entered for the previous three seasons. Further, they have exited the League Cup against League Two opposition twice in that time.
We don’t expect Motherwell to be as poor as they were last season but their new signings have not inspired us too much. Another tough season in the bottom half is our prediction (although one or two have tipped them for a cup this year).