I have to admit, picking Lionel Ainsworth felt like a bit of a cheat. These reviews that I do for The Terrace Podcast guys are supposed to look at players the Scottish football community knows very little about. And if they’re not an unfamiliar name then they should be, at the very least, a new signing or young kid breaking through. Ainsworth falls into none of those brackets, and yet I found myself intrigued by him when the team sheets were announced prior to the Lanarkshire derby two weeks ago.
A quick call to Terrace Towers to confirm the green light came back with an affirmative response. Ainsworth it was going to be. So, why? Why did I want to find out more about a player who I’ve been a great admirer of for more than a year now? I know his game. Hell, everybody knows his game. He’s lightning quick with tremendous shooting ability and inconsistent, yet dangerous, crossing. He helped rip Hamilton a new one when the teams met at Fir Park just over a month previous in front of the TV cameras, a game I watched at my own leisure. What was I going to learn that I didn’t already know?
The answer is I wanted to see if the defensive side to Ainsworth’s game was as bad as it had been advertised. From my vantage point as the casual onlooker I can only see an attacker whose strengths going forward should far outweigh his lapses in defensive. Unless he literally tries to assist the other team – like the mentally handicapped kid at your primary school who didn’t quite grasp the concept and used to chase after the ball, regardless of who was in possession – then any other indiscretions should be forgiven. He surely couldn’t be like David Ginola was back in his heyday and plain refuse to track back, could he?
The initial indication was that yes, yes he could. Hamilton’s very first attack saw Stephen Hendrie, Accies’ young left-back, the man Ainsworth had the responsibility of tracking, sprint up the left-wing completely undetected. Our hero was watching the action in the centre of the park, unaware that Hendrie had made himself an option on the left. Such lapses in concentration are only understandable as a direct result of physical and mental fatigue. This was literally 15 seconds into the match!
The opening exchanges taught me everything I needed to know. Or so I thought. He really didn’t do anything wrong at all on the defensive side after that point. For the remainder of the match there was nothing in that side of his game which told me first Stuart McCall, then Iain Baraclough, was right to sit him for so many matches this season.
The guy’s a match-winner and Motherwell have toiled scoring goals this campaign. There’s the cliché that when you’re struggling, you want dependable players who can ‘work really hard’, ‘keep things tight’ etc. Personally I want someone who can help put the ball in the back of the net.
The caveat in my findings was the identity of his opponent. Stephen Hendrie is ok and he’ll make a fine left-back someday, but he’s not exactly Andrew Robertson at present. (Now that I think about, Motherwell getting completely roasted each time they played United last season may have had something to do with Ainsworth going head to head with the Scottish international.) I suppose it’s rational to be cautious when going up against a great attacking full-back. But that doesn’t explain why in matches against Willie Dyer, Sean Dillon and Andrew Considine, Motherwell left Ainsworth on the bench. That’s not a disservice to those guys (except Dyer), they’re just not players who carry much of a threat going forward. Certainly not noticeably more than Stephen Hendrie.
Back to the game at hand. It wasn’t a vintage performance. His crossing could have been better on occasion, although a few of his misses did require lunging clearances which led to Motherwell corners. He also took an extra touch on an early opportunity when it would have been better pulling the trigger a hair sooner. And he could have done better with a chance right on the edge of half-time which he snatched at and dragged wide. He was also part of a dreadful 3-on-2 counter attack when he decided to go for goal instead of passing to either of his teammates. I did feel a degree of sympathy in this instance, however, since Scott McDonald made a baffling run directly across his path which only succeeded in confusing the hell out of Ainsworth.
All in all he had some nice touches, roasted Hendrie for pace on a couple of occasions, and whipped in a couple of dangerous crosses. The only way he hurt the team defensively was his place in a 4-4-2 system. Marvin Johnson on one side, Ainsworth on the other, and Motherwell were a man down in the centre of the park. For both goals that extra man was Ali Crawford bursting through unmarked. For the first goal he rolled in Jason Scotland to score, before doing the honours himself shortly after half-time.
People have rightly derided the Motherwell defence all year, and rightly so. They’ve been terrible. Almost as terrible has been their attack. Taking the most basic statistics at our disposal, they are second worst in goals conceded and third worst in goals scored. Playing Ainsworth regularly wouldn’t make the former stat any better, but I doubt it would have made it any worse, and it certainly would have improved the latter.
Of that I am certain
The Football Critic
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