After some exciting European matches, Aberdeen have made a solid start to the league season with a 1-0 victory at Tannadice. In the first of our season previews, Craig Cairns assess the merits of Derek McInnes’s side going into the new campaign.
Even when their team sheet was released at 2pm on a Saturday, it wasn’t exactly obvious how Aberdeen would line up. And when it was obvious, they still deployed enough ingenuity, movement and interchanging to confuse most defences. Several individual improvements saw Aberdeen evolve into a real force last season, pushing Celtic most of the way before finishing comfortably in second.
Despite their abundance of pace and skill, Aberdeen are also a physical side who like to put crosses into the box. Of their 31 league goals since the turn of the year 12 have been scored as such – including the winner on Sunday – with the number increasing to 18 when corners are included. Four of those goals have been scored from headers (as well as one headed own goal), five goals have been assisted through headers, with a further three goals involving a header in the build up. All-in-all, 42% of Aberdeen’s league goals since January have involved headers.
There is also evidence from their European matches that trend is to continue. All three of their goals in their fantastic win in Croatia involved high balls into the area; two of them finished with headers. The first was nodded in from a corner, the second a header after a whipped cross from the right and the third saw Kenny McLean volley in after another high cross.
For all their progression, Aberdeen were not without their struggles last season. Disappointment in both cup competitions – especially after winning one the previous year – and their record versus Celtic ever so slightly soured an otherwise impressive campaign. McInnes will be aiming to improve on the four defeats from four against the champions and give them more a challenge for the title this season.
Even before captaining Inverness to the Scottish Cup, Graeme Shinnie had pledged his future to Aberdeen. He gives them a more natural attacking option at full-back, though has been used predominantly as a central midfielder so far. This versatility, along with his pace, physicality and technique mean he perfectly fits the mould of a Derek McInnes midfielder. The fact that he comes to the club a Scottish Cup winner can only be a bonus.
Paul Quinn has also joined the club. Initially signed as back up, Quinn now finds himself a key part of the defence after injury to Mark Reynolds. On the face of it, this is another clever signing from McInnes. Quinn, as captain, helped resuscitate an asphyxiating Ross County, marshalling their deeply unsettled defence to a more consistent end to the season and has already proved his worth in his few appearances for Aberdeen so far.
The one other area McInnes needed to address was goalkeeper, which may seem strange given that last season they came close to equalling a clean sheet record set in 1974. Danny Ward has been brought in on loan from Liverpool and the 22-year-old already looks more imposing than either Scott Brown or Jamie Langfield – who both had chances to impress last season – and is currently on the fringes of the Welsh national team.
Aberdeen were largely applauded for the appointment of Derek McInnes in 2013, despite his poor record under difficult circumstances at Bristol City. Previously known in Scotland for winning the First Division and establishing St Johnstone as a top-flight club, McInnes has transformed Aberdeen from a solid outfit under Craig Brown into a creative, dynamic side that can defend or add to a slender lead. More often than not, the Dons look to get ahead in matches then to defend and hit teams on the break – a style which they have the personnel to carry out successfully. You often hear McInnes refer to the importance of “game management” in his post-match interviews.
While improving the club’s standing in the league and signing well, McInnes has also reinvented a few players. In his first full season in charge, Peter Pawlett was converted from an inconsistent winger to a potent central attacking midfielder and last season, the already versatile Jonny Hayes was used as a holding midfielder that would dart forward and join in attacks. Both have excelled in their respective new positions. Furthermore, McInnes has overseen the improvement of Andrew Considine at left-back, a position he had, until then, struggled to master.
Adam Rooney scored exactly a third of Aberdeen’s league goals last season and became the first Aberdeen striker to score over 27 goals in all competitions since another ginger number 9 did so in the 1992/93 season. With 26 of Aberdeen’s last 30 league goals having come from within 12 yards (87% – while 60% have come from within six yards), Rooney has proved to be the perfect penalty box striker for Aberdeen’s style. Other than his wonder strike versus St Johnstone, each one of Rooney’s league goals this year was scored inside the box.
The Irish striker’s scoring rate in Scotland before last season is equally as impressive. In his half season with Aberdeen during the 2013/14 campaign he managed nine goals, while his spell at Inverness saw him net 53 times in 83 starts. He’s been used sparingly in the European matches so far but started the first league match of the season and will likely line up for the majority of their league matches.
Four reasons Aberdeen will be the most flexible team in the league
1. Graeme Shinnie
The signing of Shinnie is perhaps the biggest reason Aberdeen will be the most adaptable team in the division. The Dons already possessed a number of versatile players, Shinnie adds to that by allowing them to switch between a back three and a back four without making a substitution.
2. Jonny Hayes
Hayes proved to be one of the most versatile players in the league last season. While he may not have excelled at left-back, he is a least adept, and after his performance at Dens Park in the Scottish Cup, he became one of the better holding midfielders in the country. Hayes also started a few matches as a striker last season and has been used as a wing-back in a few of their recent matches.
3. Niall McGinn
Even when given a position, McGinn doesn’t stick to it. Start him on the right, for instance, and he’ll drift to link with his counterpart on the left, then drop deep to collect the ball from the defence or midfield. McGinn was also one of Aberdeen’s most productive players last season. Since the turn of the year he has scored three, has seven assists, as well as five secondary (or hockey) assists – meaning he has played a role in 50% of their league goals since January.
4. Derek McInnes
Of course, all this is possible because of their talented manager. He has taken the defensive solidity began by his predecessor, reinforced it and recruited well, giving his side a solid base from which to confuse opposition defences with their movement and interchanging.
If Aberdeen reach the Europa League groups stage, they may not have the squad to cope with both that and their domestic campaign. We fully expect them to finish second, just how close they get to Celtic hinges on this.