Where next for Aberdeen? A tactical analysis of the 2017/18 season
Written by Alex Lawrence @thetenspace
Aberdeen’s final day victory over Celtic confirmed a fourth consecutive top two finish in the Scottish top flight for the first time in their 115-year history. Derek McInnes’ achievements at the club have been exceptional, taking the Reds from four straight years outside the top six to their most successful spell in over 20 years.
In this past season, with as fierce a competition as Aberdeen have faced for second place during their run, McInnes’ tactical approach came under examination like never before. The emergence of a strong Hibs from the Championship, coupled with Rangers’ improvements, Hearts’ heroic (if not sustainable) rear-guard displays, Steve Clarke’s revival of Kilmarnock, and Motherwell’s effective style, all point to a much tougher challenge than the season before. Additionally, the Celtic saga continued, as McInnes sought to finally get a result against Brendan Rodgers’ men, after losing out to them in all competitions in 2016/17.
A Strong Squad
The summer of 2017 saw key players from the previous season leave Pittodrie. With Jonny Hayes and Ryan Jack moving to Glasgow, Peter Pawlett and Ash Taylor moving to England, and Niall McGinn moving to South Korea, Aberdeen’s 2017/18 campaign was made considerably more challenging.
Despite these losses, the players at Derek McInnes’ disposal would still be the envy of almost all his counterparts. In Adam Rooney they have a strong striker useful for holding up direct balls, who comes alive in the box. Kenny McLean is a flexible central midfielder, capable of quarterbacking possession from in front of the back line with his wide range of passing just as well as he can support the box with his long shots and forward defensive play. Captain Graeme Shinnie is similarly versatile, able to play either as a wide-ranging defensive-minded midfielder or as a dynamic left back.
Aberdeen’s attacking midfielders rank among the best in the country and follow in similar vein to their deeper midfield teammates. Ryan Christie is the jewel in the Dons’ crown, as dynamic, creative, and technically gifted a player as has been seen in the Granite City for many years. The 23-year old has consistently shown his ability to play in tight spaces, with good combinations and excellent vision for a defence-splitting pass since his loan move from Celtic. These abilities, as well as the speed at which he can recognise dangerous spaces and move into them to receive the ball make him one of the best playmakers in the league. Aberdeen have several options to flank Christie, with Gary Mackay-Steven offering traditional width combined with exhilarating frontal 1v1 ability. Similarly, Niall McGinn’s crossing (not to mention his set-piece delivery) makes him exceedingly dangerous on the flank, whilst also threatening central spaces more often with his direct dribbling.
The centre of defence has been just as strong. With the rise of Scott McKenna alongside the ever present Anthony O’Connor, Aberdeen boast one of the most dominant centreback pairings in the league, with both among the league’s most successful in defensive duels. McKenna also boasts good long-range passing, making him able to find the far winger directly, though often with poor timing. Fullbacks Shay Logan and Andy Considine are similarly impressive in defensive and aerial duels, with the latter putting this to good use at both ends of the pitch.
High volume, high pressure, low risk
At its heart, Aberdeen’s strategic approach is a simple one. When they’re at their best, the Dons will try to spend as much time in their opponent’s half as they can, putting them under enormous pressure through an endless stream of balls played into the box and shots on goal.
Their routes into the attacking third are both consistent and effective. Against teams who defend predominantly in their own half, without much attack pressing, Aberdeen will use basic circulation in the back line to gain space. Though they do bring the team up the pitch with switches of play, the manner in which they do so is rather cautious. The central defenders aren’t very aggressive in either their pass selection or in their taking of space, instead preferring to let one of the central midfielders (usually McLean) pick up possession in front of them to direct play.
In McLean’s case, this dropping movement to get on the ball in the first line of the Dons’ build-up is usually directed either between the two centre-backs or to the right back position. In each case, but particularly the latter, Shay Logan is very active in pushing up on the right side early in phases of Aberdeen possession. A not entirely uncommon action involves McLean dropping to the right side of the back line, Logan pushing up, the winger on that side moving infield, giving rise to the possibility for basic combinations high on the flank. Alternatively, a protecting dribble from the inside winger to force the opposing midfield back behind the ball ultimately has the same effect of pinning the defence back into their own third.
That McLean is usually the only player trusted with playing incisive passes from the first line speaks a lot to the risk-averse nature of Aberdeen’s build-up play. Indeed, with the rare exception of Christie moving into the middle from one of the halfspaces to receive behind the opposing midfield line, the midfield structure of Derek McInnes’ side doesn’t support sharp, risky build-up play through the centre. As a result, the defence rarely attempt to play through opposition pressing.
Instead, they will look directly to the flanks, where a fullback will typically push up to support the second ball. Otherwise they will play direct to the centre forward, where any one or two of the wingers and central midfielders will make depth runs to pin the back line, giving him a better chance at a favourable aerial duel. Once the ball is won, they will look for a switch of play to the opposite flank, often utilising McLean’s excellent range of passing, to secure possession, gain space, and give time for attacking players to move to the box.
Crosses, clearances, and counterpressing
Aberdeen’s active use of the flanks in their build-up reflects their strategy for attacking the box. The Dons look to get the ball into crossing positions on the flanks, using their simple combinations, overloads, or runs in behind the fullbacks. The individual tendencies of the players involved in each move dictates its style. GMS prefers frontal 1v1 situations against an isolated fullback, and diagonal runs behind the backline, while Greg Stewart tends to play more through combinations and driving into space with the ball. Kenny McLean will provide support usually from a more reserved position, keeping him in touch with a potential switch of play to the other wing should it be required, while Shinnie will look to force a breakthrough with long-range diagonal runs into depth from his central midfield positions. In crossing situations, the near side fullback will hang back slightly, to offer an avenue out of pressure, to provide a different crossing angle, and to be more in touch with the defensive line in case of counter attack.
The far side fullback’s behaviour, however, is far more interesting tactically. Andy Considine typifies this perfectly, arriving at the back post at the last possible moment to take unsuspecting fullbacks by surprise. A return of 10 league goals in the past two seasons is strong for his position, but far more significant is how his aerial presence assists his teammates.
Indeed, how Aberdeen occupy the box for crosses is what makes them so effective. Derek McInnes’ men regularly get at least three, often four, players in the box to attack crosses. The late arrival of the far side fullback to the back post allows for an extra body attacking the front or central areas — areas where the ball is more likely to land. With so many well-spaced aerially dominant players in the box, not only do the Reds have a decent chance of winning the first ball, but they are well placed to pick up on anything that runs loose.
Furthermore, Aberdeen are able to extend this control over second balls to outside the area too. Graeme Shinnie and/or Kenny McLean will patrol the space at the top of the box to collect or challenge for second balls and restart attacks. Since there are many bodies in the box in these moments, long shots are common here, with the same principles of winning second balls in the penalty area applying to deflections and rebounds.
Meanwhile in the back line, the central defenders will man-mark the opposing forwards left up the pitch, with one extra defender typically left to cover. O’Connor and McKenna’s proficiency in dominating defensive duels is an invaluable asset in these situations, with both adept at defending against hopeful clearances, and even against controlled exits to a forward. They are quick and strong enough to cover across to sweep up channel balls, and aggressive and clean enough in the tackle to pressure a forward receiving the ball to feet back towards his own goal.
Should they lose the ball in their opponent’s half at any point during the attack, Aberdeen will press immediately to win it back. Players around the ball will press hard, while teammates will man-mark the players nearby. This type of approach makes it exceptionally difficult for all but the best in the league to pick out and play good passes out of pressure while their team momentarily lacks the organisation needed to help keep the ball. Oftentimes simply due to the intensity of their pressing, Aberdeen can regain possession without much trouble.
As a result of all this, Aberdeen are extremely good at sustaining attacks. Though they might not score from a first attack, they have a number of means to regain possession and attack again before their opponent can reorganise themselves. When it comes to attacking the box, though their strategy depends heavily on ‘random’ events (crosses, rebounds, second balls, deflections) the tactics Derek McInnes has employed in doing so, combined with the high level of their players greatly increases their chances of being successful.
This attack sustainability serves as a defensive tool as well. With Aberdeen able to trap their opponent in a cycle of defending crosses, set pieces, long shots and wing play, combined with their aggressive counterpressing after losing the ball, the Dons can quickly stifle attempts at forming organised attacks against them. What follows is a series of unorganised phases where Aberdeen can generally emerge favourably due to the intensity of their play and the pressure under which they put their opponent. These phases typically continue until they can wrestle control through individual skill, or an opponent makes a mistake.
Man-marking and pressing
The rigid variant of man-marking that Aberdeen employ is one of the most striking aspects of their game. From their base defensive shape, almost every player will man-mark their closest opponent tightly, looking to prevent them from getting on the ball. For the central midfielders this is quite flexible, as they will follow their man away from the middle of the pitch, but will only do so until someone else is available to switch with them before returning to the centre.
As for the fullbacks, however, despite having a similar role in the marking scheme, they are forced at times to implement it far more radically. With the defensive system designed to eliminate overloads, and to prevent opponents from receiving the ball and turning to attack the goal, Aberdeen’s success in this area depends on picking up free players and marking them tightly. Should a wide player move back or infield to try get on the ball, the fullback would typically look to pass them on to one of the midfielders, allowing him to stay in touch with the rest of his back four. However, since Aberdeen’s midfielders actively look to man-mark in the centre, there is often no one for the fullback to pass his man on to. This leads to peculiar-looking scenes where Shay Logan will end up far from his right back berth, as far as the opposite flank or at the left side of central midfield.
Central defenders can also be expected to mark out of their position. Strikers dropping into midfield are almost always tracked to a certain degree, though rarely do the centrebacks allow themselves to be pulled far out of position. In these cases, one of the central midfielders will typically work back and press the receiving striker from the other side, temporarily leaving his man.
This pressing action is one of the few exceptions to an otherwise rigid scheme. The Dons’ pressing can be characterised as a series of 1v1 duels, with very few instances of help for the pressing player or doubling up on the ball-carrier. Each player is expected to perform adequately against their direct opponent to prevent the opponent from finding a free man.
High pressing is not hugely prevalent in the Aberdeen defensive system, but it can follow quite naturally from the basic scheme in certain situations. With the wingers maintaining pressing access to the opposing fullbacks, they can apply pressure on their deep build-up easily, while the central midfielders can sometimes ‘jump’ through their man and onto a centre back – blocking the pass to the man they left behind on their way. Since Derek McInnes’ men will man-mark the immediate passing options, a defender on the ball under pressure won’t see any free options to pass to, and fearing a turnover in his own third will likely look to play longer or clear his lines. In these situations, the dominance of Aberdeen’s central defenders enables them to generally win back possession easily against typically isolated forwards.
This approach is very effective against most teams domestically. Few teams in Scotland have a particularly strongly coordinated positional possession game that can take advantage of spaces left open by the man-marking on a collective level, while the intensity and strength Aberdeen have in 1v1 duels make it difficult to overcome the tight marking individually.
These aspects of Aberdeen’s game combine week in week out to make them a formidable opponent. Their low-risk strategy in possession makes it difficult to press them high up the pitch, while their individual quality mixed with good organisation allows them to unleash wave after wave of attacks on goal. Add in a hard-working defensive system and there’s little wonder that Derek McInnes has led this team to four consecutive second place finishes in the league.
The next step
Despite this season’s achievements, there undoubtedly remains room for improvement, on both the domestic and European fronts. Critics of McInnes have pointed to his record against Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic, a two-season losing streak halted only on the last day of a season Celtic had wrapped up weeks earlier. Indeed, Aberdeen’s record against the Old Firm this season makes for grim reading, with only 4 points gained from a possible 24, and a goal difference of -13. Meanwhile an early exit in the Europa League at the hands of Cypriot team Apollon Limassol did little to soften the blow dealt to Scotland’s UEFA coefficient by Rangers and St Johnstone. While the Dons’ tactical approach is clearly successful domestically, there is growing evidence to suggest that it might hinder them in these ‘big’ games.
As outlined already, Aberdeen’s methods of bringing the ball into the opponent’s half are straightforward. Against lesser opposition or teams with poor organisation, the Reds can gain space up the pitch with their direct play and second-ball game easily. Their forward players can enjoy aerial superiority against weaker defenders, while the midfielders are better able to stay in touch with the forward line to pick up loose balls. Furthermore, the individual quality of their forward players can allow them to break out of the unorganised phases that follow a sequence of high balls and challenges.
This type of game, however, has proven to be somewhat less effective against the stronger teams. Better opposition will be able to disrupt this approach by pressing and forcing Aberdeen to play the long ball before they can get bodies around the target to prepare for second balls, with individually dominant defenders, or through strong organisation and compactness.
Celtic are a good example of this. Not only are their central defenders among the best in the league in challenging for aerial duels, but their defensive organisation and compactness makes it difficult to capitalise at all on the odd occasions where they might lose the first header. With Scott Brown and/or Olivier Ntcham staying close to the back line at the base of the midfield, they can both be perfectly positioned to pick up second-balls, and both can evade the first moments of pressure and play away, keeping their team on the ball. With this in mind, teams like Aberdeen have to think of tactics to make these situations more favourable for them.
To this end, Aberdeen already use a couple of other methods to help them in their direct play. In Scott McKenna they have unearthed not only a dominant defender, but someone who can play accurate, long diagonal passes to the opposite flank. These big switches of play can not only get a favourable aerial duel against an opposition fullback, but can create opportunities for simple overloads on the wing, dynamic advantages as the back line is stretched apart, all whilst being relatively low risk.
However, while the technical execution of McKenna’s long passing is usually very good, his timing and the preparatory movements on the receiving side are often poor. In many cases, the pass is played before the opposing fullback can be dragged centrally by an infield-moving winger, with these movements sometimes not being performed at all. Without the proper timing or preparation, the fullback has no threats to his positioning and can challenge effectively for the aerial ball, giving Aberdeen no advantage and making a successful breakthrough unlikely.
Another method the Dons have used, albeit sparingly, to make their direct play more effective has been to reduce their opponent’s ability to pick up second balls. With the ball in their own back line, the central midfield players will move towards the man in possession. If these players are marked, then the opposition midfielders will also move forwards towards the ball, taking them away from their own defensive line. This increases the space into which a direct ball can go, and gives the likes of McLean and Shinnie a better chance of picking up and loose balls and establishing themselves in the attacking half.
While this is a theoretically viable tactic which plays into the hands of Aberdeen’s athletic midfielders, in practice it is often poorly executed. The coordination in the movements from the midfield players, the positioning of the immediate support, and the timing of the pass up are almost always sub-optimal, and could even suggest that such moves are simply an organic byproduct of central midfielders looking to get on the ball and risk-averse defenders.
Indeed, Aberdeen’s reluctance to take any sort of risks in back line possession makes it very difficult for them to build sequences of possession. With even a low-risk, stability-focused possession game, they would be able to work the ball up the pitch in better condition. This would make it easier for them to get the ball to their wing areas more often and in more favourable situations.
Currently, however, Derek McInnes’ side’s risk-averse nature largely prevents this from being possible. Basic pressing forces the Dons to play long very easily, in situations where they are not prepared to regain the ball higher up the pitch. Goalkeeper Joe Lewis’ ‘always long’ distribution contributes significantly to this. Even in situations when one of his central defenders is completely free ahead of him, in a position to start another attack from just inside his own half, he will kick long – more often than not turning over possession, albeit in the opponent’s half.
Furthermore, Aberdeen’s central defenders are themselves guilty of cheaply conceding possession in exchange for territory, even when in relatively pressure-free circulation. When passing across the back, they often receive the ball facing the passing player, making it exceedingly difficult to control the ball the other way to continue the switch of play. Against any sort of pressing this results in a considerably tighter playing area, and usually a long ball to avoid a dangerous loss of possession.
When facing more aggressive pressing, the overly risk-averse possession plays straight into the opposition’s hands. Aberdeen will rarely look to escape pressing in a controlled manner, instead forcing long balls to an expectant opposing back line. The central defenders will hardly ever drop to get the ball from under pressure teammates, forcing them to play forwards to try and win the second ball. By moving backwards and facing forwards, they would have the option to receive the ball at a safe distance from pressing forwards, and pass the ball around the pressure to take those players out of the game, thus making it easier to reach the wings in a controlled way.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this is when the ball goes out to the fullbacks in build-up phases. With the central defenders not dropping off to give a backwards option, Logan and Considine are almost always forced forwards with their passing. As a result, instead of recirculating the ball around the back to the other side if there is not a clear route for the fullback to progress play, they have to either play straight balls along the touch line for the winger to receive in a horrible situation, or clip the ball in behind with little control.
It is in theses types of situations that Aberdeen’s struggles against stronger and better-organised opposition are again visible. Against weaker opposition they are often able to burst through the flank on their first attempt, with their creative dribblers, athletic depth runners, and simple wing combinations. The top teams, however, are able to prevent the Dons from progressing immediately. As such, with the wing route to the opposition half so prominent in Aberdeen’s game, being able to maintain possession to launch another attack if their first attempt fails is not only an integral part of a ‘sustained attack’ philosophy, but of almost any approach against strong opposition.
On many occasions this season, particularly against teams in the top six, this has been lacking. The sight of GMS on the flank, his teammates unable to get the ball to his feet, or isolated in hugely unfavourable situations, with no route to keep the ball and expected to drive the attack on his own has been a not wholly uncommon one at certain points this season.
Just as Aberdeen’s lack of stable possession in deep build-up resulted from their risk-averse central defenders, it is similar such behaviour from their central midfielders which presents difficulties in keeping the ball on the flank. In moments when the Dons do manage to bring the ball out of defence under control it is usually through McLean and/or Shinnie dropping deep to take possession and dictate play from deep. In doing so, they take themselves away from the centre of the pitch, towards the flanks or into the back line, where they are less likely to receive pressure. These movements though, as much as they make it difficult for the opponent to win the ball in high pressing, creates a disconnect in Aberdeen’s positional structure. With no central options the left side becomes disconnected from the right side, with the front and back ends of the structure becoming dependent on fullbacks shuttling from one end to the other.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues with Aberdeen’s risk-averse central midfielders is not that they start outside the centre. After all, it is a perfectly viable tactic to evade central pressing and to focus on the flanks. Rather it is that often there are minimal adjustments to their positioning once the ball moves to a different area. Kenny McLean might be useful in one moment in the fullback position, but once the ball moves to the other side there should be some means for the ball to go back through the centre – either through him moving there or a teammate taking up that position.
A soft centre
The problems caused by Aberdeen’s absence of central options, however, extend far beyond being forced forwards on the flanks. With a vacant centre in possession, Aberdeen are left incredibly vulnerable should they lose it, as neither central midfielder is able to prevent the opponent from cutting straight through the centre on the counter attack.
While this scenario is relatively rare due to how few risks Aberdeen take in those phases, another situation presents a similar problem. As the ball is brought to the attacking third, there is a large distance between the midfield and defensive lines. This results in the defensive line losing access to the area behind their midfield teammates, as the distances involved make it impossible for them to step forwards to defend there. Instead, they drop back when the ball is lost, which gives the opponent yet more room to bring the ball forward on the counter attack.
Seeing how devastating this dynamic can be makes Graeme Shinnie’s role in central midfield even more remarkable. That he can generally keep opposing counterattacks at bay, left largely on his own to protect a huge area in moments when the stakes are at their highest is a testament to his supreme athletic ability and reading of the game. This probably goes a long way towards explaining why the Aberdeen captain receives so many bookings. Being exposed so often with the threat of dangerous counterattacks often leads to him committing tactical fouls, with a yellow card being lesser of the two evils.
A soft centre (II)
The Dons’ pressing sees similar issues. Against poorly organised opposition, Aberdeen will have success in their pressing game, since collectively resisting pressure requires a level of coordination. These opponents will struggle oftentimes simply due to the intensity of the pressure, which reduces the time and space they have on the ball beyond what they’re capable of dealing with. As a result, Aberdeen can force long balls to their dominant back line and disrupt the build-up play of most of their opponents.
Against higher level teams, however, their rigid marking starts to fall apart. These teams typically have players with the individual qualities to overcome their marker, and can cut through man-marking though collectively coordinated positioning and movement.
As with their transition defence, this is perhaps most noticeable in the centre. Since the central midfielders focus more on marking a man than preventing the ball from moving up the pitch, the opposition are allowed to bring the ball into their half without much pressure. Simple movements can create large spaces between the midfielders for passes to be played. Moreover, such is the disconnection between the defensive and midfield lines even in organised pressing, that midfielders can be brought forwards, leaving large spaces to play between the lines. Against teams with any sort of fluent positional possession, these spaces can be exploited again and again, resulting in Aberdeen being rendered unable to prevent their opponents’ progression.
In the defensive line, man-marking seems to take priority over defensive stability. Shay Logan’s excursions away from the right back position leave the area completely empty, which Celtic have at times gleefully taken advantage of – Kieran Tierney bursting forwards or Moussa Dembele pulling his central defensive marker out wide for a 1v1 in space. Meanwhile, the centrebacks themselves can find themselves pulled drastically out of position when marking. When defending crosses, it is conventional wisdom to have central defenders (the presumed aerially dominant players in a team) defending in an area where they are likely to have to head crosses clear. However, in their quest to rigidly stick to their man, Aberdeen’s centrebacks can often find themselves at the corner of the box for crosses, having followed a striker looking to combine with the winger delivering the ball in.
Defending the flanks in the first place can also be challenging. Since the fullbacks rigidly mark the opposition wingers, the task of defending against any overlapping runs from the opponent’s own fullbacks falls solely on Aberdeen wingers. Not only does this remove the winger as a counter attacking option as they are dragged further and further back towards the defensive line, but wingers do not tend to make for the most competent defending players. Furthermore, in being dragged into the back line as an auxiliary fullback, the man-marking winger is entirely unable to cover in the middle for central teammates, thus further contributing to Aberdeen’s soft centre.
Their rigid, full pitch man to man pressing is uncharacteristically risky. By marking each opponent directly, they gain access to each short passing option from the opposition goalkeeper, but are also left without a spare man at the back to assist in defending longer passes. When they do choose to maintain an overload in the defensive line for these situations, they do so at the expense of leaving an opponent unmarked somewhere closer to the ball. In a defensive scheme focused entirely on staying close to a direct opponent to prevent them from receiving, without any consideration for blocking passing lanes or covering teammates, the results can be catastrophic. Well-coordinated opponents with basic regard for spacing can use the Dons’ defensive tactics against them, pulling markers away from a free player before giving him the ball in an advantage situation.
Unfortunately for Aberdeen, one such competition in which they are almost guaranteed to face such opponents is the Europa League. While the teams the Dons will face in the early qualifying rounds might not be at the same level individually, they are almost all at least fairly well organised – better so than the vast majority of Aberdeen’s domestic rivals.
Therein, perhaps, lies the biggest obstacle to Aberdeen’s progression, both at home and abroad. While their playing style and tactics are unquestionably good enough to see them secure European places through their league position, the limitations in their approach make it exceedingly difficult for them to progress beyond the early qualifying stages.
Moreover, personnel changes will likely increase the need for a strong and flexible tactical approach. The loss of Kenny McLean, along with the news that Ryan Christie will not be returning to Pittodrie next season, takes away two of Derek McInnes’ top performers, reducing their ability to count on individual brilliance to win them games.
The adjustments necessary for Aberdeen to move towards the next step of progressing further in their European campaigns are by no means extreme. Even a simple, decently compact defensive block focused on defending the centre of the pitch (not dissimilar from what Steve Clarke managed to implement in Kilmarnock in the space of a fortnight) would serve them considerably better both in Europe and against Celtic than their current system.
As for their play with the ball, there is no real need for sweeping changes. Simple adjustments could be made to aid their ability to keep possession under minimal pressure, and their direct game would thrive with small changes to the midfielders’ positioning and movement. Of course, a move to incisive positional play is probably out of reach for this squad, but that does not necessarily exclude the possibility of adopting different styles of possession. Indeed, a stability and flank-focused approach could potentially suit Aberdeen, especially considering some of the common dynamics already in use.
With all three Scottish clubs in the Europa League unseeded in their opening ties, the mission to lift the country’s European coefficient is not going to be easy. However, with some clever recruitment and some tweaks to Euro-proof their tactical approach, Aberdeen could be well placed to help turn around Scotland’s European fortunes.