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Saturday 20th April 2024:  kick-off 12.30pm

Scottish Cup Semi-Final - Aberdeen v Celtic

🔴⚪️ Come on you Reds! ⚪🔴

Terracepodcast: Mid-Term Report Card: Aberdeen


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In pre-season, when The Terrace team stared into the crystal ball we foresaw a positive campaign for Aberdeen and new boss Derek McInnes. The manager has had a history of success in this league and the squad was strengthened in the summer. Only the most cynical of supporters would have thought they were in for another bottom six finish. Unfortunately for McInnes and the team you're unlikely to meet a more cynical beast than an Aberdeen supporter, having had their once hopeful outlook on life battered into submission by years of underachievement.

 

Form v Projections

 

Aberdeen were the pre-season favourites to finish second. They are second. Next category please.

 

Naturally, it isn’t quite as simple as that. The widespread belief that the Dons were in for a decent season was based largely on conjecture, a good squad and an ambitious manager offsetting the fact that they hadn’t so much as troubled the top six, let alone second, since the 2008-09 season. With these doubts likely to have occupied the minds of many, the fact that Aberdeen are sitting so high up the table, with a mid-season points total greater than three out of the last four seasons in their entirety, is highly impressive. The haul of 41 points hasn’t been based on a single good run of form either - the Dons haven’t gone more than two games without a win all season.

 

Still in both cups and sitting second. If any Aberdeen supporter told you back in July they thought the first half of the season would go this smoothly, they were probably lying.

Grade: A

 

 

Defence

 

Despite featuring a few different combinations of personnel due to injuries, the back line has been reliable. A good collection of centre-halves is partly to thank for this: Andy Considine, Michael Hector, Russell Anderson and, in particular, Mark Reynolds have all put in excellent shifts in the centre of defence. Even Jamie Langfield has enjoyed respite from his persistent critics, a couple of recent mistakes from corners the only black marks against an otherwise strong season.

 

This abundance of similarly central defenders has caused problems at full-back though. Joe Shaughnessy, himself more suited to a central role, has been at right back for most of the season, although even he was replaced by Hector in the last few matches. Left back has been a vacuum since Clark Robertson picked up a knee injury against Motherwell in the cup, with itinerant cover provided by Reynolds, Considine and latterly even Jonny Hayes, none of whom are ideal there. McInnes’ intentions for versatile defender Alan Tate aren’t yet clear, but it has been years since Aberdeen were sufficiently stocked at full back.

Grade: B+

 

 

Attack

 

A real concern in recent years, the encouraging spread of goals throughout the team (with 15 different scorers in all competitions so far) has at least dispelled accusations of an over-reliance on Niall McGinn. A lot of this is down to a fairly fluid attacking line up; three mobile attacking midfielders normally lining up behind a central striker has proved difficult to defend effectively. The real star has been Peter Pawlett, taking advantage of a free role in the centre with surging runs and uninhibited creativity, he’s been in the middle of most of Aberdeen’s penetrating attacking play. McGinn’s form has picked up after a slow start, scoring a couple of screamers in the process, while Hayes and Barry Robson have provided good creative support.

 

The first round of fixtures mostly featured Calvin Zola as the lone central striker, the second Scott Vernon. While neither are perfect, it seems the centre-forward’s role in this system is primarily to bring others into play, which could explain modest goal hauls for each. Scott Vernon seems to be the better all-round option, despite some recent high-profile misses, but Zola’s return from injury means he could be featuring again soon. Either way, more goals from the in-situ centre-forward shouldn’t be too great of an expectation.

Grade: B

 

 

Management

 

Since officially taking over last April, Derek McInnes and Tony Docherty have barely put a foot wrong. They have the team playing in a confident, proactive style, in stark contrast to the last few years at AFC. They aren’t content with holding onto the ball and restricting the opposition - McInnes recently expressed frustration at the team after a tepid yet tight first half at Tannadice for not being adventurous enough on the ball, despite having more possession and chances than the hosts.

 

The attention to detail has been admirable too. Almost a third of the Dons’ league goals have come in the last fifteen minutes, while several individuals, most notably Pawlett, look visibly fitter and stronger. These improvements in fitness are doubtless helped by the appointment of Graham Kirk as head of sport science in October.  While it’s unlikely to be a Grampian branch of the Milan Lab, developments like this are indicative of a far more thorough approach.

 

The sheer number of people who have tried and failed suggests that managing Aberdeen is a particularly difficult job. The highest compliment you can pay McInnes and his team is that they are making it look easy.

Grade: A

 

 

Signings

 

A bit more of a mixed bag. Barry Robson and Willo Flood have brought undoubted quality and energy to the midfield, although the presence of each has been sporadically interrupted by injury. Calvin Zola, although perhaps a useful presence as a lone target man, hasn’t contributed enough goals or assists to make up for a cumbersome style preyed upon by critical supporters. Gregg Wylde hasn’t been able to force his way into the side, he’s amassed ten appearances in total (with just four starts) and has not been spotted in SPFL action since November. A terrific twelve minute cameo at Easter Road his only outstanding contribution to date, he seems to lack the same level of skill or dynamism possessed by Hayes, Robson or McGinn out wide. Arguably the most successful signing has been a ruefully temporary one, with Michael Hector displaying all the attributes of a quality defender before his loan deal expired this month.

Grade: B-

 

 

Youth

 

The depth of the squad has meant opportunities for fresh youngsters have been limited. Cammy Smith, the only Dons teenager to have featured in the Premiership, starred in a cup win at Falkirk, while Nicky Low’s free-kick winner against Ross County in December gilded a breakthrough performance as an inverted winger. 18 year-old summer signing Lawrence Shankland has been prolific for the under-20s, but is yet to make it off the bench for the firsts. Full-back Craig Murray has drawn praise too, and can be expected to add to his start in the League Cup and fleeting substitute league appearances during the second half of the season.

 

It’s worth remembering though, that relatively recent youth graduates can now be counted among the established first team regulars, like Shaughnessy, Pawlett, Robertson and Jack. Ryan Jack is still just 21. It feels like he’s been around for ever. I’m sure he came off the bench in the 2000 League Cup Final.

Grade: B-

 

 

Need to do better

 

Despite a positive start to the season, some old habits die hard. There is still evidence that the Dons struggle to break down teams at Pittodrie when the pressure is on to attack and dominate a match, exemplified most recently during the loss to Motherwell. A big, fearless performance against Celtic would also be welcome, since they’ve taken a fairly comfortable six points from the meetings so far. Parkhead in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup would be a good place to make amends.

 

 

Prospects for the rest of the season

 

With the bar raised so far this campaign, second place is a realistic expectation. The squad is stronger than the nearest challengers Motherwell and Dundee United, although the relative inexperience of being at the more enjoyable end of the table in recent years is a potential issue when things get serious in April and May. A return to Europe, at the very least, is a must.

 

More immediately pressing is the League Cup. A semi-final against St Johnstone at the end of this month has Dandies simultaneously thrilled, frantic and terrified at the feasible prospect of legitimate trophy-enshrined success. Aberdeen’s cup woes have been wearyingly well documented and, with the aforementioned Scottish Cup tie at Celtic putting a slight dampener on hopes in the other domestic cup, the match on the 1st of February has taken on even greater importance.

 

McInnes, like most incumbents at Pittodrie, has been swift to praise the enthusiastic Reds’ support. If he brings the League Cup up the A90 in March, expect that praise to be reciprocated, and then some.

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