Surprise Packages Of The Season So Far

By Rory West (@rorywest96)

We’re only four games into the new Scottish Premiership but there has already been plenty of surprises thrown up. Hibs’ victory over Rangers at Ibrox, then Hamilton going to Easter Road and thrashing Hibs, St Johnstone picking up a point away to Celtic and Aberdeen finishing the first set of fixtures top of the league. However, in this post I am focusing more on individual players who have surprised so far.

Olivier Ntcham – Celtic

Upon the midfielder’s arrival at Celtic Park from Manchester City, despite his £4 million transfer fee, not many expected him to slot straight into Celtic’s starting XI, especially in place of last season’s star man Stuart Armstrong.

While part of the reason behind Ntcham playing was Armstrong’s contractual situation, there was huge pressure on him for taking this spot. And he hasn’t disappointed. An unfamiliar player for many, he surprised with his style of play. As someone who has only ever been made aware of Ntcham through Football Manager, I never expected him to be as deep a midfield player than he is. His calming presence on the ball and ability to find forward players has masked the absence of Armstrong.

With Armstrong signing a contract extension and impressing on international duty for Scotland, it will be interesting to see who lines up in the Celtic midfield away to Hamilton this weekend.

Greg Docherty – Hamilton Accies

Hamilton Accies have been the complete surprise package of the season so far. As every season, many had tipped Accies to be automatically relegated but they have started superbly. Currently sitting in fourth with two wins and a draw from four games, it has been an impressive start. And much of this success has come from their new talisman, Greg Docherty.

The hero from last season’s playoff final, with his goal in the victory over Dundee United, Docherty has taken that form and replicated it so far this season. With four assists in the opening four games, it looks as though Docherty will overtake Ali Crawford as Accies’ hottest property. His performance in the victory over Hibs, was outstanding and one where he got fans around the country properly sitting up and beginning to take notice of his work.

Despite being a mainstay in the Hamilton midfield for two years now, it has taken him until now to step into the spotlight and attempt to pull Hamilton out of another relegation battle. What is even more impressive, on Accies’ part, is that he signed to the club until the summer of 2020. While this doesn’t guarantee him staying for that length of time, it does mean that a reasonable sized fee would be required to prize him away fro Hamilton.

Simon Murray – Hibernian

Eyebrows were raised when Hibs decided to bring Dundee United striker Simon Murray to Easter Road. With the departure of the previous season’s top goalscorer Jason Cummings, many questioned Murray as his replacement.

Murray responded to these questions with five goals in the League Cup group stages. He continued that form into the Premiership, hitting two goals from four games, including one in the 3-2 victory at Ibrox.

While the goals have dried up for Murray in the previous two games, the addition of Anthony Stokes will surely help Murray and take some of the pressure of goals off his shoulders. You can’t deny the effort that Murray puts in each week but if he is to further his performances that he’s made so far, then he can’t settle for hard working performances without goals.

Michael O’Halloran – St Johnstone

Deemed surplus to requirements at Rangers by Pedro Caixinha , O’Halloran has used that as inspiration and fired himself to the August player of the month award. With four goals in four games for the Saints, he is the league’s top goalscorer and looking like the player that he was during his first spell at St Johnstone.

Playing in a more central position, he is using his blistering pace to effect. His new teammates have immediately struck the same wavelength as him and allowed him almost a free role around the forward areas.

With his Rangers career seeming over and his loan to St Johnstone expiring in January it will be interesting to see where he will end up after the January transfer window has closed. It would be a wise decision from Tommy Wright and St Johnstone to push the boat out and try to sign him up permanently, however a contract until 2020 with Rangers might be an obstacle to large for their budget to dodge.

Alfredo Morelos – Rangers

Out of all the summer arrivals, few would have expected Morelos to be the one, coming into the international break, receiving all the plaudits. Signed for a fee of £1 million from HJK Helsinki, the Colombian striker has notched five goals in his seven games for the club.

He manages to pick up great positions in the penalty area, often sneaking in between opposition centre halves. For someone who isn’t overly tall, his aerial ability has impressed so far with two of his goals coming from headers.

What has made Morelos the surprise package for Rangers is the players who also arrived at the club around him. Bruno Alves, Graham Dorrans, Ryan Jack and Carlos Pena to name a few who have came through the doors at Ibrox but none of them have set the world alight so far. If Rangers are going to have any success this season, I can see Morelos being a big part of it.

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So Close Yet So Far

By Rory West (@rorywest96)

It will take a while to get over the heartache of Saturday’s result. Those two minutes or so where we genuinely thought we were going to get one over the Auld Enemy were unforgettable. Yet, Harry Kane’s equaliser has left us in a place that doesn’t quite favour us.

But before getting to the negatives, the massive positives need to be taken into account. As a nation, doom and gloom is a regular occurrence when it comes to the national team but the overall performance against England was outstanding. Players such as Charlie Mulgrew and Christophe Berra, who haven’t been great for the national team in the past, played out their skins in an attempt to keep the English Premier League’s top marksman quiet.

Kieran Tierney, despite not having his best game this season, showed why he’s better than any left back that England have to offer. Also showing his qualities, filing in as part of a back three when England had the ball. This allowed Andy Robertson to get forward and attack Kyle Walker and with a bit more luck and composure he could have given Scotland the lead midway through the second half. Ikechi Anya at times looked slightly out of his depth but his pace was crucial getting Scotland up the pitch and winning fouls.

The Celtic midfield duo of Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong both proved pivotal in breaking up the play and transitioning defence to attack. While the pair weren’t as influential as they have been at times for Celtic this season they definitely played their part in this positive result.

One thing that has gone under the radar is, despite halting his usual game, Scott Brown’s early tackle on Dele Alli which he received a yellow card for, effect Alli’s performance as he was distinctly quiet and offered virtually nothing.

The only slight complaint on Armstrong’s front was, his highly talked about decision to not just blooter the ball clear when Scotland broke, in the build up to England’s goal. However in the heat of the moment, his body was facing the direction he passed the ball and for him it would have been the easiest ball to play. In Armstrong’s defence he wasn’t helped by his Celtic teammate in the sticks Craig Gordon.

Further up the park, Snodgrass and Morrison didn’t offer to much which was disappointing, especially on Snodgrass’ front. Since his hat-trick in Malta he hasn’t really kicked on as we all hoped he would and perhaps become the new James McFadden talisman we thought he might. He just never got involved and his lack of work rate never really suited the type of game Scotland were involved in. Scotland improved when Ryan Fraser came on for Snodgrass, making his Scotland debut. He offered more energy and a will to chase down balls, that Snodgrass wasn’t. He also won the free kick for the first goal by bravely going in for a challenge with Gary Cahill. Hopefully Fraser becomes more of a regular in this Scotland team. Morrison picked up an injury during the first half and had to be replaced but despite that he never offered much either. Often a passenger for Scotland, it may be time for James Morrison’s time in the national side to come to a close.

The main negative from the game was Craig Gordon’s performance in goals. Due to his constant run of games for Celtic it wasn’t a shock to see Gordon start over usual number one David Marshall but I can’t see many more appearances after this one. Gordon looked nervy throughout and was at fault for both the goals. Firstly he didn’t get a strong enough wrist behind Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot and then his positioning was all wrong for Kane’s equaliser. It was disappointing to see from Gordon who has performed so well consistently for Celtic this season.

Last but no least, the man who almost wrote himself into Scottish Football folklore, without saying he already hasn’t. Leigh Griffiths. “Catch him if you can, catch Scotland if you can” was the cry from Martin Tyler after Griffiths fired home the second of his two excellent free kicks. Both efforts were close to perfect as they flew past Joe Hart in the England goal. It was some way for the Celtic man to break his duct for Scotland, but his overall performance was almost equal to his goals. Griffiths’ effort to chase down every ball and close down every player at every opportunity was admirable.

The question is now, where does this result leave us? At this stage, with not much hope. A draw was a very credible result but in the circumstances, it was a disappointment. A win would have left us in a much better position to where we are now and would have given us a slightly better chance of qualification. While it is still unlikely, 12 points out of the final four games is almost a must. That will be a difficult task, but if we play like we did on Saturday we should give ourselves a chance.