St Johnstone will be the underdogs in their Betfred Cup semi-final against Hibs and Eric Nicolson analyses what Callum Davidson and his players have to get right to upset the odds.
We’ve got two young managers coming up against each other who are big on their tactics and systems. Callum Davidson and Jack Ross will both put a lot of thought into the formations they deploy at Hampden Park. What will the Saints boss do?
Davidson has long since settled on his favoured formation at the back. Even when he has been without one or more of his regular central defenders, the three in the middle set-up hasn’t changed. And he’s not about to have a back-four conversion for a cup semi-final.
Scott Tanser will play to the left of Jamie McCart, Liam Gordon and Jason Kerr and, unless James Brown has trained incredibly well this week, Shaun Rooney will be the right wing-back.
The intrigue is to be found in whether Davidson goes with two in central midfield and his arrow up front, or three in the middle and two forwards.
The physical midfield strength Hibs possess (they went with a three in their last game against Kilmarnock) would be one reason I’d choose to match-up numerically in that area.
The other reason would be it has the knock-on consequence of sticking with an attacking combination that has gelled quickly and produced three goals and two good results.
So it’s a 5-3-2 of sorts for Saints. Who will be in it?
As I’ve said, it would be a bold, bold decision to throw Brown into the deep end so the five mentioned above are the obvious starters.
It was Ali McCann, Craig Bryson and David Wotherspoon who played in midfield against St Mirren but that trio didn’t give Davidson the mix of energy and control he will need at Hampden.
I would take Bryson out.
Liam Craig has started twice against Hibs this season and played very well on both occasions, which will no doubt be in Davidson’s thoughts. He’s also the best player Saints have for switching the angle of attack to get the wing-backs up the pitch.
But I’d go with Murray Davidson to start. He’s still one of the best around at disrupting an opposition side’s flow and will win you headers in midfield and both boxes.
McCann and Wotherspoon simply have to play. There’s no debate to be had there.
Up top, it wouldn’t shock me if Davidson broke up the Chris Kane-Guy Melamed partnership and replaced the Israeli with Stevie May.
Melamed has markedly improved his off the ball work since his first Premiership start against Hibs, when he toiled to get into the game in any meaningful way, but even if he was a Saints player for the next five years he’ll not get to Kane or May’s level for the selfless stuff.
And you could hear Davidson cajoling Melamed from the touchline last Saturday to close down the St Mirren defenders when they were trying to pass their way out.
But I’d still resist the temptation to change, though.
With two wing-backs, three midfielders and the industrious Kane, Davidson will have enough back-tracking players on the pitch to accommodate a quick-thinking forward who will come alive in and around the penalty box as he did to such impressive effect against St Mirren and Dundee United.
You also have to think about the league games to follow – benching Melamed would have a demoralising impact on a player whose confidence has soared in the space of a fortnight.
They are not the perfect partnership by any description but Kane and Melamed have earned their semi-final starting places.
Where do Saints have to raise their game from last weekend to succeed?
I’ve mentioned midfield but Saturday was a rare off day in that department. I’ll be amazed if there isn’t a big improvement.
More pertinent is will the wing-backs will be able to impact the game as Davidson needs them to?
Rooney was signed by Tommy Wright as a right-back but, ironically, he now looks better suited to right centre-back in Davidson’s three. He can’t be expected to reach Danny McNamara’s standard of pass and move football excellence but there is great importance on Rooney making the correct decisions when he’s in the final third of the pitch.
On the other side, it’s over a month since Scott Tanser was at his best.
Saints are strongly favouring the left with their attacks since McNamara returned to Millwall – that trend was actually developing before his departure – so the onus on the Englishman to pick out Kane, Melamed and Wotherspoon is higher than on Rooney.
Tanser and Rooney were numbers one and three in terms of touches of the ball for Saints against St Mirren yet neither of them registered a ‘good open play cross’ in the whole match as defined by Opta.
Tanser v Paul McGinn and Rooney v Josh Doig are winnable head-to-heads for Saints and can define this semi-final.
What else could tip the balance in Saints’ favour at Hampden?
The return of Jason Kerr for starters.
There’s obviously the fact that in Davidson’s words, ‘he’s my captain and he’s my leader’.
But, specifically with Hibs in mind, he’s a player whose forward darts in the first match between these teams at McDiarmid Park had the opposition players (and Ross, who tried to alter his formation and personnel to negate them) perplexed.
Kerr stuck predominantly to his defensive duties on his comeback against St Mirren, particularly when there was a one-goal lead to protect, but expect him to step into midfield and beyond more regularly in this game.
The channel between Doig and Paul Hanlon is ripe for exploiting and Kerr can be an important weapon in doing so.
If this semi-final is going to be as tight as many are predicting, who can Saints expect to come off the bench and win it for them?
Expect might be putting it a bit strong so I’ll restrain myself to hope.
If there’s one player who has the skillset to transform this Saints team from good to very good, it’s O’Halloran.
Davidson can find other ways to make his system work but it would be a lot easier with raw pace. In theory, O’Halloran should be perfect for this side.
The best individual Saints display this season has been his at Motherwell in this competition. He was unplayable and ruthlessly exposed left-back Ricki Lamie that afternoon to inspire the comeback victory.
Since then he got injured at Celtic Park, sent off for a second time this season as a late substitute against his old club, Rangers, squandered a golden chance to score a late winner against Hamilton and was poor in his last start in Dingwall.
There simply isn’t the body of work to make it worth a gamble starting him, even though the big Hampden pitch and that potential left-side vulnerability of Hibs are circumstances O’Halloran should thrive in.
Those same circumstances could still be in play if he is introduced later in the match, though – more so, in fact, when defensive legs are beginning to tire.
The last time Saints faced Hibs in a semi-final was the last time O’Halloran played for the Perth club in his first spell before being sold to Rangers the day after.
He was the talisman of that 2015/16 team and his performance at Tynecastle, perhaps understandably given the inevitability of his deadline day transfer, was a huge anti-climax.
It’s Hibs again. It’s the League Cup last four again. A Michael O’Halloran-inspired St Johnstone win would have perfect symmetry to it.