Many factors have been at play as far as St Johnstone’s recent revival is concerned.
It started in the second half of the 4-2 defeat to Livingston, was evident to an extent in back to back defeats to Rangers and a home loss to Celtic and has shone brightest in two crucial away victories over Premiership bottom six rivals, Motherwell and Dundee United.
That’s 11 halves of football.
Not all of those halves have been eights or nines out of 10 but standards have never slipped below a six.
Formation tweaks and intangibles like attitude, confidence, opposition errors and frailties all come into the mix but the biggest single factor in the much-needed uplift has been the emergence of Dan Phillips and Cammy MacPherson as a mobile, combative, creative and positionally-astute central midfield combination.
Courier Sport takes a detailed look at the DMac duo that has helped transform Saints’ fortunes.
The manager and the team-mate
Stevie May was the match-winner at Tannadice on Saturday with his two goals but the club top scorer was keen to talk-up the impact made by the young midfielders behind him.
“Cammy and Dan have done really well,” he said.
“They are both aggressive and good on the ball and they can get around the park.
“We have had injuries along the way to different midfielders this season so for them to come in and form a good partnership and give us that energy is big.”
Head coach, Callum Davidson was pleased with both players’ contributions – as he has been since he paired them together for that second half versus Livi.
Phillips usually edges it on the post-match fan appreciation-ometer but this time, MacPherson was arguably the star turn.
Cammy MacPherson was different gravy the day, scary to think how young him and Phillips are
— Penny (@RoryPennycook17) February 18, 2023
“Cammy was outstanding on Saturday,” said Davidson. “I think that was one of his best games for us.
“We all know what he can do when he’s fully fit and feeling strong. If he can stay injury-free he’ll go from strength to strength.
“What we’ve seen in training from him is what people are now seeing on the pitch.
“He’s comfortable on the ball, he has a good range of passing, he’s got energy and he can defend – so all the ingredients are there.
“The partnership with Dan is really working for us. They complement each other and hopefully it will continue to grow.”
The tag-team goal
The most significant visual representation of the Phillips-MacPherson effect has been as basic as it comes.
Quite simply, yawning gaps in the middle of the pitch were becoming all too frequent at the end of December and start of January when opponents turned defence into attack.
Others, like Ali Crawford and Graham Carey, have the nous to know what needs to be done to plug holes but Phillips and MacPherson have the legs.
On countless occasions they have snuffed out danger, with Dylan Levitt’s equaliser a rare example of one of them (MacPherson) making the wrong split-second decision in trying to nick the ball rather than bide his time.
The signature goal for the duo was Saturday’s opener.
— St. Johnstone FC (@StJohnstone) February 20, 2023
Phillips (with the help of Drey Wright) forced Steven Fletcher into turning over possession just outside the Saints box then the Trinidad and Tobago international and MacPherson quickly transitioned defence into counter-attack.
Just 14 seconds later, Saints were 1-0 up.
It turned out neither MacPherson nor Phillips was needed when Melker Hallberg crossed from the right.
But by the time May was drawing his right foot back one (MacPherson) had sprinted the length of the pitch to join his centre-forward in the penalty area and the other was slowing down on the D, ready to pick up anything that came back out.
StatsBomb numbers show complementing skillsets
Phillips is building up an increasingly impressive StatsBomb individual radar.
There aren’t many midfielders in the country who have as wide a spread of numbers as his in all 11 key metrics.
It’s the definition of an ‘all-round’ operator.
His nearest like for like in the Premiership is Livingston’s Stephane Omeonga – and that is no bad thing.
Their games have an 81% similarity.
And if you’re seeking to find a midfielder who has left Scotland whose playing-style in the Premiership was the closest fit, it’s ex-Dundee United star, Jeando Fuchs.
Phillips’ complete game in itself is clearly of great value to Saints.
But when you place MacPherson’s (blue) radar on top of it you can see that the pair have an even better coverage of the 11 bases between them.
This is a genuine partnership of complementing skillsets.
Room for improvement
The most exciting bit about the Perth central midfield double-act is neither has reached a performance ceiling.
They’re young, relatively inexperienced in terms of game-time at this level and haven’t started more than handful of games in a row as individuals or together.
It’s a football cliché but he did the job of two players, particularly in the double-winning season.
Putting McCann’s radar (blue) on the same page as Phillips’ doesn’t send a shiver down the spine, though.
There are four facets of the game – deep progressions, successful dribbles, xG assists and turnovers – in which the former Chelsea and Watford player’s numbers are actually higher than those of the Preston North End man.
And for another three – xG build-up, passing and pressures – it’s close.
It will come as no shock that McCann’s area of expertise is tackling and intercepting.
If Phillips and MacPherson can combine to lift their output on that front, their influence on this St Johnstone team will be raised to the next plane.