It was another draw for St Johnstone on Saturday and another week without a Premiership win.
Courier Sport assesses the contribution of the referee to a frustrating conclusion to the Livingston match, as well as a tactical change that may prove to be a significant step forward.
Two wrongs and not much right
You didn’t have to be a clairvoyant to predict Graham Grainger would go on to have a big impact on this game for all the wrong reasons.
With little over a minute on the clock his decision to book Sven Sprangler for as innocuous a foul as you could ever wish to see put down a deeply concerning marker.
From that moment on, the players would have had no faith that here was a man who could be trusted to get bigger calls right if he was pulling his yellow card out in these circumstances.
Liam Gordon shouldn’t have had his arms out when engaging Joel Nouble in a race for the ball that carried no real danger to the Saints goal.
But the contact on the Livingston defender didn’t warrant a penalty and Grainger was too far away to make that sort of game-defining intervention.
🔵🟡 St Johnstone remain in search for their first league win of the season after a 1-1 home draw with Livingston – with the Perthshire side being reduced to ten-men late on 👇 pic.twitter.com/7NQSsjBeSB
— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) September 30, 2023
It wasn’t as impactive on the result, but his decision to send Gordon off was also wrong.
All in all, it was the worst display of refereeing I’ve seen this season so far.
That Grainger – and his rush to point to the spot, in particular – had a detrimental impact on this match and Saints’ season needs no explaining.
The bigger point, one which is becoming a week on week theme, is the ‘clear and obvious error’ threshold.
Referees and VAR officials are hiding behind it.
It’s either a penalty or it isn’t. This one fell into the latter category.
If VAR (which the clubs are paying handsomely for) can’t help right that sort of wrong, it has no place in our game.
And I’m afraid that Graham Grainger has no place refereeing in the Premiership until he’s shown he can do much, much better than this on a consistent basis.
Tactical change and performance reward
The last half-hour wasn’t good.
Saints were knocked out of their stride by the Livingston equaliser and the unjust nature of it.
They lost their rhythm and there wasn’t another chance of note from that moment on.
That shouldn’t have happened.
If anything they should have been fuelled by a ‘world is against us’ mentality’.
MacLean made a bold decision to switch to a back three (and play two wingers in the wing-back roles, as well as a strike partnership).
We’re not talking about pass and move perfection here, or anything close to it, but there was a goal and three near things at one end and none at the other.
The combination play was encouraging.
Sprangler and Dan Phillips are going to be absolutely vital to Saints’ hopes of staying up.
The former starting the move that culminated in Dara Costelloe’s goal by showcasing his best assets, and then likewise the latter, bodes well for the weeks ahead.
They complement each other nicely.
And the link-up work between Luke Jephcott and Costelloe for the Irishman’s opportunity a minute after his opener was a snapshot of how their game-styles may ham and egg effectively.
I’m not convinced Luke Robinson has a long-term future as a left-sided centre-back – nor Gordon as a right-sided one.
But things felt a good deal more secure with three central defenders than two.
And it didn’t stifle the forward movement of the wing-backs. Carey, especially, made as much of a creative imprint on the match as he has done in previous fixtures as a more conventional wide forward or off the front operator.
This is the system that suits Saints best at this stage of the season.
It would be a big shock if MacLean reverts to a back four at Pittodrie on Sunday.