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4 St Johnstone talking points as huge win in Dingwall gives Michael Stewart the answer he was struggling to find in latest Craig Levein episode

The Perth side are now 11 points clear of automatic relegation.

Michael Stewart questioned St Johnstone's direction of travel under Craig Levein but they're now up to ninth in the table.
Michael Stewart questioned St Johnstone's direction of travel under Craig Levein but they're now up to ninth in the table. Images: SNS.

St Johnstone have won away in the league at long last.

On a day in which the captain and their two star central midfielders were sidelined, Craig Levein’s side also have their first victory since the winter break.

Courier Sport picks out four talking points from the 1-0 defeat of Ross County that has season-defining potential.

Kimpioka and Sidibeh

Benji Kimpioka’s winning goal was managerial wisdom meeting individual talent.

In picking a lone striker formation for this match, there are plenty of coaches who would have gone for one of the safer options available, such as starting a hold-the-ball-up type like DJ Jaiyesimi or Chris Kane, a grafter like Stevie May, or your best all-round centre-forward and likeliest to get you a goal from a set-piece, Nicky Clark.

It was a brave call for Levein to choose Kimpioka, whose performances in his two previous starts had been largely underwhelming.

He likely thought Saints could glean more joy out of getting the former Sunderland man in behind the County defence than by building counter-attacks more slowly.

And he was proved to be spot-on with that judgment.

Given Levein spoke in public about the 23-year-old needing to relax and be less hard on himself, you can also presume he’s directly used his man-management skills through the week to reinforce the same message.

In the moment that mattered, Kimpioka was ready to pounce on a defensive slip and the contrast between the penalty box anxiety of his debut and the way in which he toyed with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson before passing the ball into the far corner was striking.

It resulted in the goal and win Saints needed.

And it should also result in Kimpioka’s confidence soaring and the fear in Scottish defenders heading in the same direction.

Benji Kimpioka celebrates his goal.
Benji Kimpioka celebrates his goal. Image: SNS.

You can imagine Levein being equally satisfied with what he got from Kimpioka’s 59th minute replacement.

Adama Sidibeh might just be as quick as his new team-mate and looks to have an even broader footballing repertoire.

He won headers, pinned centre-halves and ran the channels like the forward his previous manager at Warrington Rylands so enthusiastically described in the wake of the deadline day transfer.

At the end of one powerful surge down the right he sent over an excellent cross for fellow sub, Clark, that nearly produced a second goal.

We didn’t get to see Sidibeh’s shooting ability tested but, any Saints fans in Dingwall paying attention to the pre-match warm-up would see that the signs are good on that front as well.

Adama Sidibeh at full-time.
Adama Sidibeh at full-time. Image: SNS.

There were five forwards on the bench so Levein is going to have plenty of options up front in the next few weeks and months.

Pairing Kimpioka and Sidibeh will be one of them. In time, it won’t need to be a case of either/or.

Game management

The three Motherwell matches this season stick in the mind for the wrong reasons even though Saints didn’t lose any of them – chiefly because they were unable to hold on to a lead on each occasion.

The most recent one is perhaps a red herring when you take into account how early Levein’s team scored and the other shortcomings on show that day.

But the point about improvement being needed to see a game out remained.

On Saturday, Saints were possibly guilty of dropping a bit deep for 10 minutes after they got themselves in front and again after the half-time interval when County were pinning them into their defensive third.

But Levein timed his two hour-mark substitutions exactly right – and the tactical tweak that went with it.

Thereafter, Saints were able to relieve the pressure more effectively.

And, for Dimitar Mitov to not be seriously tested in the last half hour was a triumph of game-management.

St Johnstone's Craig Levein and Dimitar Mitov at full-time.
Craig Levein and Dimitar Mitov at full-time. Image: SNS.

In fact, given County’s need to throw the kitchen sink in their direction, it was probably the best example of it this season.

Encouraging cameos

Kimpioka and Sidibeh were the strikers in the Highland spotlight but Clark’s half-hour display could prove to be a very important one.

This was a different story to his substitute appearance for a similar period seven days earlier.

The touch was surer, the runs better and his presence more impactive.

It could well be the precursor to Clark becoming Saints’ chief goal-scoring threat once more.

Another impressive cameo was Dare Olufunwa’s.

The former Liverpool and Southampton defender exorcised some Dingwall demons.

Dare Olufunwa.
Dare Olufunwa. Image: SNS.

Taken off at half-time in the one-sided August defeat, he was the man being sent on after the interval at right wing-back six months later.

You can sense Levein’s faith in Olufunwa rising and this was probably the most accomplished performance of his short Perth career.

He was positionally diligent and chose the right moments to support counter-attacks.

The starters got Saints in front and all the subs played a big part in ensuring it stayed that way.

Double figure gap

Judging by the long Radio Scotland pause, Michael Stewart didn’t seem to have an answer to Rory Loy’s question put to him about St Johnstone fans accepting the Premiership table position their team were in before kick-off in Dingwall, had it been offered when Craig Levein took over from Steven MacLean.

You won’t find many dissatisfied with the one they’re in now that the game has been played, that’s for sure.

Ninth position, 11 points above automatic relegation, five above the play-off spot and two short of Dundee and the top six.

It’s the double figures gap to 12th that is most significant, of course.

We’re only just into February and may have already reached the point where Saints supporters can start dismissing the idea that their team will go straight down.

If Loy is back on Sportsound with Stewart in midweek, I’d imagine the same question will be getting asked again.