2020/21 Season Preview - Ross County: Defensive Patch Up Required
The promoted side from last season, making it the 8th consecutive season where the recently promoted side were not relegated, the last being Dunfermline in 2012. The promoted County didn't have the greatest of seasons but were only about to be dragged into a relegation fight just as the league was effectively cancelled. Before the pandemic, County were leapfrogged by St Mirren via goal difference landing County a 10th place finish before they could fight for their survival, possibly a blessing in disguise.
I say this may be a blessing in disguise as County were clearly one of the worst teams defensively last season. A shocking 60 goals conceded was 8 more than bottom side Hearts and was an average of 2 goals conceded in every game. Comparing this to the standard the previous season, County were only 6 goals off St Mirren who finished 11th and played 8 fewer games and with County's defensive form. However, the main bulk of these goals conceded all came at the hands of the league's top sides. County seem to really struggle against the teams nearer the top, conceding 3+ goals on more than one to occasion to Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Livingston whilst also taking leaking many against Hibs and Motherwell. Stunningly, out of the 60 goals conceded by County, 46 of them came against the top 6, with a further 6 goals against Hibs meaning Ross County's record against teams closer to their level is not too catastrophic, a record of 8 in 9 games.
Regardless, County's defensive issues will need to be repaired as conceding so many goals every second week or so will eventually catch up to them and with a lot of sides improving their squads, it could get even worse. The defence will be slightly new look, with the departure of Richard Foster and club captain Marcus Fraser meaning replacements are needed. The loss of Fraser will sting the most, with the defender joining rivals St Mirren and strengthening one of County's rivals at the tail end of the table. In order to patch things up. County have taken up free agent and veteran defender Carl Tremarco following 7 years at Inverness. County have a knack of taking some of Caley Thistle's best players in recent years and will be hoping the past experiences of certain squad players tenures together will lead to better results on the pitch. Tremarco is coming toward the end of his career but still featured heavily for Inverness and provides valuable experience in the top flight. Former Hearts loanee Connor Randall will fill the gap left by Richard Foster with the 24-year-old looking to make an impact following a spell in the Bulgarian leagues. Whether these additions will be good enough to transform County's goal difference is yet to be seen but a lot of focus from manager Stuart Kettlewell will surely be on patching up the backline.
Although County showed defensive weakness, their attack still looks very impressive for a club of their stature. County can boast many decent options in the form of Ross Stewart and Billy McKay, with Lee Erwin providing support and the highly regarded Oli Shaw within their ranks too. Compared to other sides near the bottom, County have plenty of firepower which was on show last season, both McKay and Stewart scoring 7 apiece with the latter suffering injuries through most of the season. Ross Stewart is an excellent forward and had his season not been plagued by injuries, he surely would have hit double figures and boosted County's league position at the same time.
Stewart was looking a very bright prospect for County scoring all 7 of his goals before the New Year but injuries would see the striker only make 1 start in 2020. Stewart's absence was clearly noticeable with County only scoring 6 in 8 games during his time out. Stewart offers a lot to County with his size and aerial ability a hassle to defenders with 5 of his goals coming from headers. With Josh Mullin whipping in crosses, County offer a threat whenever they are in the final third with Stewart lurking around the penalty area. With constant speculation around the likes of Lyndon Dykes and Sam Cosgrove, there's no reason why Stewart can't reach a similar level this upcoming season if he can remain fully fit.
Possibly lucky to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle last season, County do seem to prove their worth against the lower sides in the league. However, whilst St Mirren have improved their squad and Dundee United take Hearts' place, the Staggies may find themselves closer to the bottom this time around. If the club's striking options can remain fit, they will be giving themselves a huge advantage over some of their rivals, especially if needing to chase goals through the ability to make 5 subs. Whether the defence is improved will surely define the club's season as they look certain to have a tough second season in the top flight.