• Angus McGregor

Goals, Recruitment, McInnes: The Problems At Aberdeen

A 1-0 loss away at Celtic Park in usual circumstances really isn't that poor of a result. A 1 goal margin at the home of the Champions in most seasons would be a badge of honour for most clubs but this isn't any normal season. For one, said Champions Celtic have been far from their best, looking vulnerable with the correct application, even at Celtic Park. Celtic's troubles have led to fans being largely unhappy with Neil Lennon but the same is now very apparent with their opponents from Wednesday night. The tide has turned in the Granite City as a number of Aberdeen supporters are now discontent with the current runnings under current boss Derek McInnes.

The defeat on Wednesday night will be more hurtful to a section of the Aberdeen support as it continues a number of very poor runs for the Dons in 2021. Aberdeen's form in 2021 has been abysmal with only 1 win coming so far this year and only picking up 7 points from a possible 27. This run has seen Hibernian jump above Derek McInnes' side as the reds failed to make use of their games in hand, now sitting 4 points behind Jack Ross' side with one more game played. At the beginning of 2021, Aberdeen sat in third place on 38 points, 2 ahead of Hibs, 13 points ahead of Dundee United, 14 points ahead of Livingston and 17 points ahead of St Mirren. Just over a month and a half later, they trail Hibs as previously mentioned but the gaps between the other top 6 contenders have been cut. Livingston are now only 6 points behind with St Mirren and Dundee United only 11 points behind.

This run alone has seen Aberdeen fail to beat Livingston, St Mirren and Dundee United at home whilst being unable to take three points in away games against Livi, St Johnstone and Ross County, with the latter being an embarrassing 4-1 loss. For a team of the stature of Aberdeen, it is unacceptable form and Aberdeen fans are more than right to be aggrieved with how things are going under McInnes. For the last few seasons, murmurs of discontent have begun to creep out within the Aberdeen support, with many thinking that he has taken them as far as he can. Regarding these claims from what was a small section of the Aberdeen support at the time, many would scoff, myself included, claiming what more could Aberdeen possibly want? However, this season certainly looks to have shifted things, with these claims gaining more weight along the way, making the question of whether McInnes' time is up, much more credible.

The most concerning aspect of the aforementioned poor run comes within the Dons goalscoring output or their lack of. The 1-0 loss at Celtic Park meant that Aberdeen has gone 6 games without scoring a goal for the first time in the club's history. Not only is it 0 in the last 6 but overall in 2021 Aberdeen have only scored 4 times in 10 games whilst conceding 11. In most of these games, Aberdeen have struggled to create a lot of clear cut chances, only having 4 or more shots on target in two of the fixtures, one of those being against 10 man Motherwell (8) and the other in that 4-1 defeat at Ross County.

This run could be described as a team being out of form but when you look at the season as a whole, it isn't pretty reading for McInnes. Comparing the 29 games played so far this season (20/21) to the 30 league games played last season (19/20), there has been a significant drop off in terms of goals. Aberdeen's current goal tally sits at 31 in 29 games, an average of 1.07 per game whilst last season the Dons sat on 40 goals in 30 games, an average of 1.33. The season prior (2018/19) saw Aberdeen average 1.5 goals per game and the 2017/18 season averaged 1.47 goals per game, showing a clear regression in terms of goals over the years.

Aberdeen's top goalscorer this season is Lewis Ferguson with 8 goals whilst Ryan Hedges trails with 4, the recently departed Sam Cosgrove on 3 and four different players currently sit on 2 each. Ferguson's tally looks impressive but 6 of these goals have been penalties which, of course, do count but does show how Aberdeen have relied on spot-kicks this season. The penalties have dried up and so has Ferguson's goal contributions, failing to score or assist in 14 games now. The next two highest goalscorers are now unavailable as Ryan Hedges picked up a shoulder injury against Livingston whilst Sam Cosgrove departed Pittodrie in the January transfer window, showcasing that things didn't look to be getting better any time soon for Derek McInnes' side.

McInnes, though, has the tough task of always having to reassemble teams, often losing a key attacking component within his side every season. Recent seasons has seen the likes of Adam Rooney, Ryan Christie, James Maddison, Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn leave holes in Derek McInnes' side whilst losing other key players such as Ryan Jack and Kenny McLean on free transfers. By losing quality such as this, there is some sympathy especially considering the lack of fees Aberdeen have received for a majority of their departing stars. However, in recent seasons, the transfer business done by Aberdeen simply hasn't been good enough.

It is important to remember that Aberdeen are currently in the process of building a new stadium and training facilities that will be taking up a chunk of Aberdeen's finances at this moment in time. The pandemic also won't have helped with matters as cutbacks will have been set to help ease pressure on finances. This has also prompted Aberdeen to accept deals for Scott McKenna and Sam Cosgrove, receiving deals lower than what they had rejected for both players in the past.

What will annoy Aberdeen fans, though, is how both transfers were completed late in the transfer window, giving Aberdeen very little time to bring in suitable replacements. McKenna in the summer departed for £3 million - with the possibility to rise to £6 million - but no real defensive recruits were brought in to fill the hole left by the young defender. In January, Sam Cosgrove departed for Birmingham for £2 million on the second last day of the window whilst Scott Wright made his move to Rangers on the same day. Ross McCrorie would arrive permanently in a swap for Wright but Aberdeen had to act fast in terms of bringing in some forwards to replace two departing players, as well as the recently injured Ryan Hedges.

Aberdeen brought in a couple of young players to help solve these issues in front of goal, notably Stade de Reims Scotland Under 21 striker Fraser Hornby and St Johnstone's Callum Hendry on loan. Joining the young duo was former Hibs and Rangers forward Florian Kamberi, joining on loan from Swiss side St Gallen. Only Kamberi has good experience at this level with Hendry bursting onto the scene last season for St Johnstone but has failed to make an impression under Callum Davidson so far this season whilst Hornby's career has been spent nearly entirely in under 21 or reserves action. Kamberi's best season in Scotland saw the forward score 13 times in 43 games, not numbers that suggest he will be the solution to Derek McInnes' problems. Regarding Hendry and Hornby, it's a lot of weight on the shoulders of two young players to hit the ground running, something they haven't done in their first four outings.

One Aberdeen player who does seem to have taken his chance is young Bruce Anderson who has 2 goals in his last 2 games whilst doing great work in the buildup for his team. Frustratingly for Aberdeen fans, he's doing this at his loan club Hamilton. It seems strange that Derek McInnes hasn't opted to give Anderson a chance considering how poor Aberdeen's attack has been, with there being plenty of opportunities for the youngster to be introduced since returning from his loan at Ayr United at the start of January. Anderson has really struggled to get minutes at Aberdeen as this four-game spell at Accies has brought the forward more game time than he ever has at Pittodrie. 4 games attributing to a total of 326 minutes already beats his best tally of 295 minutes in 14 appearances back in the 2018/19 Premiership season. Many will say that 'how could you know Anderson would be a hit?" and the simple answer is you will never know if you don't give him the chance, like what has happened so far under McInnes. If McInnes was just going to opt for a couple of young inexperienced players, why not use the one within your ranks already?

The recruitment issues will ultimately fall at the feet of Derek McInnes who will have to take some blame for this squad not being up to standard. Not only is the attack suffering but Aberdeen seem to be very light in a few other positions, particularly at full-back. At the club right now, only Greg Leigh and Shay Logan are recognised full-backs with the latter being out of contention entirely this season. Logan, the club's only right-back now with Ronald Hernandez departing to Atlanta on loan, has not started a game since the 4-0 loss against Rangers on the 22nd of November and was only the second time he had done so. For a side who play with wing-backs, the club are dreadfully short on natural players in that position, forcing Derek McInnes to drop the likes of Jonny Hayes, Matty Kennedy and Ross McCrorie into those positions. For three effective players in their natural positions to be shifted about, Aberdeen are losing a lot of productivity, especially from Hayes. Hayes has been the makeshift right wing-back for a large part of this season which has really restricted his attacking output, with only 1 goal and 3 assists in 26 appearances.

Aberdeen have mainly played a sort of 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 this season which may support not having adequate resources in said positions, with hopes that certain players can do a job if need be. The issue comes though that Aberdeen appear to now be boxed in and are forced to play this style regardless of whether it is going well or not. It was effective earlier on but as the season has continued, the returns have diminished severely. Aberdeen don't really have the option to switch things up now and even if they did, they're not stacked enough in certain positions to deal with the intensity of a season, with a couple of injuries possibly being disastrous. Yes, there are players capable of doing a job elsewhere but you lose so much from the likes of Jonny Hayes and Ross McCrorie by forcing them into weaker positions.

With this, its hard to not blame McInnes for not assembling his squad properly and it is definitely something that has cost Aberdeen this season. Aberdeen are too reliant on hoping this system works with very little plan B when it doesn't work so well. With one of the highest budgets in the league, there is no excuse for Aberdeen to be in this situation with quite a lightweight squad. What should be worrying as well is a lack of youth players being integrated into this squad. We've talked about a lack of full-backs, is there nobody worth using in the youth teams and if not, why aren't enough players being produced?

Derek McInnes has got by and deflected criticism due to how he has elevated Aberdeen in his tenure at the club. Before joining, Aberdeen had only finished in the top half 6 out of 13 times and since McInnes has taken over, have finished in the top half for 7 consecutive seasons, with this season likely to be the 8th in a row. Progression in cups also aided McInnes' credentials, winning the club a trophy for the first time in just under 20 years among reaching both cup finals in the 2016/17 season. 4 second-place finishes from 2014-2018 have also been a massive achievement for the club, with two of the seasons seeing them pip Rangers to the runners up spot. For most clubs in Scotland, they would bite your hand off to have this consistent level of performance.

However, the last couple of years hasn't seen the same level of consistency and if anything, there has been regression on the whole. Aberdeen have finished 4th in consecutive seasons, behind Kilmarnock and Motherwell who they have had a higher budget than in both years. It looks likely that a 4th place finish is on the cards yet again as Aberdeen are definitely going backwards rather than forwards. The most disappointing aspect this season for Aberdeen fans will be down to how Celtic have performed this season and how Aberdeen have not capitalised on this. Despite Celtic having a weak season, they still sit 19 points ahead of the Dons. It's unrealistic to expect Aberdeen to reach the same levels as the teams in the Old Firm but going from pipping Rangers to second on the final day of the season in 2018 to 20 odd points away from second in the space of two seasons is worrying for Aberdeen fans. Aberdeen take very few points off the Old Firm but recently it will be worrying how many easy points are dropped to teams in the lower half or with considerably smaller budgets, especially at home. Pittodrie is always going to be a tough venue but teams are now going to the Granite City knowing they can get at Aberdeen, as shown by Livingston, St Mirren and Dundee United's recent efforts.

Right now, Aberdeen appear to be rather toothless with not an awful lot of ideas being apparent to the Dons gameplan. The style of play has not been good value for Aberdeen this season as many feel the direct approach is not nearly effective enough to merit being forced. The talent Aberdeen have doesn't suit this style at all either, meaning it appears to be pointless in all honesty. With this, it is no surprise that many are growing tired of McInnes as there appear to be no signs of it improving or steps properly being taken to help solve these issues.

Perhaps the finances are taking such a toll on the club that McInnes has been given assurance that as long as he stables the ship, his job is safe. This does raise the peculiar issue of Dave Cormack cancelling a Q&A session, where he was set to answer fans questions relating to this season's problems. I think the majority of fans would at least appreciate it if Aberdeen came out directly and stated that there is a plan to kick on once things are more secure, although this event being cancelled throws the future of McInnes and the club up in the air.

Aberdeen have a massive task on their hands for the rest of the season should they want to finish in 3rd place and win over some fans again. There is a strong contingent of the support who back McInnes and ask "who realistically can we get better?". I believe there is some weight to that claim as realistically, who is next in line at Aberdeen? Are the likes of Stephen Robinson good enough to make that jump to Aberdeen or do you take the risk of appointing someone from the lower leagues in England? This uncertainty will worry folk with the old saying "you don't know what you have until it's gone" possibly being very fitting.

At the same time, if Aberdeen are to be a club of ambition and take the next steps into competing, they cannot think like this. They have to be bold enough to back their club and that they will attract the right characters to turn things around. If they continue to move like this, you can only see things getting worse and worse. McInnes has enjoyed a great time at the club but sometimes managers take teams as far as they can. With second-placed finishes and a league cup trophy, McInnes may very well have hit the ceiling at Aberdeen and his own success has set a bar too high for him to sustain.

It's a big couple of years for Aberdeen Football Club as they look to take the next steps in becoming a bigger and better club and whether McInnes is a part of that will need to be seen. The end of the season could go one of two ways, either McInnes manages to tun things round or the situation will get much uglier.

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