St Mirren 1-0 Livingston: Buddies Drive Makes The Difference
The 2020/21 Scottish Premiership season kicked off on Saturday with the opening day sending Livingston to Paisley to face off against St Mirren. The two sides were promoted alongside one another in 2018, with St Mirren winning the Championship with the Lions runners up and advancing via the playoffs. The two have since done well in retaining their status in the top flight and have so far recruited well in the transfer window.
The St Mirren side would welcome competitive debuts for most of their back-line, with Jack Alnwick starting in goal and a defence featuring new recruits Richard Tait, Marcus Fraser and Joe Shaughnessey alongside 22-year-old Conor McCarthy. The Lions would also welcome some new faces with debuts for Jack Fitzwater and Alan Forrest, seemingly straight swaps for the departing Ricki Lamie and Steven Lawless.
The two sides have had close affairs whenever they have faced off recently, with last seasons results showing a couple of 2-1 home wins for Livi and an exciting 3-3 draw at the Simple Digital Arena. As expected, the game was fairly even in terms of chances with neither team truly threatening either goal. A solitary goal from the deubtee Richard Tait would make all the difference between the two sides as the Buddies start the season with three points. Tait dispatched a Jamie McGrath cross with a sublime diving header as the former Motherwell full-back completely evaded the Lions defence and left Robby McCrorie with no chance. Livi would threaten with a long-range effort from Craig Sibbald clipping the post and Alan Forrest almost notching on his debut after some tricky play down the left side but was thwarted by a diving save from Jack Alnwick. As the game went on, Livi really lacked in chances with the home team looking more likely to score the next goal and should have done so when Junior Morais struck the post with a volley from close range. It wasn't to be a chance the Buddies would regret not taking as they held on to earn the three points on the opening day of the season.
Despite the game being relatively close, with possession sitting at 46% to 54% in the away teams favour and Livi edging shots on goal 3 to 2, there were slight differences between the teams that made the difference in the Paisley sides favour.
St Mirren's Intensity
Livingston have been well known for their high-intensity game with well-done pressing not giving teams a second on the ball and capitalising on loose touches, stray passes and second balls. The Lions are usually extremely efficient in harrying teams and simply doing "the free stuff" incredibly well. However, Livi weren't their usual selves and really didn't cause St Mirren enough issues with this style of play, if anything, it was the home side who turned it onto the masters. This was perfectly encapsulated through the performance of who I believe was Man of the Match, Saints skipper for the day Sam Foley.
As previously mentioned, it is well documented that Livi work hard to regain possession, fighting and scrapping for 50/50s even when it seems unlikely they will get the ball. With this, it often leads to the player winning the ball directly or providing key pressure that forces a mistake, Foley did this all game, winning many individual battles and lost causes he had no right in doing so. There was an extra intensity within Foley's game that translated throughout the team and made a true difference within the game.
Sitting in holding midfield, Foley showed great hunger, shining in midfield especially in the first half. If Livi went long and looked to play off Dykes, Foley was there to clean up after his centre-halves efforts in the air. If Livi were loose in their build-up play, Foley would step up and win the ball back or win a free-kick for his team. It was a performance Livi fans have been used to seeing from a number of their own players but on this occasion were truly outdone.
This piece of play in the first half perfectly encapsulates how Foley and St Mirren simply outworked the Lions. The highlighted Foley is in his natural position protecting the backline as Aaron Taylor-Sinclair moves into a dangerous position. The Livi defender tries a chop but loses out to Jamie McGrath which ends up with the ball looping into the air and the two players falling to the ground. Immediately, Foley is on the front foot and begins to attack the ball whilst Livi's Efe Ambrose stands flat-footed, expecting the ball to be safely his. With the distances between where the ball ends up and the two players, it seems as if only one player should win this ball.
However, Foley being on the front foot gives him a massive advantage against the far too calm Efe Ambrose, making up the ground in quick time which for some reason doesn't cause an increase in urgency from the Livi defender. This was a complete nothing ball but Foley clearly wanted the ball a lot more in this example which is only one of many in an impressive performance from the midfielder. Foley would win a free kick in this instance and would replicate something similar not too long after.
This kind of work rate shown by Foley and others in St Mirren's midfield was not replicated by the Lions, most evidently by the goal that the West Lothian side conceded. A Craig Sibbald clearance rolled out to Jamie McGrath around 40 yards from goal following a set-piece. The previous example showed Sam Foley charging out to try and win the ball and if not, put pressure on the opposing player to force a mistake. The exact opposite took place in this action of play.
Two seconds might not seem like an awful lot but in football, it can make a huge difference. Within these two seconds, McGrath is able to take a touch out of his feet, look up and play a wonderful cross into the box which would be headed home by Richard Tait. These two seconds could also make a massive difference when defending but the images above this did not happen. There is a complete lack of urgency from any Livingston player to put pressure on McGrath in this instance, with the players are standing about watching. Granted, a few of Livi's central players were out of position but there doesn't seem to be any real effort to put pressure on the St Mirren midfielder in this instance. The Lions again would be caught flat-footed as Tait was unfollowed into the box as the Lions defence all looked to one another in disbelief.
Perhaps it is a lack of match sharpness but a lot of the time, it seemed like nobody was really willing to step up to the plate and take the game by the scruff of the neck. Jim Goodwin deserves great credit for getting his team in shape and motivated for this game as this criticism couldn't be used against his side. It's not something that is particularly spectacular on the eye but simply seeming more up for the game in terms of movement and pressing does a world of good in this league.
The effectiveness of the St Mirren press put pressure on the likes of Marvin Bartley and Craig Sibbald, forcing them to hit the ball long towards Lyndon Dykes, Jim Goodwin had clearly sought this out, ensuring the highly-rated forward was crowded out each and every time. Whether it was the two centre-halves, full-backs or Foley in midfield, Dykes was given no space and even if he won the header, there was a player free to clean up afterwards. Livi really struggled to get anyone close to Dykes with Scott Pittman having an unusually quiet afternoon, mainly due to the work rate by St Mirren.
Saints Defence and Counter Attack
St Mirren would remain on the front-foot when defending, which was also clear at Livi's long throws and free kicks. The Lions showcased a complete lack of movement which lead to zero success from their long throws and a lot of wasted free kicks. Again, St Mirren would make it hard for Livi to work on any potential flick-ons, outnumbering them drastically within the box. Livi wouldn't help themselves, not adapting to St Mirren's blockade and simply persevering over and over again. Considering this is the first competitive game back and St Mirren having 4 new faces in their backline, the side deserves huge credit for being so well prepared and solid as a unit in their first outing. Shaughnessey was the pick of the bunch in defence, showcasing great aerial ability against Dykes and organising tremendously. St Mirren have added great experience to their defence and under a manager like Goodwin, we could see a lot more performances like this.
The second half would see St Mirren retreat a little, dropping back and welcoming Livi to come and break through their wall of players. St Mirren looked to keep things tight at the back, blocking and tackling heroically and trying to spring counter-attacks on the Lions. This would see the Saints play some long balls of their own but seemed much more intelligent than the Lions play. The Saints made good use of exploiting the flanks whenever Livi marauded forward, with Jon Obika trying his best to hold the game up and bring others into play. This would prove most effective with St Mirren realistically looking more like scoring on a fast break compared to Livi not troubling the St Mirren defence despite hogging more of the possession. The use of pace and space on the wings gave St Mirren most of their joy in the second half and should have doubled their lead late on but were denied by the woodwork.
As for Livi, they controlled most of the ball but chances were kept at a few, with hopeful balls into the box consistently met by St Mirren players. There was no real penetration as St Mirren's low block didn't allow for much space in behind or down the sides. The one real instance this happened had Alan Forrest go close but this was as good as it would get in the second half for Livi. Livi usually provide a great threat from long throws and set pieces but their weapon was pretty harmless this time. A combination of poor movement and the performances of McCarthy and Shaughnessey made the Lions struggle to get any joy whatsoever from these situations. St Mirren simply looked more hungry to win the first ball, packing the box with players to outnumber Livi's options should the ball get close to them or just winning it outright and clearing effectively.
This was a constant sight on Saturday, St Mirren crowding out the opposition but also a noticeably flat-footed Livingston. At each set piece, there would usually only be one Livi player challenging, coming up against 2 or 3 of the opposition. Clearly the Saints worked on this beforehand and were completely organised to deal with Livi's play. The Paisley side probably didn't expect it to be so easy but nonetheless, stuck to their roles admirably and got their rewards in the end. What St Mirren carried out is far from complex but with full concentration and genuine hunger to win the ball, it makes all the difference. This was the clear difference between the two teams the whole game, St Mirren just simply wanted every 50/50 that extra bit more.
No player stuck to their task more than new signing Joe Shaughnessey, who set up at most corners and free kicks as a free man with the sole role to attack anything that came into the box. Again, the Lions lack of movement made it easy for the centre-half who would find himself unchallenged on a number of occasions. Shaughnessey's clear hunger to attack the ball would carry through the entire game, even almost punishing Livi at the other end with his unmatched desire to win the ball.
The style of St Mirren's play was similar to last season with Goodwin's side looking to frustrate teams and catch them on the break. The business that St Mirren have done so far to their backline was much needed due to loan deals but it is clear that the Saints have upgraded. St Mirren have lost Vaclav Hladky but the acquisitions of Joe Shaughnessey and Richard Tait, in particular, being phenomenal pieces of business. These are very capable defenders who on Saturday showed they can soak up pressure when protecting a lead. This will be a great sign for St Mirren fans as the defence showed no signs of weakness and seemed like they have been playing together for years. A clean sheet and a defender scoring the only goal will only improve confidence for future fixtures. Next up is an unfortunate doubleheader against the Old Firm where anything against the pair will be a bonus but St Mirren will be hopeful they can frustrate yet again, despite an obvious improvement in quality. As for Livi, fans will be hoping this sluggish performance will be due to a lack of match sharpness and that the cobwebs have been cleared. The Lions also have a tough test with Hibs visiting West Lothian and will need to be a lot better as the Edinburgh side looked bright with a 2-1 win against Kilmarnock.
Despite not creating an awful lot, it is hard to say that a victory wasn't deserved for the Paisley club. There are question marks over how they will perform this season but if they can carry out a game plan like this, they'll shock many. As for Livi, they'll need to get back to the drawing board and ensure they get back to doing what they do best. Livi's next four games see them play Hibs, Motherwell, Rangers and Aberdeen, not easy games at all and if they want to get anything from these games, they'll need to apply themselves a lot more than in this fixture.