The Changes In Livingston's Fortunes
Livingston's 3-0 victory away to Hibernian was a massive shock at the weekend as the Lions moved up to 5th place thanks to their utterly dominant display at Easter Road. The victory made it 7 straight wins for the West Lothian side under new manager David Martindale who has completely turned the club's season around in the last month with the Lions now 10 points from either the potential relegation spots. The season suddenly looks a lot brighter for Livingston, with a number of changes going a long way to improving the club's morale and positioning.
A 1-0 loss at the hands of St Mirren back in November saw Livi sitting in 10th place and only 5 points off the bottom of the table with both sides below the Lions having at least 2 games in hand. Livi were winless in 5 league games and were falling down the table, prompting Gary Holt to make the decision to resign from his role as manager as he felt he had taken the club as far as he could. It was no longer clicking under Gary Holt as there seemed to be an attempt to alter the club's playing style, something that may have been detrimental to Holt's tenure.
The start of the 2020/21 season saw Livi look to play a bit more football on the deck, seeing the Lions transition to having more of a control of the proceedings. In 15 league games under Holt, Livi had the better share of the possession in 11 of the games, with 3 of the games they had less being at the hands of the Old Firm. It may seem odd to think of a team having more of the ball being a problem but for Livi, it meant that they started to lose what they were so great at. With Livi looking to have more possession, this meant that the tempo that the club were used to was lowered, giving teams time to breathe on the ball and get back into shape. Although Livi have players who do have quality on the ball, an in your face, hectic approach is much better suited to the players abilities.
The last two seasons in the Premiership have seen Livi get a lot of joy using a direct approach to games which focussed on getting the ball into the opponent's final third quickly and then trying to punish teams from there. Getting defenders to run back to their goal as Livi exploit space with marauding runners has been a key feature, with Lyndon Dykes and Steven Lawless benefitting massively from this style of play. This didn't seem to be a feature too often for Livi this season but under Martindale, you can see a clear return to this game plan that was most evident in the 3-0 win over Hibs.
Straight from the start, it was evident that Livi were looking to get in behind a high Hibs line at every opportunity. Nicky Devlin (off-camera) plays a ball down the line with Scott Robinson looking to get down the flanks, forcing Paul Hanlon to take action a put the ball out for a throw-in in his own half. This allows Livi to quickly transition from being deep into their own half to forcing the Hibs defence to make decisions with pressure on them to deal with the ball. This then leads to Livi working the ball further down and winning a corner.
Only a few minutes later, there is an exact replication on the other side, this time Livi connecting the passes with Robinson getting to the ball but unable to stay on his feet, bizarrely earning a yellow card for simulation despite no desire to want a foul. Despite that, you can already see how easily Livi were making it difficult for Hibs early on and had their defenders scrambling back toward goal. As you can also see from the photo above, Livingston create a 3v3 situation where with a bit better quality, they would be in an excellent position to punish Hibs.
With the start from both sides, it came as no surprise that Livi would threaten yet again and get their reward this time. A series of headers in the middle saw Hibs caught with another high line, leaving plenty of space for Mullin to exploit the space left by Lewis Stevenson. Starting his run early, Mullin gambles after seeing the position that Scott Robinson has taken up. Hibs don't help themselves with the shape of the backline, giving Mullin plenty of a headstart whilst staying clearly onside. In a footrace between Lewis Stevenson and Josh Mullin, there was always only going to be one winner.
From here, Mullin bursts through and fires home excellently to give Livi the lead. The Hibs defence are still nowhere to be seen as they were punished for not sharpening up to these balls into space. 3 instances in the first 8 minutes of a game will be worrying for Hibs as they completely failed to identify constant threats and set a precedent for the rest of the game.
The goal is almost identical to the same one that Livingston scored against St Johnstone to win the game 2-1, the only difference being the roles of creator and scorer being reversed.
This style of play has proven to be effective already for Livi and although it won't come off every time, it gets the Lions up the pitch and much closer to the opponents goal than their own. In these areas, Livi look to press hard to get any loose balls and with the energy the likes of Mullin, Robinson, Pittman, Holt and Sibbald bring, it's no shock that they can get those crucial yards ahead of their opponents.
The Lions energy and commitment is something that Gary Holt questioned before leaving the club, with it being clear that Livi weren't nearly as effective with their work off the ball. Under Martindale, that return to a basic quality has been very apparent and is encapsualted perfectly through the work of a more agile forward. In Gary Holt's last decent spell with the club, Livi won back to back fixtures against Dundee United and St Johnstone. In these games, Scott Tiffoney started up front, a quick and nippy forward who runs the lines. However, the arrival of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas soon saw the former Arsenal player become the favoured number 9 and it is safe to say it didn't quite work out.
JET's qualities aren't suited to the aforementioned qualities and game plan of Livi, with the big striker more used to the ball at his feet rather than running after loose balls. Since Martindale has became manager, Livi have operated mainly with Matej Poplatnik or Scott Robinson instead and the difference has been massive. These forwards won't give defenders a second of peace and forces them to play the ball quickly, often leading to mistakes that can be pounced upon. The movement also drags defenders out of position, creating room for players to run into and get their rewards.
This movement from the attacking Livi players may seem very basic but make no mistake, this is something that is very calculated and can make all of the difference. This requires a high level of concentration to remain switched on in seemingly non dangerous positions and suddenly springing attacks to punish the opposition. This also transcends into the one on one situations which have seen Livingston players maintain great composure and pull off some stunning finishes in one on one situations.
Livingston are a massive threat from set-pieces once again, with Jon Guthrie emerging as the Lions top scorer with 3 goals in the last 5 games taking his league tally up to 5 for the season. The start of the season saw the Lions be largely ineffective from set plays, only scoring from a dead ball situation on 1 occasion before Martindale took over. Since then, Livi have scored 5 goals in the league from free kicks or corners. Guthrie has been responsible for three of these as the defender has returned to his usual form, in attack and in defence.
The attack has improved massively for Livi but massive credit has to go to the Livingston defence. Since Martindale has taken over, Livi have only conceded 2 goals in 7 games, keeping an impressive 5 clean sheets along the way. This is 1 more clean sheet than Livi have earned throughout the rest of the season, showing Livi have tightened up at the back. Livi's defensive prowess does come from the aforementioned no nonsense approach that has saw Livi take no chances near their own area. Again, this was noticeable at the weekend against Hibs were the performance of a certain maverick individual sums up perfectly how Livi have been performing recently.
Efe Ambrose is known in Scottish Football for taking risks, leading to some quite worrying moments. As Livingston travelled to Easter Road with Ambrose making his first appearance for 7 games, it was clear that the former Nigeria international was told to get rid at every opportunity. And Efe complied, proceeding to hoof the ball out of danger every time it approached his box, even clearing the main stand at Easter Road on a couple of occasions.
Livi are back to being solid with Jon Guthrie and Nicky Devlin stepping up as real leaders and helping guide the likes of Ciaron Brown, Jack Fitzwater and Julienn Serrano to the best form of their careers in Scotland so far. Guthrie and Devlin have been absolutely exceptional in recent weeks with their experience and leadership going a long way to helping make Livi that solid team who are hard to break down yet again.
And to round things off, a massive change that has been made to this Livingston side is the away form. In the last two league campaigns, Livi won a grand total of 3 away games, a stat that led many to believe that all of Livingston's success was down to the plastic home pitch. The tally was taken to 4 away wins under Gary Holt with a win at Tannadice earlier this season but the away form has been something that has been scrutinised by the nation's media. That is no longer the case as Livingston have now won a stunning 4 away league games in a row, completely transforming the club's fortunes on the road.
David Martindale has been smashing Livi's away records by giving Livi their first win away to St Johnstone since 2007, the club's first away win to Kilmarnock since 2004 and the first away win at Hibs since 2005. 5 straight wins in the league is a new club record for the top flight as David Martindale could not have got off to a better start in his tenure at the club. This run of games that featured so many on the road may have worried Livi fans but with them being so successful, it has given everyone around the club a massive boost. The 3-0 win against Hibs was the best performance yet as the Lions completely hammered the country's fourth best team in the country, showing that there is no reason for us to fear going on the road now.
Livingston need to keep on applying themselves as there is still a long way to go this season and nothing is guaranteed. David Martindale is a humble man and will be ensuring his side don't get carried away and continue to apply themselves. As he says, the club will take each game one by one and see how far the good performances can take them. Now 10 points ahead of relegation and 9 behind 4th with a couple of games in hand, who knows where this insane form could end up taking Livingston this season.