• Angus McGregor

What's Going Wrong At Livingston This Season?

Since returning to the top flight of Scottish Football, Livingston have been a welcome and competitive addition to the league in the past two seasons. Whether you like them or hate them, it can't be denied that the Lions have added something to the league, with their home form, in particular, adding a tough destination for the rest of the league. The Lions have clawed out great victories against Celtic and Rangers whilst emphatically disposing of the likes of Kilmarnock and Hearts in recent seasons as Gary Holt's side became a horrible team to play against at the Tony Macaroni Arena.

However, those memories seem a bit far off at this moment as Livingston sit in 10th position, 4 points ahead of St Mirren and Hamilton who both have 2 and 3 games in hand over the Lions. Livi have lost 8 of their first 13 games with the mojo from previous seasons looking as if it is long gone, with teams no longer fearing making that trip to West Lothian.

To go from being a top 6 side to potential relegation battlers, there are a number of factors to look at in order to try understand why the Lions have suffered such a drastic dip in form.

The most obvious of factors that would be fair to assume that Livi have suffered from is, of course, the losses of Lyndon Dykes and Steven Lawless. The pairing had a tremendous campaign in the 2019/20 season, with Lawless contributing to 20 goals and Dykes contributing to 22 which would earn the duo moves down south. Lawless would join League 1 side Burton Albion whilst Lyndon Dykes would make £1million+ move to Mark Warburton's QPR in the English Championship.

The absence of the two top scorers and creators would leave a hole in any team, with Livingston going a third consecutive season where they've lost a top-scoring player - Dylan Mackin 2017/18 & Craig Halkett 2018/19. Livingston would act swiftly in setting up a replacement for Lawless, with the pre-contract signing of Alan Forrest looking the perfect replacement for the winger. Forrest looks set to be a player who can replace the goals from Lawless, with the former Ayr United player scoring 10 league goals last season and has currently netted 3 for the Lions this season already. The winger isn't as likely to get assists as Lawless was but the return of Josh Mullin will help aid that loss whilst also giving the Lions more balance from the flanks. Livi are yet to deploy Forrest and Mullin together but it will surely only be a matter of time before they start together as the only natural wingers at the club.

The loss of Lyndon Dykes is a lot more complicated for the Lions and it has been a long road to replacing the striker already. The Lions recruited early in anticipation of Dykes departing, with Salim Kouider-Aissa and Matej Poplatnik joining prior to the season beginning. Jack Hamilton and Scott Tiffoney were also returning from loan spells in the Championship with Queen of the South and Ayr United as the Lions started the season with 5 forwards.

Dykes would eventually make his move to QPR, leaving Gary Holt with a massive hole to fill within his team. Holt has tried to patch the forward position with a number of options including new signings Salim Kouider-Aissa, Matej Poplatnik and Lars Lokotsch as well as youth players Jack Hamilton and Scott Tiffoney. Kouider-Aissa, Lokotsch and Hamilton have been shifted out on loan with Gary Holt not believing they are quite ready for the top flight and guaranteed gametime is best for their development.

Scott Tiffoney doesn't share an awful lot of similarities to the departing Dykes but definitely seems to have been the most effective for the Lions. Tiffoney's size and stature is the obvious difference between the pairing but the forward possesses a good level of intelligence to exploit space and a workrate that proves to be a nuisance for opposing defenders. A goal, an assist and a penalty won means that Tiffoney has contributed to 3 goals in the 4 starts he has made so far for the Lions. At only age 22, Tiffoney has plenty of time to develop his game and has shown glimpses that he could be the answer for the Lions. Tiffoney had benefitted from the fact that Anthony Stokes was not yet fit to play for the Lions, with Stokes later being released 24 days after signing without making a single appearance.

The shambles of Anthony Stokes left Livi still on the lookout for another striker, this time bringing in Jay Emmanuel-Thomas who had last played in Thailand. Despite not seeming to be fully fit, Emmanuel-Thomas is now the starting striker for the Lions, with Tiffoney very unfortunate to be missing out. It's still very early days but as things look, Emmanuel-Thomas is not the solution for the Lions, at least not in the current system.

There's no taking away from "JET"s abilities, you only have to watch how nimble the striker is with the ball at his feet to see glimpses of his talents. The big issue with Emmanuel-Thomas in this Livingston team is that his attributes don't suit the Lions style of play at all. Yes, he is a good enough target man who can hold the ball up well enough but the Lions need more than that from a forward. Emmanuel-Thomas very rarelt bombs forward in attacking transitions and isn't active enough in dangerous areas to cause problems. In recent seasons, the likes of Ryan Hardie, Dolly Menga and Lyndon Dykes have used their pace to get in behind defences and allow the midfielders and wingers to get up to support and damage teams. Emmanuel-Thomas will not run the lines or chase down dangerous balls, an aspect that Livi have had great joy from doing in recent years.

What is really concerning regarding Emmanuel-Thomas so far is how little he gets into dangerous positions within the box. Against Motherwell, in all fairness the Lions deliveries were very poor in very windy conditions, but Emmanuel-Thomas failed to get into good positions for crossers to have a target to aim for.

Emmanuel-Thomas has this tendency to linger in front of the front post, an area that would take something really special to score from in the air. As clearly the tallest member of the Livingston attack, the Lions need Emmanuel-Thomas in dangerous positions in order to get on the ends of these crosses, not making movements to drag defenders away. There was countless examples of this in the game against Motherwell where he was easily kept out of the game due to poor movement. Livi's best chance of the game would come from a cross in a similar position to all of these, with Scott Tiffoney unluckily heading wide after taking up a good position within the box.

If Emmanuel-Thomas isn't going to chase these balls or get into the box then Livi need to pair him with someone who will. If not, they are going to lack a real cutting edge this season especially considering Livi only manage 2.8 shots on target per game. If Emmanuel-Thomas is only bringing a level of hold up play to the team, it's hard to argue that his position is merited in a lone forward role, especially regarding the success that Tiffoney has had so far. The loss of Dykes was always going to be hard to replace but this big name signing does not seem to fit the ethos of this Livingston side at all.

A possible solution for this could changing to a formation that plays with 2 strikers, a move back to the 3-5-2 that David Hopkin used back in the Championship. With Lee Miller as a hard-working target man and Ryan Hardie as the pacy nuisance, Livi could get a similar style going with JET and Tiffoney, although JET would have to apply himself a lot more off the ball.

Shifting strikers hasn't been the only selection issue Gary Holt has faced so far this season, with the choice of formation leaving a lot to be desired early in the season. Gary Holt started the season with a 3-4-3 formation that failed quite spectacularly early in the season as Efe Ambrose somehow ended up playing as a left wing back. An awful display against Hibs seemed to have put the formation to bed leaving Holt and assistant Davie Martindale to go back to the drawing board. Since then, Livi have stuck mainly with a 4-2-3-1 or flat 4-3-3 formation that has had inconsistent results so far this campaign.

The issues regarding Livingston's formations and consistency have mainly came from a string of poor defensive displays, with the Lions looking very weak at the back this season. With no high profile departures to the Livingston defence, it is bizarre that the Lions no longer seem the same beast in defensive transitions, with the home form taking a massive hit due to it.

The last two seasons, Livi have had a very solid record at home with the Tony Macaroni Arena becoming quite the fortress. In 2018/19, Livingston conceded 16 goals in 19 home games with 7 losses and in 2019/20, the Lions only gave up an incredible 8 goals at home in 14 games with only 2 losses. This season so far, Livi have already conceded 11 goals in 7 league games, losing 4 games in the meantime.

The fortress at Almondvale seems to be long gone as Hibernian, Hamilton, Kilmarnock and Motherwell have all came away with three points this seasons. The Lions away form in recent seasons hasn't been great with Livi being limited to one or two away wins a season, showing how important the strong home form has been for Gary Holt's side. If this home form disappears, Livi lose a massive advantage over the teams at the bottom and will find themselves in a relegation dogfight. In fairness, it is only 7 home games into the season which gives Gary Holt plenty of time to turn things around, with the former Falkirk gaffer making it clear he knows that his side can give a lot more.

In football, we talk a lot about how players should be doing the "free" stuff such as working hard, getting in teams faces and putting yourself in the way of danger. For Livingston, they had become masters of this, making up for a potential lack of quality by making sure that they weren't outfought. This season, it hasn't been the same and Gary Holt knows it.

Speaking after this weekend's game, Holt stated "We didn’t play the percentages well. It was never going to be pretty, we needed the ugly side of the game and we didn't do that. We need to get back to that". Far too often this season, Livi have lacked a real grit, with the loss against Motherwell perhaps being the worst example so far.

The first goal for Motherwell saw Callum Lang run onto a through ball from Devante Cole. Despite pleading for offside, the flag stayed down and forcing Livi to deal with the situation. Lang isn't heading goalwards just yet with the three players closest to him all being from Livingston. At this moment, the gears should turn to spot their danger and move quickly to shut it down.

As Lang gets on the ball, Guthrie sprints out towards the forward but in this action we can still see the highlighted Ciaron Brown in no real rush to get back into position. This is the complete opposite with Motherwell's Allan Campbell and Devante Cole who are both bursting a gut to get into the exposed space and possibly make a game changing contribution.

In this instance, Jon Guthrie makes a poor decision and overcommits against Lang, losing out to the forward who is still in a fairly awkward position wide of the goal. If the first ball through wasn't the wake up call that Livi needed to get back quickly, surely this was the last chance. Instead, there again seems to be real no urgency to get back and defend.

Brown eventually comes close to Lang but once again, there's no real urgency as Lang is able to dally on the ball and take his pick on where to put the ball.

A flimsy dangle of the foot isn't enough as Lang manages to squeeze the ball past two defenders and the oncoming Max Stryjek. A very poor goal from a position defenders should be dealing with but it wouldn't be the only time Livi let themselves down on Saturday afternoon.

Gary Holt will be most annoyed about the nature of the second goal and if there's ever an example of players shirking from responsibility, it's from Tony Watt's goal. A normal free-kick routine, Mark O'Hara steps up and fires a lowish effort toward the wall, something that should be easily dealt with. Frustartingly, the highlighted players Ciaron Brown and Julien Serrano turn away from the ball, creating a couple of holes within the wall. With the players flinching from responsibility, the ball makes its way through.

Stryjek is forced into action after being let down by his wall, palming the ball out slightly wide of the goal. The highlighted Tony Watt is in a great position to pounce upon any loose balls as the Livingston players outwith the wall look bemused at the wall's ineffectiveness.

As expected, Watt reacts first and the Livi players all turn to one another in disbelief at their shoddy defending. It is another example of the Livingston defence not doing their jobs, something that has happened far too often this season.

Livingston are giving up far too many chances right in front of goal, with 12 of the 22 goals the Lions have conceded coming from around 8 yards from goal. From the first game of the season against St Mirren to Saturday's game against Motherwell, Livi are not dealing with simple attacks and it is costing them dearly.

These are only a few examples of some the avoidable goals that have come about from a lack of Livingston players taking control. Every single one of these goals has an unchallenged player left with an easy tap in as simple runs aren't being tracked or players have been too busy calling for the officials to bail them out.

Robby McCrorie has come under a lot of criticism from Livingston this fans, sometimes merited whenever the young goalkeeper has made a mistake in goal, most notably a duo against Kilmarnock. However, the keeper's stats look a lot worse due to situations like above where has been let down massively by his defenders as easy chances have been created within his 6-yard box. In no way has McCrorie shined this season but the blame for Livingston leaking so many goals doesn't fall entirely at the feet of the Rangers loanee.

Mistakes from defenders and goalkeepers will always be much more noticeable and Livi have felt this far too frequently this season. If Livi can cut out these moments of poor concentration, they should be fine, as they showed in the victories over St Johnstone and Dundee United. This defence is largely the same as last seasons so Livi fans will know what they're capable of, they just have to go out and prove themselves again.

This is the first time since returning to the league that Livingston look like they could be in a relegation battle. It's very tight at the bottom of the league and points will be more valuable than ever. The next run of games sees Gary Holt's side face Ross County, St Mirren, Dundee United, St Johnstone and Hamilton, a selection of teams that very well could be the bottom 6 come the end of the season. It is the perfect chance for Holt and co to get a good run of going and even potentially transform their season. On the flip side, it could go wrong and add an abundance of pressure on this side.

As a fan of the club, this season looks like one that is certainly going to toy with a lot of different emotions. With Livingston, it never is easy and anything can happen, hopefully that lands on the positive side.

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