By Matt Greer (@matt24greer)
Since the turn of the year, Partick Thistle have struggled with all aspects of football. They are yet to score more than once in a single match and have conceded an average of two goals per game. This is a perfect recipe for relegation, and unless there’s a drastic upturn in form, League One is where Thistle will find themselves next season. Here are four things I think Partick Thistle need to do to save themselves from a second relegation in three seasons.
PLAY TO BRIAN GRAHAM’S STRENGTHS
Ian McCall has been in charge for five months now, and he’s dabbled with 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1 formations. I don’t believe that a certain system will keep us up – I think our key is playing to the strengths of January signing Brian Graham. Graham netted in each of his first two appearances for the Jags, but has cut a frustrated figure in recent weeks. As the games go by, Graham has appeared more and more isolated up front. Chasing lost causes and flicking the ball into space around the halfway line is not going to do anything to preserve Thistle’s Championship status. Regardless of formations, Thistle need to get more bodies around Graham, and in dangerous areas.
The squad has the personnel to do this. Shea Gordon’s finest moments in a Thistle shirt have been running late into the box to score important goals. It was Gordon’s first start since November on Friday night, but he was used in a wide role which didn’t suit him, or allow him to make his trademark runs into the box. Reece Cole is another who’s capable of supporting the attack and getting on the end of knock-downs. Cole has been much quieter since January, and looks less confident about abandoning his midfield station to join attacks, which can perhaps be put down to a nervousness of exposing a shaky defence behind him. Risks will need to be taken if Thistle are to get out of their current predicament, and they’ll need the likes of Gordon and Cole to take risks to support Graham to get the goals required to stave off relegation.
Of course, Graham will need more than bodies around him to contribute. With over 120 career goals, Thistle’s new number nine clearly knows how to find the back of the net – but service to him must improve if he’s to add to his tally of two Thistle goals so far. Against Raith on Friday night, too often Graham was being delivered balls from centre backs sixty yards away. Even the best strikers would struggle to make anything of this kind of service. It must be difficult to play football and keep your head in the heat a relegation battle, but Thistle must try not to panic on the ball and work it into better crossing positions. With the likes of Reece Cole, Ryan Williamson and Joe Cardle in the squad, Thistle have enough players who have already assisted goals with cross balls this season. Feeding these players in dangerous positions in order to assist Graham should be the squad’s attacking priority in the weeks to come.
GET ZAK RUDDEN FIT AND SCORING GOALS
It would be a crying shame if Zak Rudden turned into this season’s Souleymane Coulibaly – an eye-catching signing who barely features. Ian McCall said Rudden’s injury would keep him out for a couple of weeks, so he should be due back for next week’s game at home against Dunfermline. It is essential that the young striker is not rushed back though, and returns when fully fit.
Rudden scored 12 goals in 31 games for a terrible Falkirk team last season in this division, and replicating that sort of form for a similarly terrible Partick Thistle team would go a long way to helping his new side avoid the same fate as Falkirk.
His infectious style of pressing and eagerness to get on the end of things should lift an increasingly apathetic Thistle support, and could also inspire others around him to sharpen up too. At just 20, it seems unfair to put too much pressure on Rudden, but he’s already shown last season that he can still perform in a struggling side. Rudden showed in his one start against Celtic the quality he possesses, delivering a great cross for Kenny Miller to hit the crossbar. I suspect similar service for Brian Graham would result in his assist tally rising. It looked as though Rudden was rushed back from a knock to come off the bench against Ayr – he looked lumbering and was ineffective – not like himself at all. Thistle can’t afford passengers at the moment, but they do need goals, enthusiasm and quality, which is why it is vital that they get Zak Rudden fully fit and back on the pitch as soon as possible.
REPLACE THE GOALKEEPER
When a team are struggling so badly, it seems unfair to single anybody out for criticism. Scott Fox is far from the only culprit, but he is perhaps the biggest repeat offender of the same crime.
Partick Thistle have conceded 5 goals in their last 6 games from corners, and while Fox may not have been directly responsible for all of these, you are asking for trouble when you simply refuse to leave your line, or sometimes even stand behind it. Raith manager John McGlynn admitted he identified Thistle’s weakness from corners as a way his team could hurt their opponents – and it paid off. You could call this clever management, or just plain old common sense. If other managers can see it, why can’t Thistle’s coaching staff? Maybe they can, but there’s little evidence to suggest any change in approach to dealing with defending set pieces. Fox’s unimposing style means Thistle will continue to be targetted with balls dropped into their six yard box, and the chances are they will continue to lose goals.
Poor starting positions is not something that is limited to just set-pieces though. Fox was behind his line when Raith’s second goal zipped into the bottom corner on Friday night, and while he might not have saved it anyway, he would’ve given himself an infinitely better chance of doing so by starting three or four yards further forward. That goal is not an isolated incident. Take a moment to watch Fox during the next attack he faces, and you’ll notice how close to his line he stays at all times. He does not have a command of the basics of goalkeeping, and has been costing his side goals on an almost weekly basis since the turn of the year.
In the last 60 league games, Partick Thistle have only kept 7 clean sheets. Fox has kept none of these, while current substitute goalkeeper Jamie Sneddon has kept 4 of them, despite only playing in 19 of the games. This isn’t evidence enough for Sneddon to take Fox’s place, but his playing style has everything that Fox’s lacks. He regularly comes for crosses, and takes more than his fair share of them cleanly. He is a far more active communicator than Fox too, with his shouts to defenders easily heard from the stands. Sure he’s made some mistakes, but that’s to be expected of a young goalkeepers, and even then they haven’t been as regular as those made by his more senior colleague. Sneddon came into the side at the tail end of last season with the team in a similar position, in the midst of a relegation battle. His performances were very composed, and he played his part in steering the club away from danger. The save on the last day of last season at Palmerston will live long in the memory, as he scooped away a header with one big paw, as his momentum looked to be taking him helplessly away from the ball.
It might not be the only change needed to the side to improve the team’s form, but it’s one I would make immediately to try and boost the confidence of a struggling defence.
UNITE THE FANS
Ian McCall has regularly pointed out that the fans have been through the wringer in the last two and a half years. Attendances home and away are dwindling, and it’s getting harder to criticise anyone who makes the decision to stay away from Firhill. £15 for a televised cup game on Valentine’s Day night, that’s not included on the season ticket, in the midst of Storm Dennis and a six week winless run was perhaps a little too much to ask of the suffering home fans. So how can the club unite them for the last three months of the season?
During the 2012/13 promotion season, everything the club touched turned to gold. The “Youth vs Experience” and “We Got This” taglines, seemed to galvanise everyone around the club. It sounds daft, obviously a cheap social media slogan won’t get Thistle out of the mess they’re in. Whether or not a similar sort of thing would work again is debatable. Taglines that suggest the club will stay up have the potential to come back to bite them. But there are other ways a similar spirit could be generated. Perhaps something like season ticket holders being able to bring a friend for free for a selected game or two could help boost the home gates? Maybe an initiative to hand out free flags or scarves to the John Lambie stand to wave or hold up before games could be introduced? These are just quick brainstormed ideas which can be easily picked apart, or mocked. But the difference in support between Partick Thistle and Raith on Friday night in terms on noise, colour and enthusiasm, could’ve spurred their players on that little bit to give them enough to come out on top.
Free buses were put on for the last two away games of last season and bumper crowds turned out at Ayr and Dumfries to support the Jags to safety. The team won both of these games. Coincidence?
It doesn’t have to be any of the ideas I suggested. I’m sure the club have people employed who are far more qualified than me to try and engage with the fans. But it needs to happen sooner rather than later, or the club could slip into League One, and there’ll be nobody there to see it.