Stuart Kettlewell has led his side to their best ever start to a Scottish Premiership season. The Dingwall club currently sit 5th in the table after six matches played. Can the Staggies keep up the fine form?
At the Back
It was well documented last season that Ross County’s defence wasn’t up to scratch. County conceded the most goals in the league, 60 goals in 30 games to be precise. That was eight more than the relegated Heart of Midlothian. The Highlanders had an experienced back line that included Scottish football veterans Richard Foster, Liam Fontaine and Keith Watson amongst the ranks. Despite the experience in the side, RCFC only kept six clean sheets all season in the league.
However, this season we have seen a revamped backline in the first six games. January signing, and former Inverness man, Coll Donaldson is the longest serving player in the new look backline, despite only being at the club for eight months. He has partnered former Scotland under 21 player, Alex Iacovitti, who was signed from Oldham Athletic in EFL League One. This new partnership at the heart of Kettlewell’s backline has proved to offer a different style than that of last season. Donaldson and Iacovitti look to play out from the back, and control the game by maintaining possession.
They try to avoid booting it up the park (which was a common theme in the Staggies defence last season) unless there are no other routes available to the formidable pair. Left sided centre back Iacovitti looks very comfortable on the ball, and the 22-year-old isn’t afraid to drive forward into space. Iacovitti has a 68% pass succession rate, which is very impressive for a centre back. Coll Donaldson has shown he is a threat at both ends of the pitch this season, as he scored a fine volley against his old club Dundee United in the fourth game of the campaign.
After the departure of club captain, Marcus Fraser, the right back void has been expertly filled by Liverpool youth product Connor Randall, who has also spent time on loan to Hearts. Randall, who most recently played in the Hungarian top flight, is more of an attacking full back than the defensively minded Fraser was. This means Ross County have an extra outlet of width on the right hand side with Randall’s powerful, pacey and penetrative runs.
The final piece of the defense is somewhat of a fairytale story. 18-year-old Josh Reid has seamlessly slotted into the back line, making the left back role his own. After many impressive performances in the reserve team last season, the Dingwall born teenager burst onto the scene in the first game of the season when he shut out Motherwell winger Jake Hastie. The on loan Rangers man was substituted after 55 minutes. Reid is averaging 2.8 interceptions per game, more than any other player in the Premiership, an impressive stat in his debut season. The refreshed Ross County back line have conceded just six goals in six games, keeping two clean sheets. County look a more defensively strong outfit compared to last campaigns below par 10th place finish.
The Staggies mentality last season seemed to be to outscore their opponents instead of focusing on clean sheets. The four out and out forwards in their ranks are Ross Stewart, Lee Erwin, Billy Mckay and Oli Shaw. This quartet scored 15 of County’s 29 goals last season, and will undoubtedly be looking to improve their tally this season.
Oli Shaw, who signed in January, is yet to score in a blue jersey, which he won’t be content with. He netted 10 in 46 appearances at Hibs. Although game time has been very limited for Shaw in Dingwall, he was deemed “one of the best young forwards in Europe” by Hibernian Chief Executive Leanne Dempster.
Former Motherwell man Lee Erwin, who was snapped up by Leeds in 2015, also had a poor goal return. He scored just one goal. However, the 25 year old has scored goals at every club he has played for, bagging 34 goals across six clubs.
If Ross County want to fire themselves up the table, their strikers need to start firing on all cylinders. If the forwards can start hitting the back of the net, County could easily improve on their 10th place finish from last season.
Ross Stewart and Billy Mckay have been Ross County’s two most prolific forwards of late. The pair bagged seven goals each last year in the top flight. Stewart, who has been subject of transfer speculation south of the border, has already netted twice this campaign. He is Ross County’s biggest threat, bringing versatility to his game. Despite his tall stature, he is often played as winger for County. Stewart has won 5.3 aerial duels per game, making him a real handful for opposition defenders. Mckay, who is the seventh top scorer in the Premiership of all time, has netted just one so far this season, the winner in a 1-0 win against Hamilton Accies.
Another factor which could see Ross County improve on last season’s finish is the squad depth that the Highlanders have at their disposal. Stuart Kettlewell has 26 players in his first team squad. This makes his side one of the largest in the league, outside of the Old Firm. The Dingwall team are very well versed all over the pitch, having three goalkeepers, nine defenders, 10 midfielders and four strikers.
These large numbers have meant that players such as Blair Spittal and experienced head, Liam Fontaine, are yet to make an appearance in the 2020/21 campaign so far. Stephen Kelly, on loan from Rangers, has only managed two substitute appearances, despite being one of the best players in the Championship in 2019/20. This proves that there’s real competition for places in the starting line up. The strong competition could help Ross County push up the table, as all 26 players will be eager to make an impact in training to win that place in the starting XI.
Sidelined for the Staggies are Tom Grivosti and Joe Chalmers, both are out with long term injuries. Both were also important players in the side on their return to the Premiership. When the unfortunately injured are both back fit, the Staggies boss will have a real headache in terms of team selection as many experienced first team players will have to be left out of the match day squad.
Despite only being six matches in, Ross County look set to improve on last season’s 10th place. With defensive issues looking ironed out, the Staggies will be able to keep their previously woeful goal difference down. The Staggies have no issue going forward either, only failing to score in one of their first six. Talk of a top six finish is very premature, but if Ross County can find consistency in their results, they should easily improve on that 10th place finish last term.