Yesterday, via Twitter, reader Raf Noboa y Rivera (@noboa) asked me the pointed question, “What the hell his wrong with Ross County?”
I assume he was prompted to ask the question after County’s 2-1 loss to Kilmarnock yesterday, a loss that dropped them into 11th place (and the relegation/promotion playoff that goes with it), and gave them only a single point from their last five matches.
My first reaction was, “Everything.”
My second was, “I…don’t…know…”
I decided I better sleep on it before there were tears.
Having done just that, I now have the answer, and it is surprisingly simple.
It’s not the offense. Both last year and this year (the club’s first two in the Scottish top flight) the club offense has been weak. Last year the club scored 47 goals in 38 matches for an average of 1.24 per match. Thus far in the 2013-2014 season they have scored 16 goals in 14 matches, for an average of 1.15 per match. Not that big of a drop off and certainly not enough of one to have County battling to avoid relegation rather than reaching for a European place as they did last season.
It’s the defense.
Last season County gave up 48 goals in 38 matches for an average of 1.26 per match- these numbers were third best in the league behind only Celtic (35) and St. Johnstone (44). Not only that, the County defense became stingier as the season went on (more on that below). This season? Through 14 matches County have conceded 29 times for an average of 2.07 per match. For those of you who enjoy math, that’s an increase of 61%. Not good. Not good at all.
They way in which County ended the 2012-2013 season is remembered more than the way in which they started it- poorly. Not as poorly as this season, but no much better. What turned County’s season around last year were some great signings during the January transfer window- particularly Ivan Sproule, Andre Hainault, Evangelos Oikonomou, and Steven Wolhfarth. Sproule was good for 6 goals in 14 matches and Wohlfarth scored 3 in 11 (he was generally used as a late sub, so his impact was bigger than the numbers might suggest), which helped improve the club’s offense from “poor” to “fair.”
Defensively, Hainault and Oikonomou were game changers. Hainault was the big, tough tackling, ball winning defender, and Oikonomou was the slick passing, technical link to the midfield and beyond. Oikonomou’s play was so outstanding that there was a more or less unanimous opinion among supporters that, despite playing only 18 matches for the club, he was the best defender ever to grace the pitch at Victoria Park. Unfortunately, only Sproule returned to the club (though he has since left the club). Hainault moved on to VfR Aalen in the 2.Bundesliga (which I’d say reflects well on County), Wohlfarth retired at the age of only 30, and Oikonomou returned to Greece.
County made a number of signings over the summer in the hope of replacing these players, most notably the Dutch quartet of Klok, de Leeuw, Maatsen, and Luckassen, of whom only de Leeuw has had an immediate impact. Of the remaining signings- Carey, Saunders, Mustafi, McLean, and Gordon- only Carey and Gordon have been regular starters. Unfortunately, of all of these players, only Saunders and Gordon are defenders.
So, as I try not do engage in anything more than a “light panic,” I will point out that the transfer window opens in only three weeks and that if manager Derek Adams comes even remotely close to his success during last year’s window, the season could turn around- and quickly. Already, there is a bright spot- Evangelos Oikonomou negotiated his release from his Greek club (Veria) earlier in the fall, he knows County want him back (Adams has said so in the press), and he’s been seen in the area in recent weeks. If the club can resign him and they can sign a productive striker, that could be enough.