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Aberdeen have gone stale under McInnes



Back in the olden days, when everything was in black and white - or maybe it just felt like that in Aberdeen at the start of the 2000s - I was a regular visitor at Pittodrie. One season under Ebbe Skovdahl the Dons finished fourth in the league; later on under Jimmy Calderwood they came fourth three times and third once. Other league finishes in the early years of the twenty-first century include eighth, eleventh, ninth, ninth, ninth, eighth. And of course there was Skovdahl's first campaign, where they were spared relegation only because Falkirk's ground was at risk of falling down at any moment.

Leon Mike, Laurent D'Jaffo, Leigh Hinds, David Zdrilic, Lubomir Blaha, Dyron Daal, David Bus, Jerel Ifill...doubtless Aberdeen fans will remember plenty more duffers from that era, but these were names that jogged this particular memory, and not in a nice way. It does no harm to remember that things could, and have been, a heck of a lot worse.

However, that does not necessarily mean that Derek McInnes should get a free pass.

Times have changed during the seven years that Deek has managed the Dons. Expectations are higher, and should be. Part of that is down to his own success - four consecutive second places (which would have been five but for a missed foul on the keeper in the final match of the 2013-14 season) - but also investment in the club is rather higher than it was in the dog days of Skovdahl, Steve Paterson and even Craig Brown. The club have the third highest wage bill in Scotland, and by that measure alone coming fourth in each of the last two seasons behind Steve Clarke's Kilmarnock and Stephen Robinson's Motherwell respectively is an underachievement. And there has been just one trophy, a League Cup.

There is a school of thought that after a few years under the same manager football clubs often become stale, and that is the perfect adjective for how things feel in the North-East. Arguably the peak was the 2016-17 season where they reached both cup finals and went toe-to-toe with Celtic's invincibles in the Scottish Cup Final. Four years later, six of the fourteen who played that day are still at the club, but only keeper Joe Lewis (who has not had a great season by his standards) is really anywhere near that level any more. Shay Logan is rarely trusted now, Andrew Considine's Scotland cap feelgood story shouldn't distract from the fact that he is past his best, and Jonny Hayes, Ash Taylor and Niall McGinn - each of whom left and then came back - appear to be very much on the decline. 

Rebuilding the team has not gone to plan. In three and a half years, one could argue the only unequivocally successful signings have been Gary Mackay-Steven (now long gone), Lewis Ferguson, Ross McCrorie and Sam Cosgrove (sold for good money last week). The list of duds is rather longer: Michael Devlin and Ronald Hernandez in defence, Greg Tansey, Chris Forrester, Stephen Gleeson, Craig Bryson, Funso Ojo and Dylan McGeouch in midfield as McInnes used up significant resources trying to replicate the Jack-Shinnie-McLean trio in the centre of the park; Curtis Main and James Wilson up front.

Worse, the club's youth system has not exactly come up trumps, with the exception of Scott McKenna. Scott Wright only shone in fits and bursts, while we're still waiting for Connor McLennan to put it all together and beginning to wonder if Bruce Anderson ever will.

It's not just personnel that are the problem. Aberdeen's philosophy has not evolved at all since McInnes first arrived. This is especially noticeable when they are out of possession, with a focus on man-to-man marking all over the pitch and immediate pressing of the ball when it is lost. This previously worked well when the overall quality of the team was higher and when they played so much of the game in the opposition half, but now most opponents have them worked out. Teams who are good enough in possession to beat that initial press find space between the lines, and players who are clever enough to switch position (especially coming off the wing) can easily cause havoc with the shape of the team.

In attack there continues to be a focus on getting it wide and sticking it in the box, which is simply not the most effective way of scoring goals in the modern game. Neither the wide players nor the forwards have been consistently dangerous for months now; Cosgrove had scored only twice from open play in twenty-seven matches before his departure, while Main is a player who can only be effective in nineteen-eighties hoofball. To make matters worse the one impressive forward, Marley Watkins, got injured during his loan spell and returned south. Their leading assist providers, Hayes and Ryan Hedges, are averaging one assist every eight league games. Hedges is now out for the season.

The deadline day wheeler-dealing in strikers felt very un-McInnes, a throw of the dice from a manager who generally seems risk-averse. Given everything else, such unorthodoxy is probably not a bad thing. The odds of one or more of Fraser Hornby, Callum Hendry and Florian Kamberi proving their worth are probably decent, but it feels like an act of desperation than a cunning plan. If it turns out as a double six, revitalizes the place and drags the Dons back into third place with some momentum, then maybe, just maybe, there is still a future at Aberdeen for the current boss. But it does feel like too little to late, like change is inevitable.

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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