Owen Coyle continued his good start to life in Dingwall as his side condemned Motherwell to consecutive defeats for the first time this season.
Stephen Robinson’s Steelmen had hoped to bounce back from their loss at Easter Road the previous week but a first-half collapse deemed that impossible.
Motherwell have carved out an effective if not aesthetically pleasing system this year, relying heavily on crosses from their wing-backs and the efficiency of a combative midfield to feed off the scraps of the high balls aimed at both forwards.
County were able to beat Well at their own game, however, as the decision to rotate the likes of Alan Campbell, Alex Fisher and Ryan Bowman came back to haunt the north Lanarkshire outfit.
Motherwell attempt to break the game down into fragments with their robust, high-energy side able to dominate second-balls and pressure high up the park.
It was a scrappy affair with little sustained periods of possession, which is to be expected between the two teams averaging the most aerial duels in the league per game – Motherwell (81.94) and Ross County (64.11) – but County were not only able to nullify the threat from the long-ball, they gave Motherwell a taste of their own medicine.
Supporting runs to utilise target man
Craig Curran is a limited player but he put his stocky physique to good use by targeting Peter Hartley.
The Blackpool loanee was unable to dominate the forward and repeatedly gave away fouls in his own half by trying to contest balls when he would have been better refraining from committing and jockeying Curran back towards his goal.
Louis Moult and Craig Tanner both pressed the two centre-halves, Davies and Marcus Fraser, but Michael Gardyne’s positioning between Richard Tait and Charles Dunne meant that Jason Naismith was often free to play the ball into the target man.
Coyle had clearly placed a great emphasis on his midfield providing supporting runs beyond the striker. Ross Draper, County’s £100k summer acquisition from rivals Inverness, was the most advanced of the midfield three and regularly vacated the space in the middle of the park, which took away Well captain Carl McHugh.
Gardyne was able to use this space by coming in off the touchline, which either dragged Charles Dunne inside or to deepen to provide cover. Richard Tait then had to drop into a left-full back position as a result, deeper than he would have liked.
Motherwell struggled to launch counterattacks as a result, with Jim O’Brien shuffling across well to delay any progress down the flanks.
Gaël Bigirimana, often the player the onus was on to initiate the breaks was ponderous in possession, and allowed County to regain their shape too many times.
Pressuring Motherwell’s centre-backs was a clear tactic and it paid dividends, not only with the amount of aimless punts played to a spare County defender, but in the form of the second goal.
Coyle didn’t devise a complicated pressing structure; often a simple sprint from Jim O’Brien, disjointed from the rest of the team’s shape, was enough to force the ball down the channel.
He was responsible for intercepting two Kipre passes in the space of five seconds in the centre of the park, but Chris Cadden’s decision to gamble by continuing his run down the wing left a huge gap in the right side of defence for Davis Keillor-Dunn to race into.
The English winger finished superbly for his goal but he caused problems throughout the first-half by finding pockets of space between Cadden and Cedric Kipre. Tait and Cadden struggled to get the timing right when it came to passing on the winger to the wide centre-back if they were deciding to press the full-back.
Motherwell’s primary objective behind their pressing has been to force the ball long and, thus, play to the strengths of their defenders.
Fisher has been responsible for going up against the opposition playmaker and denying him room to orchestrate, but Rose was slow to apply pressure after the breakdown.
County set-piece dominance
Davies was constantly the target for County when they flighted free-kicks into the box from the halfway line region. Up against Hartley, he peeled off to the back post area where he won the diagonal dual six times out of six. County’s opener came from another quality Christopher Routis delivery, but Motherwell’s negative starting line gave the Frenchman far too big a target area to aim for.
Hartley’s aerial inferiority complex meant that he continued to drop earlier than the rest of his defensive unit, and Davies was able to flick the ball back into a central area. County’s third came from open play, this time exploiting the space down the sides of the back three through O’Brien’s run from deep.
Gardyne’s delivery again took full advantage of the mismatch at the far post where Davies headed back towards the crosser who had continued his run.
The failure of Motherwell’s management team to identify this problem and reassign Kipre to mark Davies was a criminal error on their part.
Coyle could be heard on the touchline bawling out instructions for his players not to allow the cross, which is logical considering Cadden and Tait are both in the league’s top ten for most crosses per 90 miuntes. Of Motherwell’s 21 non-penalty goals this season, 12 have been from crosses or set-pieces.
In the first-half County did well to stem the flow from the wide areas as they doubled up on the wing-backs to prevent any easy opportunities for deliveries.
Moult and Tanner often found themselves having to drift wider than they had intended to offer a passing option but this left fewer men in the box to aim for and saw the ball circulated back to McHugh rather than whipped into the box.
Robinson made decisive changes at half-time, switching to a 4-4-2 formation.
Elliot Frear was subbed on to provide natural width on the left hand side while Rose was replaced in midfield, a move that saw Bowman join Moult as a pairing and the two wing-backs revert to full-back roles.
While in the first-half the 3-5-2 had resulted in Sean Kelly and Naismith being given time to look for the ball into the striker’s feet due to the wing-backs being occupied by Gardyne and Keillor-Dunn’s movement, Frear and Tanner were able to push up higher as conventional wingers.
Motherwell’s reliance on direct play was augmented by Bowman’s introduction, and his presence changed the game in the second forty-five.
As a midfield two, McHugh and Bigirimana led the two banks of four in stepping up the lines of pressure around the ball.
The dynamic of Motherwell’s wing-play was altered by the establishing of a relationship between full-back and winger, and County failed to adapt to the change.
Cadden was able to drive with the ball from deep, and both he and Frear used the decoy of the overlapping run to gain space to deliver crosses into the box.
Motherwell’s two goals came from out wide as Fraser failed to get tight enough to Bowman or Moult on both occasions. It was a case of backs to the wall in the last ten minutes for the home side as Motherwell bombarded the box.
County were culpable of dropping too deep and inviting pressure but the damage was done in the first forty-five, and for Motherwell, it was a case of finding the right mix when it was too late.