Derek McInnes is now in his third season in charge of Aberdeen football club and he is now starting to truly come in to his own as a tactically flexible coach who is able to identify and exploit the weaknesses of his direct opponent.
For a time it seemed to many that while McInnes seemed adept at motivating a group of players and playing people in positions to maximise their potential that he was more of a pragmatic than imaginative manager. This season however has seen this Aberdeen side evolve in to one of the most interesting in the SPFL with a number of tactical concepts added in to their general gameplan that keep the opposition off balance.
Take the example of Shay Logan as case in point. Logan is an excellent attacking right back for this level equally capably of defending one on one or linking the attack in the final third. This season has seen the defender add another role as he has spent time playing as the right sided centreback in a back three in the defensive phase before springing out in the attacking transition to play as a more traditional attacking full back.
This capacity to shift between structures depending on whether attacking or defending is new for McInnes who in previous seasons had stuck rigidly to a single shape in both phases with slight allowances for the likes of Niall McGinn and Johnny Hayes to break that structure.
This weekend sees Aberdeen face St Johnstone in a repeat of the fixture from a couple of weeks ago that saw Aberdeen come out with a 2-1 victory in Perth. That match saw another structural shift made by McInnes that went a long way to securing the three points.
St Johnstone under Tommy Wright have firmly established themselves as a top six side in the SPFL playing a brand of football that has been called pragmatic and workmanlike. That however does not give enough credit to the nuances of the system of the side from Perth and in particular the defensive strength of the side in central areas.
St Johnstone line up with a deep double pivot in the centre of the midfield as Paul Paton and Liam Craig shield the defensive line. Earlier in the season when the two sides met Aberdeen found it increasingly difficult to access the central areas of the final third where their most creative midfielder Kenny Mclean tends to operate.
This led to a shift from McInnes as Graeme Shinnie was deployed as the most advanced midfielder in the match at Perth with the aim to occupy the two midfielder for St Johnstone and allow Kenny Mclean to effect the game from a deeper starting position.
It is strange to note that when Shinnie signed for Aberdeen from Inverness Caledonian Thistle he was initially supposed to play as a left back. It is testament to the ability of McInnes and his coaching staff to look beyond positions and identify roles based on the abilities of individual players that he was immediately moved in to a central role where he could dictate the game effectively.
This example shows the workrate from Shinnie in pressing the St Johnstone players as they look to transition in to their own attacking phase.
Shinnie first of all presses the right back before continuing to work across as the ball is played to the central defender. Eventually the defender is forced to hit a long direct pass to try to bypass the press from Aberdeen.
By preventing St Johnstone from playing out and forcing a long ball Shinnie is immediately increasing the chances of Aberdeen winning the ball back and transitioning to an attack of their own.
Here again we see the importance of Shinnie in the central role when Aberdeen initially lose possession of the ball.
As the attack breaks down it is Shinnie who immediately engages the St Johnstone player with the ball and executes a successful tackle. It is this aggression and commitment from the Aberdeen player that again prevents St Johnstone from launching a meaningful attack of their own.
After the initial tackle we then see the loose ball break back in to the path of Shinnie and the Aberdeen midfielder shows his composure in taking possession under pressure and immediately shifting the ball centrally in to Kenny Mclean who is coming forward from a deeper position.
This ability to break down opposition attacks and link in with teammates in the attacking phase was one of the keys to Aberdeen winning the match.
This is another example showing how effective the use of Shinnie as a defensive orientated player in the number ten role can be.
The play is again disjointed as St Johnstone win the defensive header and knock the ball out from the defensive line. Once again we see Graeme Shinnie as the Aberdeen player who immediately moves in and engages the man who takes possession of the ball for St Johnstone.
As Shinnie moves in and effectively fouls the man in possession the ball is shifted back to the defensive line. Once again we see the commitment and defensive workrate from Shinnie as he plays to the whistle chasing the ball down and looking to pressure the man who takes possession of the ball.
Here we see Shinnie displaying composure as well as selflessness. Where some Aberdeen players such as Hayes, McGinn and McLean would take the option to drive towards goal when in the area that Shinnie takes possession of the ball we see the midfielder instead retain his composure in cutting across in to central areas with the ball.
Instead of running at the opposition defensive block Shinnie effectively pauses in possession and cuts back across the field before playing the ball easily in to the path of a player who is running in to space from deep.
It remains to be seen whether we will see Derek McInnes continue to use Graeme Shinnie in this manner going forwards but it is encouraging to see a coach within the domestic Scottish game willing to think outside of the tactical box.
Aberdeen are lucky enough to have a number of versatile players within their squad with the capacity to fulfil a number of different roles in the attacking or defensive phases of the game. With Celtic continuing to be the dominant force in Scottish football this ability to change the structure of the side from game to game may be the key in closing the gap on the side from Glasgow.