Scottish Premiership: Are Rangers or Celtic on course for the title? Will Hearts hold on to third spot? Will St Johnstone avoid the drop?
Rangers are six points clear of Celtic in the title race; Hearts lead Motherwell, Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United in race for third; St Johnstone are bottom, two points behind Dundee with Ross County, St Mirren and Livingston just ahead
Wednesday 29 December 2021 14:40, UK
Following a dramatic start to the Scottish Premiership season – how is your club getting on at the halfway stage?
Rangers are impressing under new manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst, while Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic side are keeping the pressure on their title rivals.
Despite only being promoted in the summer, Hearts are flying high in the top flight, while Motherwell, Dundee United, Aberdeen and Hibs – under new boss Shaun Maloney – are also all in the race for third.
Bottom-club St Johnstone face a battle to remain in the Premiership but will be hoping to catch Dundee and Ross County who are above them.
We asked former Aberdeen and St Johnstone boss Derek McInnes to review how each club has been getting on and what could lie in store once the action resumes after the winter break…
Losing Steven Gerrard could have been a problematic situation for the league leaders but they’ve been pretty efficient since. I think Giovanni van Bronckhorst coming in has settled things down. He’s got a way of playing that’s slightly different to Gerrard and it seems to suit one or two players more and the results have backed that up. They’ve been very assured with their work, confident with their work. Routine performances and seven straight wins in the league since the new manager has come in is very impressive work.
January gives Rangers the opportunity to try and improve on that, of course, whether Van Bronckhorst wants to bring people in or he sees those improvements inside the building. The thing is trying to hold on to those good players like Joe Aribo and Ryan Kent. There’s a lot of players out of contract at Rangers come the end of the season and he may resist making too many changes. You have to say they’re in the driving seat. I think they’ll know there’s a challenge coming, particularly from Celtic if they strengthen in January, and they need to be ready for that. I think they look ready for the title challenge and I think they’ll take the confidence from winning the title last year.
They were the total opposite of Rangers. Rangers were settled and had the confidence of winning, Celtic were a bit all over the place and had lots of work to do before the season got underway. The managerial matters dragging out didn’t help much but since Ange Postecoglou has come in you have to say he has been very assured with his work. He’s very driven and very sure of what he wants from the team. The signings have been good and I think if he gets the chance to go and add more signings in January, the Celtic support will take confidence from what he’s already achieved.
Getting the first trophy helps of course but the league is normally where it is decided if it has been a successful campaign or not. I do believe if Postecoglou is given the funds to strengthen he has the ability to have a really strong Celtic XI. Where they fall short of Rangers is in the depth of squad. We know the difficulties with Covid, the Africa Cup of Nations coming up and normal injuries and suspensions – but having a strong squad is pivotal to Celtic to try and mount a challenge.
I’m really impressed with what Robbie Neilson has done at Tynecastle Park. Sometimes getting the right additions to the team and bringing the right quality in can be a challenge, but Hearts are a big selling point. He has done really well to get good additions in to strengthen the starting XI, but also recognising the guys who got them up in the first place.
Having Craig Gordon and Liam Boyce at both ends of the pitch is vitally important for him, but I think the support from everyone else has been very strong. They’ve got a good squad but I think they’ll go again with maybe one or two signings in January. I think they can take comfort from the fact there’s a bit more in them to go and try and get that third spot. They’ll try and challenge the Old Firm for as long as they can but I think Hearts have done very well in their first season back in the top flight. They’ll expect a challenge from Hibs, Aberdeen and others for third place but I think Hearts will be confident they can achieve that.
Graham Alexander has a couple of good goalscorers in Kevin van Veen and Tony Watt and they’ve also been very difficult to play against. They look like a team who know what they’re doing out of possession, they’re happy to give up the ball and they’re very difficult to break down. They’ve got a bit of confidence, especially at home where their record has been very good this season – the key is just trying to sustain that.
They’ve got to overcome different challenges throughout a campaign, but normally at the halfway stage it’s an indication of where a club is going to be. The teams in the top half usually fight out the European spots and Motherwell should be confident they can replicate the first part of the season. If they can, then they can challenge for those places in Europe next season.
I think it’s a bit early to assess Shaun Maloney, but what he has got is a fantastic opportunity because there’s a really good squad of players there that Jack Ross had put together. They’ve had two good results since Shaun came in and I think they’ve tried to implement a style that I think will become clearer over a period of time.
I think Hibs will try and support their manager in January and try and get a few players in. They have got a strong squad and the fact they’ve won a couple of games will help them. I think when they come out of the window there will be a bit more consistency, but as we saw in the League Cup semi-final against Rangers these boys are capable of big performances. After finishing third last season I think they still think they can go and do that again this time around.
I think consistency is the word for my former club. Four wins in their last five allowed them to get back into the top six. Challenging for those European positions is, at the very least, where they would expect to be. I think the manager’s been backed there and they do have a strong squad and that consistency is what they’ll be striving for.
If they can replicate that recent form more often than not it’ll get them where they need to be and challenge Hearts. I still think they’re capable of being that team but without that consistency, it’s going to be tough for them. Their points tally is behind where it has been in previous seasons, but you’d have to say with the players they’ve got they are capable of more. I think they’ll show that over the second half of the season.
I think there were doubts about Thomas Courts from the very start and they were a bit unfair. He got results early on and that helped convince people – you’ve got to applaud some of the work that he has done. The fact of the matter is they’ve only got 16 goals in 20 games. That would indicate a real issue for them and they’re going to have to try and address that. If they are going to make an effort to sign Tony Watt in this window then that will help them. They certainly need to be scoring more goals to be a top-six side.
They’ve had a decent return in terms of not conceding goals, I think Charlie Mulgrew’s been a huge part of that with Ryan Edwards as they’ve got a good partnership going at centre-half. That part of it seems to be ok but they need to try and be in a position to score more goals. I do think it’ll be difficult for them to be a top-six side but that’s what they’ve got to try and strive for.
They didn’t get off to the best of starts but have had little runs of results that have allowed them to be where they are at the minute. I think Livingston will always have to keep doing so many things well to keep themselves away from other clubs who maybe have more finance and attract players.
David Martindale is a very strong manager and he knows exactly what he wants and he motivates his players. Livingston at their best are so awkward to play against. Their home form is normally critical for them to determine if they’ve had a good season or not. I think if they can turn out the wins they have over the last wee while they can be confident they’ll stay away from the relegation battle.
It’s been a tough run for them and they have had some problems off the park with Covid. I don’t think St Mirren will be dragged into the relegation battle – they’ve got a strong squad and they’ve got a good manager. I think Jim Goodwin knows their strongest XI and I think it’s about getting more goals out of them. What they have shown against a certain level of team is the ability to create chances and trying to make more of that is what’s going to be key for them.
They need to try and turn that one point into three points more often. Sometimes a point is a really good point, but in St Mirren’s case there have been numerous games where their failure to convert chances has left them having to settle for a point. The run that they’re on isn’t great but they’re capable of more than that and I’m sure they’ll show that over the second half of the season. They probably had ambitions of getting into the top six like they nearly did last season and that might still be something to work towards, but just making sure they pull themselves away from teams behind them will be the most important challenge.
Losing the number of games they did at the start of the season couldn’t have been easy, but I think there were probably reasons for that. Malky Mackay made so many changes to try and build a squad – trying to gel all those players at the same time can be a challenge for a manager. There is an identity there now, there’s pace and power at the top end of the pitch, a really hard working and industrious core in the middle of the park and I do feel they have goals in them. They just need to get that balance between attacking and defending right more often than not.
In the last wee while they’ve lost to Hearts and Celtic but every other team they’ve come up against they’ve taken something from – that shows you their capabilities. I think they’ll look to improve in the second half of the season and show that consistency.
They’re a team who are capable of a high performance at times, they just need to try and generate that more often. Dundee have got a lot of experience in the squad and I do think James McPake is going to have to lean on that and get more out of those senior players. Charlie Adam is clearly a key player for them if they can get him back fit.
The likes of Leigh Griffiths showed his quality with his goal against Aberdeen and he needs to show more of that to try and get Dundee away from those bottom spots. They are a team who have good support behind them, James has good backing from his owners and I think he looks like a manager who is capable of doing good things. What he needs now is to make sure he can make one or two additions in January to help the cause and give them a bit of breathing space.
St Johnstone have shown they’ve been a good cup team over the last few seasons and I think they’ll look forward to defending the Scottish Cup. The priority for Callum Davidson will be to try and get good players in the building as they need to try and improve that starting XI. He’s a manager who has shown his capabilities, there’s evidence of how good they can be and it’s just about getting back to being St Johnstone again.
They’ve always been a tough nut to crack and they have to get back to being that team and I’m pretty sure they will. The cup tie (against Kelty Hearts) will take care of itself if they can reach their level.