For the first time in his 17 months as Dunfermline Athletic manager, Allan Johnston is coming under sustained criticism over his team's performances, and his own recruitment policy and tactics. After winning League 1 last season in a canter, the Championship was always likely to present a far greater test of the squad's capabilities. Yet after a return of only 7 points from the first quarter of League games, Johnston stated last week that "there is not much of a gap" between the divisions, talking instead about the recurring mistakes that have led to goals being conceded, and not the clear difference in quality of player the team are up against this season.
A series of errors and mistakes have lead directly to goals being conceded, and while the manager is not on the pitch and is relying on his players to prevent needless goals being conceded, part of any manager's role in any workplace is to identify reasons for ongoing errors and to rectify the problem. It is the very fact that mistakes are being made almost on a weekly basis that actually undermines the manager's own weekly post-match repetitive claims that another loss of points was simply due to errors and that the players "are better than that". While Johnston has stated that mistakes must be cut out, there is no evidence of the situation improving. Hibs' second and third goals on Saturday were basic errors, in the same way that the same opposition's two goals in the first quarter meeting were also the result of Dunfermline errors.
Mistakes can also be the result of a player's deficiencies being exposed, unlike last season when the standard of opposition was not nearly as great, and players were able to hide or get away with aspects of their game that might otherwise have been punished. That was the case last season when Dunfermline faced St Mirren in the Challenge Cup. After routinely scoring 4, 5 and 6 goals each week in League 1, the Pars were defeated 4-0 by the Paisley side, and one of the goals was - significantly - the result of a Ben Richards-Everton error, punished by a better quality of player than he was up against in League 1. The warning signs were there, and just like Jim McIntyre - who kept faith in too many players after winning promotion to the Premier League in 2011 - Johnston retained players such as Richards-Everton, Ryan Williamson, Rhys McCabe, Lewis Spence, David Hopkirk and Michael Moffat, none of whom have been better than distinctly average in this season's Championship (Spence was even sent to League 1 Brechin on loan).
The team's formation has also played into the opposition's hands this season. Johnston rarely deviates from 4-4-2, yet in games including the defeat to Hibs, who had 3 central midfielders to Dunfermline's 2, the Pars midfield were over ran and outplayed, which contributed hugely to Hibs' complete second half domination, controlling possession. The midfield is not helped by the faith that manager has in a woefully out of form Andy Geggan, and the reliance on Rhys McCabe, a situation the manager created by giving the player a new contract in the summer and releasing Josh Falkingham, who kept McCabe out of the team last season.
A change in formation is urgently required, simply to make the team harder to beat and not as open. While the tally of 13 League goals scored this season is decent (before Saturday, top of the table Hibs had scored just 1 more League goal than the Pars), the goals against total of 21 is the second worst of Scotland's 42 professional clubs. Dunfermline have been involved in just one goalless draw since January. A more defensively-sound team would comfortably finish mid-table in this season's Championship and provide something to build on for next season.
The squad has some players who are more than capable of playing in this division - Sean Murdoch, Joe Cardle, Michael Paton, Kallum Higginbotham, Michael Paton - but a more pragmatic approach is needed and the defence has to be stronger and more alert. This season has now become the manager's biggest challenge, more so than winning the title last season. He has to show that he is able to make necessary changes and make the team harder to beat, and cut out the gifting of goals to the opposition.
Photos by Pars Review.