The final whistle of the 2017 Scottish Cup Final was a sliding doors moment for Derek McInnes and his Aberdeen team. Tom Rogic had just broken the hearts of Aberdeen supporters, along with their manager and players, with his last-minute winner to clinch the unbeaten treble for Celtic.
The Dons players trudged over to their supporters who applauded in appreciation of a performance that pushed a Celtic team, that will go down as one of the Scottish Premiership's greats, to their very limit. What no supporter would have realised at that moment was, that was the game were Aberdeen's identity under McInnes was lost.
Since his arrival in 2013, McInnes had religiously stuck to a counter-attacking style of football where he would rely on a solid spine to his team through the centre back to his lone striker. He predominantly played 4-2-3-1 from the beginning, partly because that was the best formation that suited the players at his disposal at the time and also partly because that was the popular formation at the time. You had that year's Champions League winners Bayern Munich playing it and the 2012 European Champions, Spain playing a variation of it.
McInnes' teams through the years have all had one specific player who is crucial to his system when they don't play, his system starts to struggle. His first team in the 4-2-3-1 had Peter Pawlett playing in the number 10 role, where his basic task was to link the holding midfield two of either Barry Robson, Willo Flood or Ryan Jack to the attacking phase of play. Pawlett at this time had an electric turn of pace which even at one stage had Virgil Van Dijk in knots, resulting in a straight red card in a 2-1 win over Celtic at Pittodrie.
He was also instrumental in Aberdeen's run to the 2014 League Cup final, which they would win, however, he would miss the game through injury. It was no shock that following Pawlett's injury Aberdeen began to struggle. That spark of pace in the central space of the pitch was gone and, at that time, McInnes hadn't quite got the best out of his two wingers, Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn. While the pair were still influential, if Pawlett had remained fit, Aberdeen could have easily come away from that season with second place and a cup double.
Tinkering with 4-4-2
2014/15 saw McInnes test the waters with a 4-4-2 after the arrival of David Goodwillie to partner Adam Rooney. Aberdeen supporters have always clamoured for a 4-4-2 yet that system has brought the least success under McInnes. 14/15 was an odd season tactically for McInnes, Aberdeen cantered to second but performed poorly in the cups and lost all four games against Celtic. After some poor performances, McInnes returned to the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 and again Aberdeen found success sitting top of the league in January. This time, however, due to injury to Pawlett, it was Cammy Smith who often took up the number 10 position. This would often transition into a 4-4-2 but he would still fall back into number 10 when Aberdeen weren't in possession. He didn't quite have the same impact as Pawlett due to his lack of pace. The January of the season was where an important piece of McInnes' tactical puzzle was found, that being Kenny McLean.
2015/16 was where McInnes finally found a tactical innovation which got the best out of his wing duo. With the addition to the midfield of Graeme Shinnie, a balance was found where the number 10 position was cut out and replaced with one defensive midfielder and two number 'eights' in essentially a 4-3-3. Jack was played predominantly in the 'six' position where he would sit in front of the back four, offering added protection, shuttling between areas where the two wingers would trackback to cover, which meant that the wingers' defensive duties weren't as high.
After a year of almost testing and perfecting this 4-3-3, in the 2016/17 season, Aberdeen produced their best football under McInnes. By this time, the full-backs - usually Shay Logan and Andy Considine - had their roles valued. They were pushed higher up the pitch regularly to add an extra player to put crosses into the box. Hayes and McGinn would regularly swap wings mid-game to add confusion to the opposition defence. The pair would also switch between playing hugging the touchline and also coming inside to attack the half-spaces.
The start to McInnes' tactical downfall was when the three key players that allowed this system to flourish left. McGinn, Hayes and Jack all left that summer - although McGinn would return six months later - and since then the 4-3-3 fell apart. McInnes never replaced Jack, and as much as Dons fans hate to admit it due to him leaving for Rangers, he was the fulcrum to that team. Since then, McInnes has tried to plug gaps with the players he had and that often meant playing players in positions or systems that they didn't suit.
From his arrival until 2016/17 Aberdeen had their clear identity, since that season up until now, there is no such identity and its no great surprise that quality of performances have dropped since. When things become tough, McInnes returns to his tried and tested 4-2-3-1, however that formation went out of date years ago, managers get wise to it. Out of all the great teams at the moment, absolutely none play 4-2-3-1 and that's because teams have worked out how to nullify it.
This season, McInnes signed players who he hoped would fill the roles so he could recreate his 16/17 4-3-3 system. While it's fine to try and play that formation again, don't try and play the exact same way, think of something new. Each player has different traits so you can't expect to insert a player with a lack of pace on the wing and expect him to do what Jonny Hayes did.
This isn't a McInnes bashing article because he deserves credit for how he evolved his team between 2013-2017 into a counter-attacking machine. He had a successful formula, tweaked it and perfected it, which showed good tactical awareness but now it seems as though he's struggling to replicate that awareness.