Aberdeen boss Stephen Glass’ gamble in making wide sweeping changes to his starting XI for a third successive game backfired disastrously with a damaging League Cup exit at Raith Rovers.
In particular the absence of influential skipper Scott Brown’s leadership, drive, control and will to win in the heart of the action were badly missed when the going got tough.
Aberdeen looked in control of this tie and seemed to be coasting into the next round when deservedly leading 1-0 at half-time, despite manager Stephen Glass making a massive seven changes to his starting XI.
However, when Raith stepped up their intensity and press after the break and levelled, Brown’s presence to bring control and bring the tempo back to the Dons’ liking was absent.
By the time Brown could get a foothold in the game, it was too late to turn it around.
When Brown was introduced at 1-1, the Reds went immediately fell behind before the veteran midfielder had even kicked the ball and even he couldn’t prevent a 2-1 loss.
This costly cup defeat raises the conundrum of what will Aberdeen be like when the former Celtic captain doesn’t start and his commanding presence, drive and ability to control the tempo is gone?
For the third successive game, Glass majorly rejigged his side with a massive seven changes from the starting XI which overcame Breidablik 2-1 in the Europa Conference League.
Glass was clearly trying to rest key players ahead of the play-off round first leg with Qarabag in Azerbaijan on Thursday.
That is understandable as the Dons will embark on the 2,600-mile flight less than 48 hours after this cup tie and will play in heat of excess of 30 degrees in Baku.
Aberdeen are on the brink of qualifying for the group stages of European football for the first time since 2007.
Reaching the groups brings a Euro payday of around £3 million before revenue from gate receipts and television coverage are taken into consideration.
The play-offs are massive for the Dons, but so is progressing in the League Cup in the bid to end a seven-year wait for silverware dating back to 2014.
Now that route to silverware is gone.
Warning signs were already there in the Premiership game against Livingston the previous Sunday when Glass made six changes to the starting line-up and the Reds struggled in the opening 45 minutes and were rightly behind.
The introduction of Brown just before half-time for the injured Jonny Hayes at Livingston was a catalyst to spark an upturn in fortunes.
However, although Aberdeen turned it around to triumph 2-1 in Livingston, it should be noted that win was effectively gifted to the Dons by a horrendous blunder by the Livingston keeper deep into injury time.
This time the Dons weren’t so fortunate and even the introduction of the big guns in Brown, Christian Ramirez, Lewis Ferguson, Ryan Hedges and Calvin Ramsay off the bench in the second half couldn’t prevent the Reds crashing out.
Making so many changes in the cup tie was an affirmation by Glass in the confidence he has in his squad.
It was also a real test of just how strong the squad was.
Frustratingly, the players drafted in failed to get the job done.
The sweeping changes saw Niall McGinn, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Funso Ojo, Jonny Hayes, Connor McLennan, Teddy Jenks and Jack Gurr all introduced.
Dropping to the bench ahead of the arduous trip to Azerbaijan were Jack MacKenzie, Andy Considine, Brown, Christian Ramirez, Ryan Hedges, Lewis Ferguson and Calvin Ramsay.
All seven left out are likely to start in Baku.
Producers of live football coverage select ties between top flight and lower league opposition when they sense a possible shock.
It was the obligation of the players in the rejigged Dons’ team to ensure there was no shock – and they couldn’t.
What is becoming increasingly clear is Brown’s influence on this team and his need to be in the heart of the action – and starting.
Dylan McGeouch came into that role against Raith and was impressive in the first half in the holding role in front of the back four and was the early barrier to break down attacks and instigate forward moves by the Reds, spraying passes around.
However, when Raith Rovers came out at the break and began to press higher and fight harder, it all broke down. Aberdeen began to lose control of the game.
They must now pick themselves up for the trip to Baku after the first real set-back of a season which promised to deliver so much, but has already seen a genuine chance of silverware go.
It all began so positively with Aberdeen deservedly ahead at the break through a sublime strike from Jay Emmanual-Thomas, his first competitive goal for the club.
— Aberdeen FC (@AberdeenFC) August 15, 2021
However, when Raith levelled through Ethon Varian soon after the break, a vulnerability and nervousness crept into their play.
That was exploited in the 71st minute when Dario Zanatta netted the winner to deliver the first major set-back for Glass’ rebuild side. It is a painful and costly one.
Brown was introduced in the 70th minute in one of three changes with Ferguson and Hedges also substituted on as Glass threw on the cavalry in a bid to salvage the tie.
However, they had only been on the pitch a few seconds when Raith went ahead and their task of saving the cup dream became so much tougher.
It is concerning that in the two games Brown has been on the bench, the Reds have struggled.
ABERDEEN: Lewis, Gurr, McCrorie, Gallagher, Hayes, McGeouch (Brown 70< McLennan (Ramsay 75) Jenks (Ferugson 70), Ojo, McGinn (Ramirez 60) Emmanuel-Thomas (Hedges70)
Subs not used: Woods, Mackenzie, Considine, Campbell,
RAITH ROVERS: MacDonald, Tumilty, Dick, Berra, Benedictus, Connolly, Matthews, Zanatta (Fotheringham 89) Tait, Varian (Poplatanik 80) Riley-Snow (Arnott 83),
Subs not used: Thomson, Keatings, Lang, McKay, Mitchell, Young.
Referee: Steven McLean