One word sums up the first half of the 2019-20 season for Aberdeen – injuries.
In many ways it was the story of last season too with the club’s ability to compete hampered by the loss of key players at key moments.
Statistically, the Dons are in the same place in the league today as they were 12 months ago, in fourth place, one point behind third-placed Motherwell.
They are three points worse off on 36 points and in comparative terms have scored four goals less than 12 months ago (30) and conceded two more (26).
It is largely like for like for Aberdeen but the two heavy defeats, 5-0 and 4-0, to Rangers and Celtic earlier in the campaign, have skewed what has otherwise been a pretty solid defensive record.
It is clear, when you compare one season to another, however, the biggest change has been the perception of where the club is in 2020. The Dons were three points behind Celtic and Rangers at this stage last year. Today they trail the Hoops by 16 points while Rangers are 14 clear of the Dons with two games in hand. The gap has widened dramatically between Aberdeen and the two Glasgow clubs and, as a result, a large section of the Aberdeen support believe their team is toiling.
What is undisputed is Celtic and Rangers are making strides forward in terms of their superiority over the rest of the clubs in the division.
What is open to debate though is why Aberdeen, like every other side, have been unable to match their progress this season.
It is this point which Derek McInnes makes when he suggests the Dons cannot compete over a season with Celtic or Rangers but are capable of taking them on in a one-off encounter.
Fans don’t like to hear that of course – but the results across a season have shown McInnes’s point to be a valid one. This season to date has been a step too far for the Dons in their attempt to bridge the gap as best they can but there are reasons for that.
The summer departure of Graeme Shinnie, pictured left, the combative midfielder and driving force as captain of the club, was always going to have a detrimental effect on the team.
The arrival of Craig Bryson and Funso Ojo was supposed to mitigate that loss but injuries to both have been pivotal.
It was only a week ago Ojo stated he felt ashamed as a professional at sitting out three months of the campaign after tearing both hamstrings.
As for Bryson? The only fortune he seems to have had since moving to Pittodrie is of the negative variety with surgery required to fix an ankle which has seemingly taken one knock after another since he joined the club.
No signing is a sure-fire guarantee but Ojo and Bryson are as solid a risk any manager can take. They are experienced, quality campaigners who played regularly and consistently for their previous clubs prior to moving to Aberdeen.
Both suffered serious injuries but their track record is one of durability and dependability. Their absence for through September, October and November has tested the Dons’ engine room but one player who has stepped up is Lewis Ferguson.
There was always a fear second season syndrome could strike the former Hamilton Accies player following his sparkling debut season with the Dons but he has been relentless in continuing to prove himself as a key figure in the Aberdeen line-up.
Ojo has shown the control and poise he can offer with four solid displays since returning from injury in December and we can only hope the Bryson who was regarded as a stellar signing prior to his arrival, gets a chance to put his injury woes behind him in March when he is due to return.
The new arrivals who’ve played most are Ryan Hedges and loan trio Jon Gallagher, Greg Leigh and Zak Vyner. Hedges is a skilful, creative presence but was restricted to the role of impact sub in December. Gallagher is off the mark following his first goal and is set to extend his stay from Atlanta United until the summer but it seems no-one is really sure what his best position is yet.
Leigh and Vyner, full-backs turned midfielders during Bryson and Ojo’s absence, face uncertain futures with Leigh out until March with a broken tibula while Vyner’s season could be over as he waits to discover whether he requires shoulder surgery.
Ash Taylor’s second spell at the club is finally up and running after injury woes of his own and his availability could be crucial in 2020 if Scott McKenna’s twice-yearly transfer saga ever ends with him being sold.
But the two men with the most to prove in the second half of the campaign are Curtis Main and James Wilson. For former Motherwell forward Main, the move to Pittodrie has been disappointment so far.
One goal is nowhere near enough for a player hoping to challenge for the role of Dons striker.
Wilson, a man with fantastic technical ability, for some reason seems incapable of producing it consistently. With his pedigree he should be offering so much more than we’ve seen so far.
Thankfully, there is Sam Cosgrove. A year ago we would have said here’s hoping he can kick on in 2019 after finally hitting some form in front of goal for his club.
Today, the question is can the Dons hang on to him this month? His 32 goals in the calendar year has been nothing short of spectacular considering he had only scored two in his entire Aberdeen career prior to his seven-goal burst in December 2018 which ignited his career.
McInnes is convinced it will get better and in terms of European football Aberdeen are in a strong position to secure Europa League football again at the midway point. Europe is so important as it remains Aberdeen’s best chance of increasing revenue and improving the team.
Last summer saw another opportunity missed and it has to be hoped 2020 can be the year qualification for the group stages becomes a reality for the club.
The League Cup penalty shoot-out exit at Hearts was a sore one for the Dons but they can make amends in the Scottish Cup. It has been 30 years since Aberdeen last lifted the trophy but with a bit of luck, and if they get their players back, there is no reason why McInnes’s men cannot get to Hampden for a semi-final at least, if not the final itself.