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Stats show Aberdeen’s defensive improvements under Barry Robson go far deeper than clean sheets – as Willie Garner hails “mettle” of MacDonald-Pollock-Scales trio

Data from Statsbomb shows more aggressive defending from the front under Robson and stark reduction in quality and frequency of opposition chances.

Aberdeen boss Barry Robson shakes hands with defender Mattie Pollock following the Dons' 1-0 win at Ross County. Image: SNS
Aberdeen boss Barry Robson shakes hands with defender Mattie Pollock following the Dons' 1-0 win at Ross County. Image: SNS

Aberdeen director Willie Garner says he has been “delighted” by the Dons’ defensive solidity under Barry Robson, with key stats laying bare the aggressive approach instilled by the new manager.

Robson’s Reds are on a six-game winning run in the Premiership – which has them five points clear in the potentially-lucrative third spot.

A massive part of the Dons’ turnaround under Robson has been their meanness in defence.

Robson was initially appointed interim gaffer back in late January following Jim Goodwin’s sacking due to a rotten run which had dropped Aberdeen into the bottom six.

His first big calls were to loan out the leader of Goodwin’s ropey backline, captain Anthony Stewart, and to bolster his centre-back options by taking Mattie Pollock on loan from Watford and signing Angus MacDonald to a short-term deal.

Barry Robson loaned out Aberdeen centre-half Anthony Stewart, who had been captain under Jim Goodwin. Image: Shutterstock

Those decision have paid off in a big way – as Robson secured the fifth clean sheet of his tenure with a 1-0 win at Ross County on Friday night.

After just nine matches, Robson has the same amount of shut-outs as Goodwin managed in 23 Premiership games in charge of the Dons this season.

Former centre-half Garner has been impressed with the defensive accomplishments of Robson’s side, particularly Pollock and MacDonald’s impact playing alongside Liam Scales in a back three.

Garner said: “It’s helped Liam Scales if I’m being honest – the performances have been consistent in terms of their defensive qualities.

“Ross County, to their credit, threw everything at us, and we dealt with it. Maybe three or four months ago we wouldn’t have dealt with that as well as we did.

“Pollock, MacDonald and Scales, I saw the three of the them at the end cuddling each other, and that’s just a testament to the way they feel they’ve played as well, because it was a battle.

Aberdeen’s Angus MacDonald, Mattie Pollock and Liam Scales (L-R) after the 1-0 win at Ross County. Image: SNS

“Defensively we had to be on our mettle, and I’m pretty sure the guys knew before that was the type of game it was going to be – balls from the back, and the big County full-back’s arms must have been sore as well from the number of throw-ins he was launching (into the Dons’ area) as well.”

A run which now stands at seven victories across Robson’s nine matches has resulted in the former midfielder being given the chance to earn the manager’s job long-term over the remainder of the campaign.

Garner, who was one of the senior figures at Pittodrie tasked with appointing Goodwin’s successor, before Robson’s win streak made him impossible to ignore, added: “Barry’s in there just now and probably couldn’t have done any better getting six wins on the bounce as well, and we just hope that continues.

“We’re guaranteed top six after the Kilmarnock game and the win at Ross County enhanced it a little bit as well.

“We’ll just see how things go, but we’re happy with the way things are going just now.”

Aberdeen director Willie Garner. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Dons are winning ball back faster, and limiting opposition inside their area, stats reveal

The clean sheet count under Robson is the headline figure in the Dons’ defensive improvements, with six shut-outs overall in the 44-year-old’s nine games in charge.

Aberdeen have conceded nine times under the Inverurie native’s stewardship – a 4-0 defeat at Celtic in his third game providing a significant chunk of those goals-against, with the others coming in his first two matches: three in a 3-1 home defeat at home to St Mirren, then one in the 3-1 win at Motherwell, as well as another at Tannadice in the 3-1 victory against Dundee United on March 4.

Despite the seven goals conceded against Celtic and St Mirren inflating the number, the Dons have still only averaged one goal-against per-90-minutes under Robson, compared to almost two (1.87) under sacked boss Goodwin in his league games managing Aberdeen this term.

Aberdeen manager Barry Robson. Image: SNS

Robson’s side have near enough matched their expected goals against score (which rates the quality of the opposition chances against them – xGA) of 1.07.

The team were under-performing against their xGA in Goodwin’s matches, according to Statsbomb, who think the then-dodgy defence should have only been averaging 1.48 goals conceded every 90 minutes in the earlier portion of the campaign.

Statsbomb’s numbers make it clear Aberdeen, under Robson, are reaping the rewards of more aggressive approach to defending across the whole team – which has meant a stark reduction in the quality and frequency of opposition chances.

Several commentators have noted Aberdeen look fitter under Robson, and upping the intensity with which they press from the front, through forwards like Duk, means they are now making a tackle, foul or interception after 9.32 opposition passes, rather than after 9.71 under Goodwin.

Aberdeen manager Barry Robson with Duk. Image: SNS

They are also challenging their rivals’ pass recipients within the first two seconds – whether it’s tackling, pressuring or fouling them –  more often (87.67 times-per-90 under Robson, 64.78 under Goodwin), and winning the ball back within five seconds more often, too (46.78 under Robson, 42.35 under Goodwin).

This improved approach to defending from the front is a contributing factor to lowering the goals against and expected goals against tallies under Robson.

Aberdeen’s revamped back-three are also aiding in keeping the back door shut – with passes completed by the opposition in the Dons’ box  and opposition close-range shots both down significantly (3.61 per 90 down to 2.44/1.87 per 90 down to just one) since Robson took charge.

Mattie Pollock and Angus MacDonald at Aberdeen training on Wednesday. Image: SNS

The latter number feels crucial – Robson’s Aberdeen are letting their opposition in for just a single close-range effort on average every game (while also halving both their penalties-against count, and the goals/xGA from their rivals from set-pieces, compared to Goodwin’s league games in the hotseat this term).

‘He wants to go and put teams under pressure’

Despite having not seen Statsbomb’s figures, Garner – who as well as being a Dons defender in the 1970s and 80s was also Alex Ferguson’s assistant manager for a spell – is among those onlookers who have noted the increased hunger to win the ball back and deny the Reds’ opponents opportunities under Robson.

Garner knows it is an approach, alongside having a potent attack in possession, which can help Aberdeen compete in every game, saying: “He (Robson) wants to go and put teams under pressure when it’s the right time to do it.

“If we can get the ball back as quick as we possibly can, then even better, because we’ve got ability in the middle of the park where we can go and exploit these types of things.

“Game-by-game, we just need to make sure we’re in each game, that’s important.”