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Analysis: Clock is ticking as Barry Robson searches for defensive solution at Aberdeen

Having tried several combinations, and with other centre-half options yet to taste any action, the Dons boss needs to find the magic defensive formula ahead of a daunting Europa Conference League campaign.

Aberdeen's Angus MacDonald, Slobodan Rubezic and Richard Jensen, who could be key to Barry Robson's defence strategy.
Aberdeen's Angus MacDonald, Slobodan Rubezic and Richard Jensen. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Aberdeen manager Barry Robson prides himself on having a structure in place.

Whether it is training or ensuring his players have all the information they need on the opposition, the one thing Robson and his backroom staff cannot be criticised for is a lack of preparation.

But it has quickly become evident one department of the team which looked to have been corrected following Robson’s arrival in the dugout midway through last season has once again become a problem area. There are defensive issues at Pittodrie.

With only one clean sheet recorded – the opening day goalless draw at Livingston – from their opening seven games this term, the Dons defensive prowess of the second half of the last campaign has been in short supply so far.

We can tell this much: the Aberdeen manager is still looking for the right blend for his favoured back three.

Aberdeen’s Barry Robson had few defence options available in the opening weeks

Player availability ensured the defence effectively picked itself at the start of the campaign, with two players recognised as full-backs – Nicky Devlin and Jack MacKenzie – deployed either side of summer signing Slobodan Rubezic for the first four matches.

Their last outing together as a trio was the 2-2 draw at BK Hacken in the first leg of the Europa League play-off in Gothenburg.

The return of Angus MacDonald led to him being reinstated to the defence on the right side against St Mirren.

Jack MacKenzie and Ryan Duncan go against Hyunjun Yang of Celtic
Aberdeen defender Jack MacKenzie and Ryan Duncan go against Hyunjun Yang of Celtic. Image: Shutterstock.

The Buddies swarmed over the Dons in Paisley and Aberdeen were hugely relieved, and somewhat fortunate, to escape with a point thanks to Bojan Miovsksi’s injury time penalty in a 2-2 draw.

But the display was enough to convince Robson another tweak was needed for the return leg against Hacken last week.

Rubezic the one constant in all seven games so far

It meant a return to the back three for Devlin, who lined up alongside Rubezic in the middle and another new arrival, Finnish international Richard Jensen, on the left of the three.

The brilliance of Ibrahim Sadiq was too much for the new-look backline, though, as the Swedes won 3-1 at Pittodrie to consign Aberdeen to the Conference League.

The Dons manager looked to freshen his side up again for the Premiership visit of Hibernian on Sunday – moving Devlin back out to right wing-back and restoring MacDonald, this time to a central role in the back three flanked by Jensen and Rubezic.

Slobodan Rubezic on the pitch
Slobodan Rubezic is the one player to feature in the back three of all the games to date. Image: SNS.

With Devlin and James McGarry pushing high as attacking wing-backs, there was space in behind and Hibs exploited it down the Dons right in particular in their 2-0 win on Sunday.

While Jensen did a reasonable job of nullifying Martin Boyle, the same cannot be said for the mismatch that was Rubezic against Elie Youan down the other flank.

Rubezic’s strengths are his aerial ability and his aggression, and a turn of pace is not one of them.

But with MacDonald having struggled in Paisley out right the previous weekend, Robson’s decision to switch the two centre-halves was no more successful and Rubezic  was withdrawn at half-time.

Three untried options remain for the Dons

Robson for his part, is acutely aware he has an issue – which is why Dane Stefan Gartenmann was a deadline day loan signing.

Robson, and Aberdeen fans for that matter, will be hoping Gartenmann can be the solution to what is becoming an increasingly glaring problem.

It does raise the question of where his arrival leaves two other summer arrivals who have yet to kick a ball for the club, though…

Rhys Williams was one of the first new Dons in the door following his high-profile loan agreement with Liverpool.

But the central defender has yet to play a minute of competitive football for the first team.

Rhys Williams in action for Aberdeen
Rhys Williams has not featured since pre-season. Image: SNS.

The same can be said for Or Dadia.

The Israeli right-back, who can also play in central defence (and central midfield, apparently), has been an unused substitute for every game apart from Sunday’s loss to Hibs, where neither he nor Williams made the matchday squad.

Dadia and Williams boast European group stage experience in the Conference League and Champions League respectively, yet have not been deemed ready to play.

Both will make their debut at some point, but it’s hard to shake the feeling they are going to be down the pecking order given the options the manager now has.

Weekly tinkering is a stark contrast to stability of Robson’s early tenure

Seven of Robson’s 13 summer recruits are defenders and clearly the Aberdeen manager is spoiled for choice.

What he does not yet have is a solid defensive base to build from.

It’s a far cry from the MacDonald-Mattie Pollock-Liam Scales combination which was pivotal in turning the Dons fortunes around in Robson’s 15 games in charge at the tail-end of last season.

Aberdeen manager Barry Robson, who is looking to improve Aberdeen's defence
Aberdeen manager Barry Robson. Image: SNS.

MacDonald and on-loan Watford defender Pollock played all of the games Robson presided over, with Scales the third man in 11 of them.

He missed one due to injury, one due suspension and was ineligible due to the terms of his loan agreement for the two games against his parent club Celtic.

Here’s hoping the international break affords the Dons boss the opportunity to find that winning blend.

With the Conference League campaign due to get under way later this month at Eintracht Frankfurt, Aberdeen’s hopes of being competitive in Europe will be determined by their ability to be solid defensively.