Ross County will be eager to replicate their flying start to 2022 in their efforts to enjoy another successful season in the new year.
The Staggies play their final match of the calendar year tomorrow night, with the trip to Dundee United having quickly become a vital encounter.
County’s season remains in the balance. There is no question they have shown improvement as the campaign has progressed, but have lacked consistency in producing results to show for it.
Malky Mackay’s side are in 11th spot in the Premiershipjust two points ahead of their rock-bottom opponents, who have a game in hand.
With four wins from 18 matches so far, there are similarities to the County position found themselves in 12 months ago as they approach a crucial stage in the season.
The structure of the campaign is slightly different this time around, in that their winter break has already come and gone due to the World Cup.
This time last year, County were only starting their three-week break, having just climbed out of the automatic relegation zone into the same position they now occupy.
At that stage they were nine points adrift of the top-six place they would eventually go on to secure. That is the same deficit to the top half as is currently the case.
Strong start to 2022 put foundations in place for top-six charge
That finish would not have been possible were it not for the strong start they made to 2022.
In their return to action on January 18, County produced an excellent 3-1 win over Motherwell, despite being reduced to 10 men.
It was a result which set the tone for a late end-of-season run-in.
Although there were defeats to Dundee United and Hibernian, spirited draws against Rangers and Aberdeen were followed by a crucial 2-1 victory over Dundee.
At that stage the focus was still on moving clear of the foot of the table, however, a stunning seven-day period changed the mindset completely.
Starting with a 3-1 victory over St Johnstone, County won three games on the bounce, following up with solitary goal wins against Motherwell and St Mirren.
By this point, the attacking guile of Regan Charles-Cook and Joseph Hungbo was starting to truly blossom.
Solid defensive foundations, which Jack Baldwin, Alex Iacovitti and goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw were at the spine of, were also beginning to take shape.
The battle for a top-six place went down to the final weekend before the split, where County met Aberdeen in a showdown at Pittodrie.
Both sides looked like missing out on a top-half finish as the game progressed further towards a goalless draw, until Hungbo’s decisive late spot-kick.
The result was County’s first top-half finish in six years, and it sparked jubilant scenes in the away end.
It prompted County to once again change their target, to secure European football for the first time in the club’s history.
That proved a step too far for the Dingwall side, however, as they had to settle for finishing sixth.
It still remained a significant achievement in Mackay’s first season at the helm, especially considering the way the season looked to be going prior to winter.
Hopes of carrying on from where they left off in the new season were dealt a blow, when Charles-Cook, Hungbo and Blair Spittal were among 10 summer departures.
That trio had netted 25 times between them, which accounted for more than 50% of County’s league goals.
New faces aiming to bring creativity
Of the 10 players brought in during the close-season, a number of them were attack-minded and tasked with filling the void which had been left.
There have been varying levels of success, with Owura Edwards having been given the most game time, and coming up with some important goals.
Jordy Hiwula has regularly featured, but has yet to score in the league following three goals in the Premier Sports Cup, while Kazeem Olaigbe and William Akio have shown promising signs, but have yet to nail down a place in the side.
The introduction of Yan Dhanda into the starting line-up in recent weeks has been significant, however, with the former Swansea City midfielder’s quality of delivery increasing their general level of goal threat.
In the opening weeks of the season, though, the Staggies clearly struggled to replicate the attacking spark of last term.
Two wins from their opening 13 matches, in late fashion against Kilmarnock and Livingston, both had something of a “smash and grab” feel to them.
Amid that sequence there were some difficult days at the office, with the Staggies below-par in defeats to St Mirren, Hibernian and most notably a five-goal drubbing at home to Motherwell.
Improved displays in recent weeks
A 1-0 defeat to Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on October 22 has often been referenced by Mackay and his players as a turning point in the campaign, however, as despite the defeat, there was a clear growth in the Staggies’ attacking threat.
That continued without reward in the following week’s 2-1 loss to Hearts, which was the first of five successive matches in which County netted the opening goal.
Back-to-back wins over Hibernian and St Mirren backed up the improved displays, but they form part of a run of two wins from eight games.
That is a return which the Staggies will be eager to improve on in the coming weeks, with a strong start to 2023 key to their hopes of the climbing the table and notching another positive season.
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[Ross County review of 2022]