Scottish Premiership: Is the standard ‘really poor’ or just ‘very competitive’?

Is the standard of the Scottish Premiership “shocking”, or are we just watching a “very competitive” league?

Perhaps it’s possible for fans to accept the answer is somewhere in the middle.

What most supporters won’t stand for, though, is being told English fourth-tier side Morecambe are “100 times better” than their top-flight club. Nor should they accept hearing the Premiership’s current level is “rubbish”.

If Derek Adams’ post-match interview ran any longer on Saturday, he might have told us his nan could score 40 goals a season up here. Maybe he would have referred to the division as a farmers’ league.

It had that vibe, which is unusual from a Scot.

In fairness, a deep dive into recent campaigns perhaps suggests there’s some truth in the Ross County manager’s rant – even if it had the smell of a faceless social media account trying to get bites from Scottish football fans.

On the flipside, Livingston counterpart David Martindale is of the view the “league has become harder” and – outside of the Old Firm – “a lot more competitive”.

So is it one, the another, or both?

Dwindling points, goals & the 3-5-2

Premiership third-placed point tallies graphic

While doing his best to talk up the Scottish game, Martindale also has no issue with Adams’ comments.

The Livingston boss says a “3-5-2 feel” to the league is resulting in “more direct” games of football.

According to Opta, eight of the 10 Premiership teams in action at the weekend used that formation – Adams’ County was one of them.

And, if you include Aberdeen in Sunday’s League Cup final, that number rises to nine from the 12 top-flight sides.

When defending, that shape very much becomes a rigid back five with a midfield trio just ahead.

A more defensive-minded approach? Well, yes. But, if it’s part of a successful blueprint, why would a manager avoid using it?

Given the size of the league and modern football’s sacking culture, Martindale feels it makes the Premiership “more risk-averse” – and that approach could be partly responsible for a lack of flair and fewer goals.

There have been an average of 2.44 goals per game this season. In the past decade, that figure has only been lower once – 2.42 in 2020-21. Including this term, three of the lowest averages have come in the past four campaigns.

That’s also reflected in dwindling points tallies. Since Rangers finished on 70 points in 2017-18, the end-of-season totals for third-placed teams have plummeted.

Aberdeen managed it last year with just 57. This term, 58 is currently projected to be enough.

In that 2017-18 campaign, Hibernian finished fourth with 67 and Kilmarnock ended fifth with 59. Both those clubs broke their record top-flight points hauls that season.

Under Steve Clarke, Kilmarnock repeated that feat the next year by finishing third with 67.

There’s also an issue around recruitment. The money thrown at the Premier League has gradually dripped its way down the tiers, meaning the pool – and standard – of players from England most Premiership teams can afford has been limited.

Livingston’s most recent acquisition, Shaun Donnellan, was signed this week on a pre-contract agreement from Torquay United. They play in the fifth tier of English football.

Is Adams ‘miles off it’?

Adams will ‘come to regret’ Premiership standard comments

But where Adams’ words don’t wash with some is the fact they came after a defeat, his second in five games since returning.

There was no ranting after a goalless draw with Kilmarnock, or the wins over St Mirren and Motherwell.

The remarks also came just days after Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen all earned impressive victories in Europe. They also came just minutes after Heart of Midlothian left Celtic Park with three points on Saturday.

Adams also claimed fans would be questioning their attendance at games given the product on view. Would diluting quality really make you love your club, or the madness of Scottish football, any less?

There’s no evidence to suggest it would. Attendances increased by about 6% last season and those crowds are again watching another season of extremely competitive Premiership football, regardless of the standard on show.

Even at the very top of the table, an absolute ding-dong of a title race seems to be unfolding, with Rangers just five points behind a Celtic side who have played two games more. At this stage last term, the leaders were nine clear.

Meanwhile, five points separate third and seventh – and there are six between the bottom five, which follows a similar pattern to recent seasons.

A four-point gap separating seven teams on the final pre-split matchday of 2021-22 comes to mind.

On Saturday’s Sportscene, James McFadden said Adams is “miles off it” with his remarks.

“We have a good product up here,” the former Scotland forward added. “We have really good players in this league.”

In defence of the Premiership’s standard, McFadden’s comments will be backed up by many. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Can it be better? Yes.

But that should never take away from the raw authenticity of this league. The sheer bedlam that comes along with that is something to be treasured in equal measure.

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