Hamilton Accies travelled to Fir Park on Saturday knowing a defeat to arch rivals Motherwell could be disastrous. Graham Alexander’s side would have moved eleven points clear of their Lanarkshire counterparts (albeit having played a game more) while Accies would remain rooted to the foot of the table.
Instead, a resounding 4-1 win propelled them to within five points of the Steelmen with a game in hand. Brian Rice’s side leapfrogged Ross County having played a game less, and are now just one point behind struggling Kilmarnock with two matches to catch up on them. Suddenly, Accies are looking up rather than down.
That’s now two exceptional results on the trot for Hamilton, and to say they were unexpected would be an understatement. Rangers had only dropped points in one of their previous nineteen league fixtures before Ross Callaghan’s late equaliser last weekend, while Motherwell were on a run of three wins in four matches prior to their collapse on Saturday.
Accies, on the other hand, had won just once in their eight previous games (incidentally also against Motherwell). In each of the five matches before that Rangers draw, they failed to reach an Expected Goals (xG) tally of one – 0.69 against Ross County, 0.24 at Celtic, 0.63 and 0.64 against Dundee United and Kilmarnock and even a mere 0.72 in January’s 3-0 win over Motherwell.
Statistically, they overachieved their xG of 2.9 by scoring four during this stretch of games – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, this tally was boosted significantly by Motherwell goalkeeper Mark Chapman’s errors in that sole victory (Chapman has since been ousted by new signing Liam Kelly). These lowly chance creation stats point to a severe lack of attacking flair in the final third.
That hadn’t been Accies’ only issue, though; there were plenty of problems at the other end of the park as well. Rice’s side have the joint-worst defensive record in the Premiership this season, having conceded 53 goals, and shipped eleven during an eight-match run from December 23rd to February 3rd. Over the course of this season, they’ve conceded an average of 2.01 Expected Goals Against (xGA) per game.
In short, Hamilton fans could have been forgiven for worrying about a repeat of Rangers’ 8-0 triumph in early November.
Instead, Accies battled to a more than credible draw against Steven Gerrard’s all-conquering side. While they had just 36% of possession, they expertly reduced Rangers to mostly playing meaningless keep-ball and actually created the better opportunities. Their xG of 1.97 was significantly higher than Rangers’ 0.68, and had Callaghan not grabbed that last-ditch equaliser then Rice would have felt extremely hard done by.
As though to prove that result was not the simple by-product of a flash in the pan performance, Accies proceeded to come flying out the blocks against Motherwell. Within 31 minutes, they had both a three-goal lead and a one-man advantage after stand-in Motherwell captain Stephen O’Donnell was shown a red card. Their 2.27xG was their second highest of the 2020/21 campaign so far, and Motherwell rarely threatened outwith the penalty they were awarded after already falling 4-0 behind.
These are the veins of form Hamilton need to find more often if they want to ensure survival for another season. The bottom of the table is as tight as it’s been in recent seasons and there is no question that Accies are used to finding themselves in situations like this; however, surviving in previous seasons doesn’t automatically mean it will happen again. The four points gained in their previous two matches need to act as a benchmark for the rest of the season.
So what do Rice’s side need to do to both maintain this form and build on it?
One thing they need to work on is raising their game against sides other than Motherwell. Hamilton have won six games from twenty-seven this season, and half of them have been against their Lanarkshire neighbours. They have won by a two or more-goal margin just three times this campaign, and two of those occasions were against Motherwell again (the weekend’s 4-1 win and January’s 3-0 triumph).
It is certainly commendable when teams turn in performances of a higher standard than usual, but Accies’ tendency to save these occasions for Motherwell matches is strange. Whether this is a coincidence or is simply down to a lack of motivation for other seemingly less meaningful matches, something has to change. It’s all well and good thrashing your rivals, but Accies need to find this form in other matches.
What about the recent 2-1 home defeat to Ross County, where conceding two late goals allowed a massive three points to slip away? What about the 2-0 loss to Kilmarnock in early January, a match which Kilmarnock have followed up on by embarking on a seven-game losing streak? Where was this Hamilton pride and motivation during these vital matches?
These are the fixtures Rice needs to find a way of extracting points from if his Hamilton team are to ensure another season in the top flight comes to pass. To do this, he has to increase the number of times Accies score first in games.
Hamilton, as mentioned above, have won six times this season. They have scored the opening goal in five of these matches, meaning that all but one of their 2020/21 victories have come after scoring first. This 83% reliance on scoring before their opponent highlights the importance taking the lead has to them. In short, if Accies don’t score first then they are unlikely to leave with three points.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact Hamilton have only scored five equalisers this campaign, despite going behind twenty-one times. If they concede first, you can expect them to drop points. This means that scoring first in matches is of vital importance to them going forward. In the eight games they have taken the lead in this season, Accies have held on for three points 75% of the time. They might not take the lead very often, but when they do they make it count. That’s why Rice needs to figure out a method of scoring first on a more regular business.
Accies have work to do to make sure their last two matches aren’t in vain; while the points gained against Rangers and Motherwell are impressive, both opponents were off colour. However, that takes nothing away from Hamilton themselves; they improved defensively, worked tirelessly and improved both their xG and their goalscoring itself.
Rice now must find a way to get his players performing like this week after week. If he can manage that, then Accies will continue to look up rather than down.