Aberdeen will register their worst ever league goal return in the club’s 118-year history if they fail to score three times before the end of the season.
Sitting on 34 goals after 35 Premiership matches the Dons are just two off equaling the club’s worst ever return of 36 – set only four times previously in 1904/05, 1916/17, 2009/10 and 2011/12.
Barring a late scoring spree in the remaining three games Aberdeen’s league goal return is set to be worse than the 1999/00 season when the Reds finished rock bottom of the table under Danish boss Ebbe Skovdahl.
Skovdahl’s side failed to score in the opening six league games only avoided a relegation play-off that season because Falkirk’s Brockville Stadium didn’t meet top flight criteria.
Yet that 1999-2000 team still managed to net 44 times in a 36 game league season – considerably more than the current misfiring Dons that new manager Stephen Glass has inherited.
Skovdahl’s side also managed to book two cup final slots that season.
Current goal return worse than 94-95 Dons side that had to survive a relegation play-off
The Dons’ goal return this season is even worse than in the nerve-wracking 1994-95 campaign when the club finished second bottom and only retained top flight status by triumphing in a play-off with Dunfermline.
That season the Dons hit 43 goals in 36 games – then rattled in a further six in the play-offs to beat the Pars 6-2 on aggregate.
With three Premiership games remaining this season netting three goals to avoid at least matching the club’s worst ever league return may seem straightforward.
However the stats do not back it up – Aberdeen have netted just twice in the last 12 Premiership matches.
Granted there has been green shoots of recovery under the guidance of manager Glass and assistant Allan Russell, the England squad striker coach with performances, and goals, in the 1-1 draw with Celtic and the Scottish Cup penalty shoot-out defeat of Livingston.
Russell’s expertise in attacking coaching and set-piece play will give Aberdeen a stronger chance of avoiding that unwanted record.
However the positive momentum was derailed by the abject performance in losing 3-0 to Dundee United in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at the weekend.
Aberdeen also have to go to Rangers on the final day of the Premiership season.
Rangers have won all 17 league games at Ibrox this season and conceded just three times – scoring 49 in the process.
Aberdeen’s 10 worst seasons for league goal returns:
- 2011/12 – 36 scored, 44 against. League position: Ninth
- 2009/10 – 36 scored. 52 against. League position: Ninth
- 1916/17 – 36 scored, 68 against. League position – Bottom (20th).
- 1904/05 – 36 scored, 26 against. League position- 7th (22 game season)
- 1905/06 – 37 scored, 49 against. League position – 12th (30 game season)
- 1923/24 – 37 scored, 41 against. League position – 13th
- 1913/14 – 38 scored, 55 against. League position – 14th
- 1914/15 – 39 scored, 52 against. League position – 15th
- 1997/98 – 39 scored, 53 against. League position – 6th
- 2002/03 – 39 scored, 63 against. League position – 11th (second bottom).
Why the lack of goals this season?
So what has gone wrong with the Aberdeen attack this season?
By the end of 2020 Aberdeen had netted 27 league goals in 19 games and were in command of third spot, two points ahead of Hibs with a game in hand.
That is a return of 1.42 goals per game.
For contrast, in the 2015/16 campaign when Aberdeen launched a genuine title fight to Ronny Deila’s Celtic the Dons goal return was 1.63 per game for the season.
So, although the Dons in the first half of this season weren’t playing scintillating football they were still scoring and were still third.
The goal return was still reasonable.
The loss of on loan Bristol City striker Marley Watkins to injury was a hammer blow to the Dons attack that they never fully recovered from.
Welsh international Watkins brought energy, intent and flair to the attack.
Crucially he also tied it up with his movement, hold up play and passing.
With Watkins in the team the Dons looked far more potent.
When he suffered a hamstring injury in the 2-0 Scottish Cup semi-loss to Celtic on November 1 it was a major blow.
The injury cut short his loan spell and he never played for the Dons again.
Without Watkins the Reds became blunt in attack and short of ideas.
Since the start of 2021 the Dons have scored just seven goals in 16 Premiership games – a return of 0.43 per game.
The cracks started to show in January when Aberdeen went on a dismal run of six league games where they netted just three goals and took six points from 18.
That would ultimately force a major reshuffle of the attack on the day the winter window shut.
Transfer deadline day loan striker gamble
Early in the January transfer window former boss Derek McInnes confirmed he had no budget available to sign new players.
That would have been a blow to Aberdeen supporters clearly aware of the glaring need to address the lack of goals.
Ultimately everything hinged on the sale of striker Sam Cosgrove who had delivered 20 goals plus in the previous two terms but netted just three this season in 18 appearances having returned from three months out with a knee injury.
Just days before suffering the injury Cosgrove had knocked back a £2.7m move to French second tier side Guingamp after the Dons accepted a move.
On returning to action after his injury Cosgrove did not cause the same goal threat.
The sale of Cosgrove late in the January window to Birmingham City and the £2m fee was the catalyst to change the attack – but it was all a little too late.
In a bid to re-energize a faltering front-line former boss McInnes and the Pittodrie board took a gamble by making major changes on transfer deadline day.
On a hectic day of ins and outs it was a last gap case of ‘rip it up and start again’ as the striking options were changed completely.
In came Florian Kamberi (St Gallen), Fraser Hornby (Stade de Reims) and Callum Hendry (St Johnstone arrived).
Following Cosgrove out the Pittodrie door was Curtis Main who completed a transfer to Shrewsbury on transfer deadline day and Bruce Anderson was sent on loan to Hamilton.
That Anderson impressed, and scored, at Premiership struggles Hamilton will have only added to frustration as still the goals did not come for the Dons.
It is understood Glass is keen to resign the 22-year-old.
Hornby, Hendry and Kamberi, when he finally arrived, were short of the match fitness that comes from regular starts and that was required to go in and immediately make an impact to end the goal drought.
That was key.
Kamberi had no game time for six weeks having last played for St Gallen in a 0-0 draw with Lugano December 16.
As a consequence Kamberi missed the trip to his former club Hibs with the Dons crashing 2-0 to their main rivals for third.
The loan deal had been struck so late it opened up the way for that costly delay.
Scotland U21 international striker Hornby had not played since coming on as a striker in a 2-0 loss to Paris St Germain on September 27.
Neither Kamberi nor Hornby had scored this season – yet were drafted in to fix the Dons glaring and damaging scoring problem.
Hornby would go on to suffer a thigh injury when shooting at goal against Kilmarnock that McInnes termed an ‘absolute disaster’ whilst speculating it could have been caused by lack of previous game time.
Likewise Hendry had limited game time prior to arriving at Pittodrie with his last start for St Johnstone in a 2-1 League Cup defeat of Motherwell on November 28, although he did make six appearances off the bench after that.
Securing Kamberi, Hornby and Hendry on transfer deadline day on short term loan deals was a roll of the dice – that has not paid off.
Hornby and Kamberi started, and Hendry came off the bench as Aberdeen, in losing 1-0 to Celtic, set an unwanted club record on February 17 for the longest run of games without scoring.
It was the first time the Dons have fired a blank in six successive games in the club’s proud 118-year history.
If they do not want to set, or even equal, another unwanted scoring record this season the Reds will have to score three goals in the remaining three Premiership fixtures.
Break-down of striker’s stats this season
If you look at the stats the xG (Expected goals) measure for the three on loan strikers is extremely low.
xG is the number of expected goals based on measures such as the quality of an attempt based on several variables such as shot angle, assist type, type of effort, distance from goal and whether it was defined as a major opportunity.
Kamberi has made eight starts in the Premiership but his xG is 0.59 and in 671 minutes of action he has managed just three shots on target.
The St Gallen centre-forward has had 13 attempts on goal in the Premiership with seven on target – but no goals.
You can see from Kamberi’s touch-map against Dundee United in the 1-0 Premiership defeat the striker had only one touch in the opponent’s box.
Manager Glass opted to move St Gallen striker Kamberi to a role on the left against Celtic and he was far more influential.
This can be see by his touch map for the 1-1 draw against the Hoops where although he had just the one touch in the box he got into dangerous areas on the left flank to deliver crosses – and also on the right when switched.
Kamberi has scored – but that solitary Dons goal came in the Scottish Cup defeat of Livingston.
Likewise Hornby, who has struggled with a groin injury, has an xG of 1.01 and has registered just one shot on target in 388 minutes.
Hornby has mustered 10 attempts on goal with only one on target.
Stats indicate Hendry is the more dangerous in front of goal of the three so far- yet has been given the less opportunity to impress with just two starts.
Hendry’s xG is 1.49 and in 339 minutes he had six attempts at goal and registered just one effort on target – but crucially that was the winner to beat Kilmarnock 1-0.
Hendry is the only loan star to score in the Premiership and he also netted the winner against Dumbarton in the Scottish Cup.
As you can see from the above graphic Hendry had two touches in the heart of the Celtic penalty area.
He also had two early chances in the cup loss to Dundee United but failed to convert.
The lack of goals is a problem that has plagued the Reds for the majority of the season and new manager Glass and assistant Russell have inherited it.
As part of England boss Gareth Southgate’s back-room staff Russell is charged with working with strikers such as Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford there were positive signs already his coaching and that of Glass could bring a more potent edge in attack to the Reds.
Aberdeen looked dangerous against Celtic and Livingston in recent games – only for that momentum to be derailed by the 3-0 Scottish Cup loss to Dundee United.
Testament to defence and keeper Joe Lewis the Dons can still secure a European spot
Remarkably, despite the paucity of goals, Aberdeen will secure European qualification for an eighth successive season if they secure a point at Livingston on Saturday.
If they avoid defeat at the weekend the Reds will confirm a spot in the newly formed Uefa Conference League at the second qualifying stage, with their first tie on July 22.
It is testament to the Aberdeen defence and keeper Joe Lewis that the Dons are on the brink of securing European qualification.
Lewis has registered the most clean sheets of any keeper in the Premiership this season – 17.
The Dons captain has one league shut out more than Rangers’ Allan McGregor (16).
Had the defence been as unreliable as the attack Aberdeen would have been in real trouble this season.
Search is on to find a goal-scorer in the summer
To rectify the situation boss Glass will have to sign not one but two strikers capable of delivering 15 plus goals in the summer – and they do not come cheap.
That is the goal return required to deliver success.
The three loan signings have not delivered it.
Russell certainly has the knowledge and experience to get the best out of the strikers that are signed in the summer.
But they need to land them first so Glass will need financial backing from the board in the upcoming window.
The option is to get in an established goal-scorer or take a gamble on young talent, like Cosgrove who was snapped up as an unknown from Carlisle United for £20,000.
Developing a young striker takes time however and there is no guarantee of a pay-off at the end.
Aberdeen need goal-scorers to come in and hit the ground running in the summer to spearhead the new Glass regime’s bid for success.
That the Reds could yet suffer the ignominy of the worst ever league goal return underlines how fundamental that is to the summer rebuild.
⚽🎙 @brorarangers hope to find out today if their pyramid play-off tie against Kelty Hearts will go ahead.@PJ_PThird had some forthright views on the matter in this week's episode of Northern Goalhttps://t.co/diXPoPzBF1 pic.twitter.com/Mj67nU6Rdy
— EveningExpress Sport (@ee_sport) April 29, 2021