Five things we learned: Inverness 1, Ayr United 1

The Honest Men’s 17 year wait for a win at the Caledonian Stadium continues after Nikolay Todorov netted a late equaliser for a seriously understrength Inverness. On balance, it was probably a fair result; the home side had a number of good chances on the break and earlier in the match Todorov was unlucky with a header early that may well have crossed the goal line. That said, a late Cammy Smith free-kick arguably drew the best save of the match.

Here are five talking points from the Championship clash between these two play-off hopefuls:

  1. Andy Murdoch shone on his return to the middle

When Mark Kerr was forced to withdraw influential midfield pivot Joe Chalmers in the 57th minute of the game United were able to benefit not only from replacement Innes Cameron’s immediate impact but also from Andy Murdoch moving back into the middle of the park.

Up until that point in the game Murdoch had been asked to, as Mark Kerr acknowledged, “do a shift” on the right side of a midfield four, just as Michael Moffat was required to do on the left; with Kerr’s more natural wide options, Walsh, Zanatta and McCowan all unavailable. It has been a sluggish start to the season for Murdoch and his posting out wide — despite have played a number of matches earlier in his career at right-back — was doing him or the team few favours. However, for the last half-an-hour of this game we saw Murdoch close to his best in amongst the hurly-burly of an increasing congested and frantic midfield, tackling, intercepting and even winning headers.

As mentioned last week, the balance of our midfield requires some refinement, notwithstanding the missing personnel. Andy Murdoch has perhaps been the biggest casualty of these teething problems but on Saturday he made a strong claim to ensure a position at its heart. United’s best spell of the game followed his move inside. Mark Kerr made the most with what he had at his disposal; but the aforementioned missing attacking trio would have seriously tested a Caley defence which at times looked suspect.

2. Aaron Muirhead is a competent right-back

With Jordan Houston’s preparations for the season interrupted by injury (the full-back didn’t feature in any of United’s pre-season bounce games), Aaron Muirhead has operated at right-back for the Honest Men this season. The former Falkirk and Partick Thistle man is much-maligned among a section of the United support but, again, he put in a more than passable performance in the Highlands at the weekend.

Muirhead has played over 130 games at right-back in his career, the majority of them in the Championship at Falkirk; any notion that he is being deployed out-of-position is wrong. He also possesses experience and leadership qualities many suggest is missing from Mark Kerr’s squad. Furthermore, he is more than happy to get forward and contribute across the halfway line and even in the opposition box. Indeed, if anything, Muirhead can sometimes be too vociferous in seeking to be played in when galloping into opposition territory.

Save for one clumsy moment in this game, where a slip just over the half-way line allowed Cameron Harper to be released down the Inverness left, close scrutiny of Muirhead’s performance leaves little to be concerned about. His second-half performance was especially disciplined.

Is Houston a better option at right-back? It is not as straightforward a decision as some may think.

3. In time, Anderson and Smith can be a dangerous combination.

With three years between them, Bruce Anderson and Cammy Smith’s paths didn’t cross in Aberdeen’s first-team dressing-room. Smith’s post-match alluded to the fact that the two are not complete strangers, however, and there were promising signs that the Aberdonian-duo can strike up a promising partnership during their time in Ayrshire.

Smith, who only joined up with the squad on Thursday, reprised the №10 role which made him such a success during St. Mirren’s Championship season, supporting Anderson in a formation that switched between 4411 and 4231; he was at the centre of most that was good from the Honest Men. Anderson, himself with little more than a week’s training with his temporary teammates under his belt, had a more difficult 90 minutes; Inverness’ back three took turns to come through the back of the striker while his hold-up play and first touch with his back to goal was imperfect.

Like in the Queen of the South game the previous week, Anderson was a little too isolated up front — but on a number of occasions he was able peel off into the right channel and was fed the ball by Smith in space. Add Tom Walsh to the equation, with a supporting cast of Zanatta, McCowan Moffat and Cameron, a the Honest Men should be an irresistible force in attack.

4. Ayr’s squad is strong enough to maintain a top four challenge

With the signing of striker Innes Cameron on Thursday, Mark Kerr confirmed there would be no more incomings at Somerset Park for the time being. With Cameron and Cammy Smith added this week, Kerr will now be able to call on a squad comprising seventeen ‘first teamers’ supplemented by five-or-six youngsters — at least until January. With budgetary constraints exacerbated by Coronavirus it is a pragmatic squad, studiously assembled by the management team that seems to strike the right balance between quality and quantity.

“We’re really happy with the business we’ve now done and the board have been unreal in how they’ve backed us in going for our targets.”

United’s depth chart is weakest in the goalkeeping position, left-back (with Finn Ecrepont gaining valuable experience out on loan with Albion Rovers) and centre-back; but Kerr is well served in most forward departments and the versatility of the likes of Michael Miller will be welcome. Innes Cameron provides a different dimension with his height and strength and will allow us to change up our shape and be multidimensional in attack; if there is one concern it is that the squad is not blessed with a lot of pace.

5. We cannot make an assessment of Inverness yet

The annual clearance of talent from the Caledonian Stadium was significant this summer, with Shaun Rooney (St. Johnstone), Charlie Trafford (Hamilton Academical), Carl Tremarco (Ross County) and Jordan White (Motherwell) all departing for Premiership clubs and Tom Walsh returning to Ayrshire to sign for the Honest Men. It would take any side some time to adjust to the loss of five key first team players but John Robertson’s efforts have been further hampered by a severe injury list.

Inverness were without Lewis Toshney, Kevin McHattie, David Carson, Miles Storey, James Vincent, Aaron Doran, Sean Welsh and Shane Sutherland for this match, with Robertson choosing to switch to a back three to best accommodate the squad members available. That won’t help new signings like Robbie Deas and Wallace Duffy find their rhythm and, until the Highlanders return to something approaching full strength, it would be foolish to read too much into their early season form. Youngers such as Cameron Harper (18), Roddy MacGregor (18) and Danny Mackay (19) are all picking up valuable first team experience meanwhile and this could be a valuable point at the end of the season.