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Unbeaten in ten: The numbers behind Livingston’s revival

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When Gary Holt resigned as Livingston manager on November 26th, the club were in a perilous situation. Sitting tenth the the SPFL Premiership table, they had taken just one point from their previous five matches and were looking down rather than up. 

David Martindale, at that point Livingston’s head of football operations, took temporary charge. It’s been a remarkable turnaround ever since, with the West Lothian side unbeaten in ten having emerged unscathed from two consecutive matches against reigning champions Celtic. They now sit fifth in the table and are in with a shout of qualifying for European football (albeit an outside one). 

It is not uncommon for teams to go through honeymoon phases after hiring a new manager; in fact, it tends to happen frequently. However, Livingston’s revival has been nothing short of extraordinary; a team battling relegation just shy of two months ago are now performing comfortably as one of ‘the best of the rest’. 

So what are the reasons behind this change in fortunes? Has it been some Martindale magic? Or some rallying from Robinson? Here are the numbers behind Livingston’s charge up the table.

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It’s no secret that good defending makes it easier to win football matches, and Martindale seems to have concocted a magic formula for his back line. In Livingston’s final eight matches before Holt’s resignation, they conceded 13 goals – an average of 1.6 each game. Since Martindale took the reigns, they’ve let in just five in ten games (three in nine before their 2-2 draw with Celtic two nights ago), which equates to just 0.6 per game. 

That’s, on average, a whole goal less they’re letting in per game, which is a massive difference. Livingston’s defence has clicked over the past few weeks and the results have been outstanding.

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Livi are scoring more, as well. Holt’s final eight matches in charge brought just eight goals; this number isn’t remarkably low, but it’s well below the level needed for sustained success. It is no coincidence that improved results have come hand in hand with increased goalscoring exploits.

Martindale’s side have tucked away 16 chances in their first eight league matches under the Scotsman, and that number rises to 22 in ten if we include their two League Cup ties during his tenure so far. Those league games have brought an average of two goals scored during each, which once again is a whole goal more than they were averaging prior to Holt’s resignation. 

In short, they are scoring one more and conceding one less per game. That takes a 2-1 loss to a 2-1 win, so it’s not difficult to see why they’ve improved so much. Martindale has reinstilled confidence at both ends of the pitch. 

Upon his appointment, the new coach dropped Jay Emmanuel-Thomas from his starting striker position and originally replaced him with Scott Robinson. His faith has been rewarded so far with the 28-year-old bagging four goals and two assists during these first ten games, and he now has 0.38 goals or assists per 90 minutes this season – a commendable record. 

Emmanuel-Thomas has started just two matches since, having started the four prior to Martindale’s appointment. In the two games he has been back in the first eleven (against Kilmarnock and Celtic) he has scored. Martindale has found a way of getting his strikers firing, and Livingston are reaping the rewards.

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But what are Livingston actually doing differently? Has their style of play changed? Well, let’s take a look at the formations they were playing before Martindale took the job, and how they’ve been setting up since. 

In the last four games of Holt’s reign, they played three or four different formations depending on how you look at it. They played a 4-2-3-1 in a 1-0 loss to St Mirren, a 4-3-3 in matches against Ross County and Motherwell, and interchanged between a 3-4-3 and 5-3-2 when they were beaten by Rangers. Holt couldn’t seem to find a formation that worked, and the chopping and changing of systems did his players no favours. 

Martindale has brought consistency. In each of his first four matches, Livingston lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, and have proceeded to do so in all but two of their last ten. The two exceptions were the consecutive matches against Celtic, where the coach opted for 4-4-2 and 4-3-2-1 formations respectively (something plenty of teams do when playing the Old Firm, so this comes as no surprise). The players know how they’re going to line up, they know the system and are therefore performing better. They don’t have to get used to a new formation between each game. 

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, have been Martindale’s thoughts on the importance of possession. In their eight league games since he took charge, Livingston have averaged just 43.1% possession in games. This rises slightly to a 46% average if we don’t include matches against the Old Firm, which tend to skew stats like this. In their eight matches before that, they had an average of 48.1% possession – which again rises to 54.3% if we take out their two matches against the Old Firm. That’s a difference, on average, of 8.3%.

So since Martindale entered the vicinity, Livingston have had less of the ball and yet have both created and converted more chances. They now seem more content to remain solid at the back and hit opponents on the break, rather than bossing the ball and dictating the play themselves. Martindale looks to have informed his team that having possession isn’t everything; it’s what they do with it that counts. At the moment, everything they do with it is turning to gold.

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Livingston’s recent run of form has been exceptional, and there have been a number of contributing factors. They’ve been scoring more goals, despite having less of the ball. They’ve tightened things up at the back and have settled on a preferred formation.

It’s not been rocket science, but the job David Martindale has done cannot be underestimated. He’s taken a team riddled with a lack of confidence and turned them into one of the Premiership’s form sides. If his side can maintain this high level of performance, they’ll have every reason to believe they can catch Hibernian in fourth place. 

Fans will look back fondly on the Gary Holt era, but the age of Martindale has well and truly begun.

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Journalist for the Lynn News. Journalism graduate from Stirling University. Part-time (and overly harsh) film critic.

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