Livingston: Can Gary Holt keep all-action club punching above its weight?
|Scottish Premiership: Livingston v Rangers|
|Venue: Tony Macaroni Arena, Livingston Date: Sunday, 10 November Kick-off: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Scotland, live text updates on the BBC Sport Scotland website & app|
Shorn of his colossal captain, artful striker, two of his top scorers and the bedrock of a mighty defence, Gary Holt had a serious summer rebuild on his hands at Livingston.
After 12 Scottish Premiership fixtures, his team are seventh in the table, one of five sides wedged in the bottom half separated by just three points.
They have lost to Hamilton Academical, yet claimed the scalp of Celtic. They were beaten at Kilmarnock, but gave a glowing account of themselves at Ibrox.
This is a side that seems to revel in the cut-and-thrust of high-profile exchanges.
On Sunday, they host a Rangers outfit that have lost only one league game, and are second to their Glasgow rivals on goal difference alone.
Here, BBC Scotland charts the story of Livingston's campaign so far, and analyses the club's chances of securing their top-flight status for a third year running.
Plugging holes in defence
After winning promotion in 2018, Livingston delivered a highly credible debut season in the Premiership, earning 44 points and finishing ninth. That success was built on the foundation of a formidable defence.
Holt's men had the sixth-best defensive record in the division, conceding just 1.16 goals per league match.
However, the defence that propelled them to another year in the top tier has since been dismantled. Inspirational skipper Craig Halkett left for Hearts, Declan Gallagher moved to Motherwell and goalkeeper Liam Kelly ventured south to Queens Park Rangers.
Holt has rebuilt the rearguard by fusing the players that remained with smart signings. Stopper Matija Sarkic arrived on loan from Aston Villa and was brilliant in the win over Celtic, since earning his maiden Montenegrin call-up. In place of Halkett and Gallagher, the Livingston manager has turned to Alan Lithgow, Ricki Lamie and new signing Jon Guthrie - and it seems to be working.
Lamie currently wins 7.33 headers per 90 minutes (when he plays in central defence), which is more than Halkett or Gallagher averaged last season. Guthrie sits just behind him on 7.15. And while Halkett's average of 6.68 interceptions per 90 minutes remains unmatched this season, Lamie and Lithgow's own scores of 6.27 and 5.21 respectively are by no means poor.
Livingston's defensive record has crept up to 1.42 goals conceded per game and is the joint-sixth-best in the Premiership so far this season - no mean feat given the scale of the summer losses.
New solutions up front
It was not solely in defence where Holt had to quickly come up with new ideas - his goalscoring threats were also diminished with Halkett and on-loan striker Ryan Hardie, each of whom netted seven times, moving on.
The manager has once again found alternatives and may well have improved on what came before. Holt signed Lyndon Dykes, who has bagged five goals in 13 appearances this season - just two fewer than Hardie's tally in 22 outings.
Steven Lawless, one of Livingston's most important players, has also posted notably improved numbers in the new campaign. Last term, he was averaging 0.29 league goals or assists per 90 minutes. This season, he has more than doubled that return to around 0.65, or a still impressive 0.47 if penalties are excluded.
As such, Livingston's goalscoring record has risen by almost 20% per game, and they have the fifth-best attack in the league.
While Holt's side may maintain their reputation for all-action, defence-first performances, their added attacking ammunition could probe a vital fillip.
'It's a team in transition' - analysis
Livingston midfielder Marvin Bartley on BBC Radio Scotland
Gary Holt said that he had lost some important players that had brought the club up through the divisions and helped them survive last season. He told us that he was trying to improve on what he had lost as much as he could.
It's a team in transition, a team that is learning, but I think we'll improve s the season goes on and we begin to gel.
The aim is to get more than 44 points. I think we do have the players to better that but we've been unlucky in the first third of the league campaign.