IT has been a whirlwind few years in East Lothian. Livingston suffered an ignomious relegation to League One back in 2016 but haven't looked back since.

The decision to retain the services of David Hopkin as manager was a crucial one. Under his guidance, Livi stormed to the title in Scotland's third tier, finishing 19 points clear of their nearest rivals. In the 2017/18 season, Livingston went one better, taking the Championship by storm as Hopkin steered the club to a second-placed finish. They faced Partick Thistle in the Premiership play-offs and outplayed them comfortably over the two legs.

Livi's meteoric rise took many by surprise, and rightly so: the last team to achieve successive promotions from the third and second tier in Scotland were Gretna in 2006 and 2007. Not even Rangers managed to do so.


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But then, the problems started. Hopkin resigned and was replaced by Kenny Miller as player-manager. The youth academy was closed. Miller left after a few games in charge. Few would have been surprised if the wheels fell off and Livi lingered at the bottom of the table for the remainder of the season.

Incredibly, though, Livingston thrived. Gary Holt was brought in and hit the ground running, building on the tactical template that Hopkin had laid the groundwork for. Livingston's identity shone through and the club rocketed up the league table. By Christmas, their top-flight survivial was all but confirmed. The West Lothian club finished the season in ninth place, comfortably clear of the relegation zone.

And then, this summer, more upheaval. Liam Kelly, Craig Halkett, Declan Gallagher, Shaun Byrne and Ryan Hardie - the spine of Holt's first team - all left for pastures new. Once again, questions were raised over whether or not Livi could sustain their top-flight status. And once again, Holt and his players have answered those doubts emphatically.

Four games into the league season, Livingston are one of just two teams who are yet to lose a match. A raft of new signings were made and have wasted to time whatsoever in settling in. Holt's team look every bit as strong - possibly even stronger - than they were last season. 

There is certainly an argument to be made that over the last year or two, there are few clubs in Scottish football who have repeatedly responded to adversity with such vigour as Livingston. So, how do they do it?


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The answer appears to be two-fold. Firstly, Livingston's recruitment has been nothing short of superb. Since their relegation in 2016, Livi stuck with many of the players that earned the club back-to-back promotions, with great success. But many have now moved on, and Livingston's ability to bring in players that fit their system is truly remarkable. Players like Lyndon Dykes, Nicky Devlin and Marvin Bartley are already playing as though they've been at the Tony Macaroni for years.

Perhaps more crucially, though, Holt and his predecessor Hopkin have forged a strong tactical identity that new players can slot into. Livi have created a reputation of being tough, difficult to beat and hard-working. And if they can bring this attitude to Ibrox on Saturday, there is no reason Holt's players can't pull off a shock result.

Livingston have identified what their players are capable of - and, perhaps more crucially, what they are not capable of - and geared their entire tactical system around it. Holt's team are a fairly physical side and play to their strengths accordingly - and the data from this season bears that out. They are a team of extremes; often the best or the worst in certain metrics, but rarely anywhere in between.

Livingston don't excel at passing the ball - they have the lowest passing accuracy of any Premiership side - so they don't attempt that many (only Hamilton pass the ball less). Instead, Livingston rely on long balls that bypass the midfield and get the ball up to their forwards quickly. It works, too: no side attempts as many long balls as Livingston in the Premiership, and only Celtic complete more passes into the opposition box. It isn't an especially innovative or aesthetically-pleasing brand of football, but there can be little doubt that it gets results.

Additionally, the Livi squad don't have many natural dribblers, so they rarely try to attack in this way. Similarly, they're not particularly good at crossing the ball, so they only do so occasionally. Instead, they rely on getting the ball forward quickly and this approach often pays off. Critics will argue that it's a one-dimensional approach but it is clearly effective.


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Livingston's greatest asset, however, is their ability to win the ball back. Holt's team attempt around 70 defensive duels per game, winning around two thirds of them (comfortably the best rate in the league). In the air, few teams are as dominant as the West Lothian outfit and no-one comes close to the number of headers that Holt's team contest per 90 minutes. Livingston average around 81 headers per match - 27 more than the league average, and almost precisely double the number that Rangers attempt, for example.

This style of play is not without its pitfalls, however. Livingston give the ball away around 128 times per league fixture - the highest figure in the division - as a consequence of their long-ball style. Around half of the time, their searching balls forward will find their man but they will give the ball away just as often. But Livi can afford to do this, safe in the knowledge that they have the right players - and the correct sytem - to win it back when this happens.

When Holt's team travel to Ibrox this weekend, the home side will undoubtedly be the favourites. It is a big ask for Holt's side to cause an upset but you can count on the 46-year-old preparing to do exactly that. After all, Livingston have a happy habit of defying expectations and confounding their critics. They play to their strengths and get their recruitment spot on and over the last three years, haven't really put a foot wrong. Don't be surprised if they shock us all again on Saturday. It certainly wouldn't be the first time they have done so.