THE top flight’s World Cup-enforced break at the tail end of last year has split the campaign into two distinct parts for quite a few cinch Premiership sides – with decidedly mixed results.

Take Rangers, for example. With the Govan club’s title charge faltering under the stewardship of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the high-heid yins at Ibrox decided to pull the trigger and replace the Dutchman with Michael Beale during the hiatus. It’s hard to escape the feeling that things have still to click into gear under the new regime but there has been a clear upturn in results.

The most striking contrast in fortunes, though, has surely taken place at Pittodrie. Lest we forget, the Dons went into the break in third place, eight points behind Rangers in second. Aberdeen’s implosion thereafter was staggering as the team embarked on one of the worst runs of form in its history, losing eight out of 11 fixtures since returning – including, of course, that humiliation at Darvel – and the collapse ultimately cost Jim Goodwin his job.

The transformation at Fir Park hasn’t been quite as dramatic as that but it isn’t exactly far off, and the team’s downward trajectory should be every bit as concerning for supporters of the Steelmen. Before the World Cup got under way in late November, performances under Steven Hammell had been encouraging. The former ’Well left-back was handed the reins when Graham Alexander was relieved of his duties in the wake of the 3-0 aggregate defeat to Sligo Rovers in the qualifying rounds of the Europa Conference League.

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Things got off to a pretty good start. They occupied seventh place as the league wound down for the World Cup, just five points behind Hearts, and were accruing a steady 1.1 points per game – more than enough to remain in the division, should they keep it up. In the eight games since, they have collected a paltry three points out of the last available 24 – a rate of 0.38 points per league outing, for those who are counting. That’s relegation form, pure and simple.

Results have nosedived, which will obviously be the primary concern in Lanarkshire, but so too have performances. Pre-Qatar, Motherwell found themselves on the receiving end of a couple of painful outcomes but there was good reason to be optimistic. Even in games where they were dropping points, they were often playing the opposition: see the 3-0 defeat at home to Hearts, where Craig Gordon admitted after the game that he didn’t know how his side had come away with three points; or the goalless draw with Dundee United the week previous, where the hosts battered the visitors 0-0 but somehow failed to break the deadlock.

Those two matches should have had alarm bells ringing at Fir Park. The warning signs were there, even if the team had largely given a good account of themselves. Hammell’s side mustered 46 shots over the combined 180 minutes but no matter what they did or how close they came, they just couldn’t convert. But now, perhaps most concerningly of all, Motherwell aren’t even fashioning those same kinds of opportunities.

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Again, the data tells its own story. In 10 of the 11 games before the league’s shutdown, Motherwell recorded an expected goals (xG) of at least 1.0 in each fixture. Since the return, they haven’t done so once. Winger Stuart McKinstry and midfielder Ross Tierney are Motherwell’s two most potent goal scorers in the league this term from open play – both are averaging around 0.3 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes played – but the duo are also massively out-performing their xG, with the inference being that such output is unsustainable.

The scale of the decline at Fir Park is pulled sharply into focus, too, when we take a look at just who Motherwell have been playing since the restart as they have searched in vain to rediscover their mojo. The ignominious roll-call includes: a 2-2 draw at home to a Kilmarnock side that have picked up two points and scored five goals on the road all season; a 3-2 defeat at home to an out-of-form Hibs; another two dropped points in Lanarkshire to fellow relegation candidates Ross County as they failed to see out a 1-0 lead; a 2-0 loss at Fir Park to a St Johnstone side that had been beat seven times on the spin; and, most recently, the Steelmen were comprehensively out-played by Aberdeen of all teams, bringing the Dons’ four-game losing streak to a close as they were left Pittodrie empty-handed.

It hasn’t exactly been the most daunting fixture list and yet, Hammell’s side have come through it looking decidedly second-best in just about every match. It begs the question: if Motherwell cannot win these types of games, what chance have they got? It’s not as if they have any sort of home record to fall back upon, given they haven’t won a league game in Lanarkshire since a 1-0 triumph over Livingston on matchday three. Heck, St Johnstone have won more Premiership games at Fir Park than ’Well this season.

It all adds up to a very concerning picture for those of a claret-and-amber persuasion. Not since 2015 has Motherwell’s 38-year stay in the Premiership been in such jeopardy, when a memorable 6-1 aggregate win over Stuart McCall’s Rangers ensured they retained their top-flight status for a little longer yet.

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Hammell was there for both legs of that play-off, shuttling up and down the left wing and playing his part as his side were spurred on by Ian Baraclough on the sidelines. Now it is the former full-back who occupies the home dugout at Fir Park; who must find solutions, and fast, if he is to avoid becoming the first manager in nearly four decades to preside over a Motherwell relegation.

At present, Hammell’s team are flimsy at the back and blunt in attack. They need to live up to their moniker and show some steeliness – something that has been in short supply for some time now – if they are to survive the threat of going down.