Well this has been quite an eventful week! After last Saturday’s dismal defeat in Ayr the board acted quickly to appoint a new manager and on Monday evening it was confirmed that Robbie Neilson would assume control on a contract that runs until the end of the 2019/20 season. For the trip to Firhill it will be a case of the United support getting right behind the new manager and his players as he looks to get off to a winning start.
The job that Neilson has in front of him is a massive one but he is under no illusion of that. He has spoken very positively in his interviews and there have been former colleagues and players singing the praises of his work ethic and commitment to management. The United squad should know that they are to be put to work in a way that was never Laszlo’s style but that, on paper, seems like a good thing. The Hungarian had the squad training more than ever before but the impression from St.Andrews was that the sessions and hours were long and boring, rather than short and intensive. In no place of work that involves teaching and developing people should you ever stand and talk at them for prolonged periods of time. You shouldn’t over complicate things either and it seems to be the case that for a number of months this United squad have been on the receiving end of some very long and very confusing routines. Neilson is aiming to change that.
I spoke to the players this morning about the objective. There’s no point denying it, the objective for ourselves, Ross County, Inverness Caley Thistle, Dunfermline, there are probably about eight teams out of the 10 whose aim is to get promoted.
The only way you do that is by winning on Saturday. There’s no point looking ahead to May.
In terms of squad he has also been speaking in positive terms and the chairman has confirmed that the playing staff will not be altered significantly so Neilson will have to work with what he has. The interesting thing for me came at the end of his first press conference when Mike Martin was asked as a follow-up question what the term ‘Head Coach’ meant. Martin said that it was purely an administrative thing but the longer term aim of the club is to at some stage appoint a much needed ‘Director of Football’. Hopefully this happens sooner rather than later as we have missed that kind of presence in the boardroom to act as a buffer between the board and the manager. The manager has said this is still something that may take time but it is good that the club see this as an ideal structure in the future.
I don’t really think I can do a team prediction for tomorrow because I have no idea how Neilson wants us to play. He has spoken about a more attacking and quicker style of football but no mention of systems or shape. What I am going to do instead is give a mini-breakdown of how the squad looks as we reach the end of this first quarter –
Still very much a case of being very wary of both Matej Rakovan and Benjamin Siegrist. Until the Ross County game I would have said that Rakovan, who started this year as number one, was reasonably solid but unconvincing. Unfortunately for him the home defeat against County highlighted his frailties and he made some very costly errors. His depute, Siegrist, hasn’t been given much game time but he also looks a bit unsteady. Hopefully one of them steps up in the coming months.
We also still have Deniz Mehmet on the books but he is unlikely to feature given his serious injury and the fact that his contract expires in January. One thing I am still surprised with is the decision to bring in Neil Alexander on a purely non-playing contract. He mentioned in his opening interview for the club hat he fancied another year playing and he would still be a useful addition to the squad despite his age. His experience alone would make him an asset and he was arguably the best goalkeeper in the Championship last season.
On one level I think that the central defensive area of the team is slightly better now compared to last season. Rachid Bouhenna looks like a good addition and Frederic Frans has been pretty consistent, if unspectacular. The signing of Paul Watson has also been a decent one although he has been used in different positions. The big problem, and one that hasn’t been addressed for two or three years now is the weakness in the fullback positions. Both Jamie Robson and Callum Booth have been poor on the left and we haven’t really got a first team right-back at the moment given Stewart Murdoch’s season and the fact that Sam Wardrop has not really featured.
Behind those mentioned we still have William Edjenguele despite rumours of his potential departure in the summer. He has barely featured this season. Even further back Lewis Toshney is still on the books but is unlikely to play much first team football despite returning to training. Tam Scobbie is on loan at Partick Thistle.
In many ways the defensive structure of the team is going to be Robbie Neilson’s biggest challenge.
The strength in our squad should lie here. When fit we have the best midfielder in the division, Fraser Fyvie, and we also have reasonable depth and options across this area of the pitch. Alongside Fyvie we should be looking towards Sam Stanton as a partner and when those two are fit it is a very strong part of the team. As backup we should have Christoph Rabitsch and Adam Barton. Both of these players have shown huge limitations to their games with Rabitsch having poor technique but great work-rate and Barton having some pretty good technical abilities but zero aggression and effort. I’d imagine Barton may be on the end of a few strong words from Neilson if he fails to put in a shift.
In the more attacking areas the wide/creative players have been a real disappointment so far this season. We have had a lack of form and a few injuries but the simple fact is we are not creating anywhere near enough during 90 minutes. We are also incredibly one-dimensional going forward. It is no wonder that Neilson wants to bring in a coach to work specifically on the attacking element of the squad.
Personally I still think we have a potentially very decent player in Fraser Aird and there is no doubting he natural ability of Yannick Loemba, he just needs someone to manage him properly to focus on his strengths rather than making the same mistakes over and over. As for the two more established players in that area it should be a good time to be Billy King given his connection to Neilson. It is also a fresh start for Paul McMullan who clearly had big issues with Csaba Laszlo.
I worry about our lack of firepower and our lack of striking options. We really only have three recognised strikers and with Nicky Clark out injured recently it has become a real issue. Alongside Clark we are left with only Pavol Safranko and Craig Curran and although I am a big fan of Safranko we haven’t yet seen enough from Curran to suggest that between the three strikers we will have enough over the course of a whole season. Ideally we would be able to pluck a random free transfer or emergency loan out of nowhere to help bolster the attack but there is very little chance of that happening.
Beyond the established first team we aren’t really littered with potential breakthrough talent. The obvious choice here is Declan Glass who has been excellent for the Reserve side and he has shown glimpses of real talent in his limited time on the park. This should be a year when Matty Smith finally gets heavily involved but I’ve never been fully convinced as to just how good a player he might become.
After that the only names that may just about feature at some point this season might be Mati Zata, Archie Thomas or Logan Chalmers but in the case of Chalmers he is still very young and he has quite a serious injury. The other two mentioned both play in central midfield and unless we have a serious injury crisis you wouldn’t expect them to feature. Midfielder (and auxiliary defender) Scott Allardice is still on loan at Dumbarton.
So, as we move on to the game itself I will repeat what I have said before (and I apologise for sounding like broken record). We as fans have a role to play in all of this and I dearly hope that beginning tomorrow the fans are back in full voice. My favourite United memories are all linked with being part of a fantastic support and we all know that in recent seasons it has been a terrible time to be a United fan. The atmosphere has gone, the stress is almost maxed out and there is still a sense of despair amongst us all about how the club has been run in recent seasons. If Neilson can manage to somehow repair some of that we will all be eternally grateful but we as supporters can give him a helping hand by getting right behind him and his team.