What a difference a week makes!
After the Ayr game I was ready for chucking this season in the bin but this is football and after a hugely successful few days in the transfer window the buzz and good feeling returned ahead of yesterday’s match against Morton.
The club have heavily backed Robbie Neilson and it is now obvious that despite him claiming we “have a good squad here” that for 6 or 7 players he was being more than kind. The end of the road is here for some players he inherited and it is now time for Neilson’s team to get going.
There’s quite a bit to cover in this post so let’s get to it.
The starting lineup yesterday tells you everything you need to know about Neilson’s opinion on certain players. The fact that both new central defenders started is an indication that for Frans and Bouhenna it will be a case of spending a fair chunk of the next few months sitting on the bench or in the stand.
Their replacements, Reynolds and Connolly have played nearly 600 games between them and arrive as the hard edged, talkative and passionate defenders Neilson likes (and we’ve been desperate for). Yesterday they were both superb and their ability to organise and support their teammates did not go unnoticed. For me these two might be the signings of the window for us.
Despite the club announcing a sub 5,000 crowd in attendance it felt like there were many more and the figure sounds incorrect. The fans backed the team yesterday and the flag display mixed in with a few renditions of some long-lost United songs made the game a very enjoyable experience and one that could signal the start of something positive.
The football itself was a mixed bag but the opening 45 was as good as we have seen from United in a long, long time. The team looked more direct, more dynamic and more aggressive. We passed the ball about with more purpose and we were not afraid of going long into the channels. We created a huge number of crossing and cut-back opportunities which resulted in us having 16 corners across the whole 90 minutes.
There is no doubt that the second 45 was a but flat and sloppy but that, in part, may have been down to tiredness in the new recruits and a bit of anxiety amongst the players given they don’t know each other very well at the moment.
It isn’t necessarily the start of some earth shattering football revolution but the mood in the ground, the passion in the players and the first-half display shows that if we can begin to gather momentum then this league is well within reach. We have 13 games left and possibly a target of about 27-30 points in that time. There are also two games against County and one against Ayr. If we take full points from those games then technically it is in our own hands.
The fans played a big part in yesterday’s win and that is a great indication as to how much backing the team will get in the run-in. We have a few away games on the bounce next but I am sure that we will take great support to Paisley, Dumfries and Falkirk before we return to Tannadice to face Inverness and then Ross County at the start of March.
Getting back to the game I will maybe do a slightly different player ratings piece today and instead of just commenting on yesterday I will go through our team and give them a mini-summary as to how they have been or how much they might contribute to the title push. It will also act as a transfer window summary. I’ll only include players who I think will actually be involved between now and the end of the season.
Those not in my summary are – Yannick Loemba, Christoph Rabitsch, Matty Smith, Tam Scobbie and Sam Wardrop. These ‘first team’ players remain at the club after the window but the reality is that most will have played their last game for the club and some may still leave before the summer (either on-loan or permanently).
If you are wondering who I would have given my Man of the Match to it would probably be between Pawlett and Harkes. I thought Pawlett in the first-half was unplayable and Harkes showed a fantastic range of passing and great technique. The young American reminded me of an Armstrong type player with a great level of fitness and good pace on the ball. He seems to be able to contribute to different types of midfield play and yesterday he excited fans with a dynamic display that pushes people like Stanton, Gomis and Fyvie on to the sidelines for the time being.
Benji Siegrist – To be fair to Siegrist I think he has grown in recent weeks after a howler against Alloa. He seems a confident guy and is keen to distribute the ball quickly when needed. I doubt he will be our first choice beyond this season but he has shown enough for us to stick with him for now.
Ross Laidlaw – Brought in as a backup and for competition but his loan move suits us given that we may look for a goalkeeper in the summer. It will need Siegrist to make a few errors for Laidlaw to be brought into the side.
Stewart Murdoch – Have we seen the last of Murdoch? Much will depend on the fitness and form of Seaman but there is no doubt that Murdoch’s time at the club is probably running out (much like his contract). I still think that we may see him again but that will be more to do with Seaman rather than Murdoch.
Callum Booth – I reckon we simply ran out of options when bringing in new players as Booth was probably on the list of people who could be replaced. He is still a weak link defensively but to his credit he does at least contribute something going forward (although he is very much a confidence player in that regard).
Frederic Frans – I was a little surprised that Neilson opted for Frans rather than Bouhenna on the bench. For someone so tall he doesn’t dominate the way he should and he isn’t as aggressive as he needs to be in this league. If Reynolds and Connolly stay fit then I doubt we will see much of Frans.
Jamie Robson – Left out completely yesterday you might imagine that Neilson may look at Robson going out on loan. The only thing that might prevent this is the fact that we only really have Booth and Robson as out and out left-backs at the club.
Rachid Bouhenna – I think Bouhenna is a better footballer than Frans and I would have him as my 3rd central defender. He does suffer from the same issues as Frans but he has better technique. It will be interesting to see how Neilson uses him for the remainder of the campaign.
Paul Watson – Where does Watson now fit in the squad? Is he behind both Frans and Bouhenna? If that is the case then we may have seen the last of him in a United shirt and you would imagine we would look to move him on in the summer.
Mark Connolly – I’m not going to lie, I think I love Mark Connolly. Yesterday was so refreshing in terms of seeing someone grab other players to motivate them and engage with the fans when we scored. He seems very professional, very committed and very aggressive. Attributes we have sorely missed.
Charlie Seaman – You can tell that Seaman is still very, very inexperienced and yesterday he was caught out a couple of times defensively just with his positioning. He is very enthusiastic going forward and looks to have a great engine on him.
Mark Reynolds – A signing that came out of nowhere but one that could make a massive difference. To have such an experienced defender that many Premiership teams would have fancied is a great coup for the club.
Paul McMullan – Someone who can probably now be classed as an “impact sub”. He will spend most of his time on the fringes but he can still be a decent option from the bench in certain games. With his contract expiring in the summer it might be that he is another who will be on a summer release list.
Fraser Fyvie – United fans are desperate for Fyvie to do well and I think most agree that there is still quality there but he has hit a real crossroads at the club. He looks devoid of confidence and needs a rest. As club captain he has a bit of pressure on him and I felt for him yesterday as every touch was misplaced and one led to the Morton goal. Neilson needs to protect him and give him a break.
Sam Stanton – I’ve been an advocate of Stanton in the past and believe he still has something to offer the team in this division. He has however been badly missing in recent matches and yesterday he found himself as an unused substitute, which is maybe something he will have to get used for the time being.
Jimmy Gomis – After a horror show in Ayr he was suspended against Morton. He would have been the perfect change for Butcher yesterday and it would have given him the chance to make amends for Somerset. He will play a role n the next few months but probably sits behind Butcher and Harkes at the moment.
Aidan Nesbitt – Not a regular starter, he didn’t have much of an impact yesterday but did offer a bit of quality in Ayr. He will probably float in and out of the team and is someone who offers us pace and trickery in the forward areas. An upgrade on King and McMullan.
Calum Butcher – Someone who should have grown in stature since he left Tannadice and yesterday showed that he can offer great presence in the midfield whilst contributing both defensively and going forward. Really positive signs.
Cammy Smith – Worked his socks off despite being played out on the wing. His best position is behind the striker but he worked well in the system and he is capable of some moments of real quality.
Ian Harkes – A really interesting player and someone who could turn out to be a real find for United. A box-to-box player he is the type of footballer that Stanton wishes he was. Harkes already looks like a key player for the team.
Peter Pawlett – Outstanding for 45 minutes and unplayable at times. He is very quick and has a great eye for a pass. Carries the ball well and takes a good set-piece. Keeping him fit will make a massive difference to our season.
Pavol Safranko – Back to his best yesterday and he should thrive in this new look side. His work ethic and ability to hold up the ball is fantastic. Running for 90 minutes means he will always be on offer for the midfield and it also helped us when we went direct yesterday. If we get promoted then we should be looking to get him in permanently.
Nicky Clark – Delighted for him to be back and for him to get 90 minutes. He looked like a player with real confidence and played the number 10 role perfectly. Hopefully he can stay injury free.
Osman Sow – Didn’t get a chance to show much against Morton but he offers something different to our other strikers. He might struggle to topple Safranko as the out and out striker for the time being but it is great to have someone like him as the other striker in the squad.
Overall the team now has the quality to truly compete. We also have competition in the areas we need it. The defence has more experience and the midfield has now got a more dynamic edge to it with Gomis, Harkes and Butcher. At the top end of the pitch we have added a great deal of height in Sow but that also goes for the rest of the team. It was noticeable yesterday how much more physical and imposing the team were.
Moving forward I would stick with the starting eleven for a few games to give them time to gel. It will also give people like Fyvie a proper break and it will hopefully motivate guys like Stanton and Nesbitt to push on and try and win a place in the team.
Up Next – We travel to Paisley as we face St.Mirren in the Scottish Cup. There is probably more of a view of hope rather than expectation but United will be quietly confident of beating a St.Mirren team that look devoid of any confidence and quality at the moment.
The Scottish Cup is a big deal for the fans and the team will want to put on a good show. It is however a good fixture to have in terms of there being no league pressure and it will give the new players an added 90 minutes of action ahead of our return to league duty against Queen of the South.
Championship Results –
Alloa 1 – 3 Ayr United
Falkirk 3 – 0 Queen of the South
Dundee United 2 – 1 Greenock Morton
Dunfermline 1 – 2 Ross County
Inverness 1 – 2 Partick Thistle