And just like that the 2018/19 Championship title has been won by Ross County with 9 games remaining.
Publicly our manager, players and staff will not admit it but the reality is that privately they will know that United are now playing for 2nd place and yet another crack at the playoffs.
Even the most optimistic of supporter will acknowledge that we have thrown it away and the biggest disappointment is now that the remaining 9 games will have a flat feeling to them as we reflect on throwing away a shot at the league. There are still big games ahead and we must keep going but I can see the crowds declining and the mood levelling out after such a positive period for the club. It is up to the players and Robbie Neilson to get a system and a side that can compete in the weeks left but also then challenge in the playoffs.
The 90 minutes yesterday was an all-star highlight reel of United frailties and maybe it is quite apt that this was the performance that ended our title challenge. We made our way through – being unable to defend high balls, switching off at set-pieces, being weak at attacking corners and throw ins, not being physical enough, not being technically good enough, poor possession control, bad decision making in the final third and everyone’s favourite – goalkeeper passing to central defender, who passes it to the other central defender, who passes it back to the first central defender, who passes it to the left/right-back, who then launches a long-ball up the park to an isolated striker.
This all happened against a poor, poor team and that was the big thing for me yesterday. Last week you could almost argue that the occasion and the confident Inverness side who put is under real pressure was something we couldn’t cope with and maybe, just maybe you could put it down to a one-off. Yesterday though we faced a team that a decent side would have beaten and beaten well.
In Neilson’s first few games we looked like a physically aggressive and committed football team. We all thought “great, if this is the future then I’m all for it”. We then started to falter and reverted back to a plodding and fragile style. The second bounce came after January’s influx and for 60 minutes against Morton at home and then flashes in the the games after it looked like we were now an attacking, ball on the deck team who were going to overwhelm teams. We all thought “great, if this is the future then I’m all for it”. We then started to falter and reverted back to a plodding and fragile style….
Ultimately we need to make our mind up and find an effective style of play that we can develop properly. Looking at other teams in the league who do well in bigger games you predict, before you even play them, what they are going to do and this is the same for teams who have got out the division in previous years –
Inverness – Tight and physical midfield, they play with a high press and use a target to bring others into play.
Ross County – A very functional and solid attacking system that does a job using their height and physicality as an asset.
Hibs – Got the ball to the wingers and overlapping fullbacks to then overload teams and get crosses into the box.
St.Mirren – Got the ball to the front four and used their pace and trickery to outnumber opponents whilst launching attack after attack that teams couldn’t cope with.
Livingston – At every opportunity just get that ball into a dangerous area. Free-kicks, corners, throw-ins, it doesn’t matter just get the ball in the box.
This division, as the blog has mentioned before, is not rocket science and it is not the pinnacle of footballing excellence. Get the ball into dangerous areas, get support for your attacking players and be physically imposing. It is what Falkirk are trying to do now and what Dunfermline are trying to do now. Guess what? Both sides are now winning big games and putting real pressure on those around them.
I’m not as anti-4231 as some (teams all over the world use it) but what we have a is a poor version of it. We have a three behind our lone striker who don’t seem to want to get ahead of the ball often enough and when we are on the back foot they drop so deep that it leaves Pavol Safranko (who I will defend to the death as being an excellent footballer) isolated and exposed.
Now I am not a coach, I have no badges and very little experience other than masquerading as an amateur footballer for a number of years. All I have is my time watching United and, to my wife’s weekly horror, taking in a stupid number of televised games every week. However, the point I am making, is that I know there are things that we need to be better at and the fans as a whole see it. The worry is that some little things seem to be getting worse, not better, and we are following a very similar pattern from previous seasons which goes – new manager bounce and then back to our old ways before imploding at the end of the season and in the playoffs.
I am still a believer in Neilson and I still believe that the club as a whole is beginning to turn things around (on this second point I think all fans see this). The manager inherited an absolute mess and Ogren’s team have arrived at a club with an infrastructure on its knees. Things will take time. In the short-term though we are in danger of allowing this season to end as the previous two did, with a whimper, a disillusioned fan-base and potentially a manager under real pressure.
What would I do for the next 9 games? I’d go “baws oot” and give the fans at least something to get behind. Who cares if we lose two or three games between now and the end of the season if we win 4 or 5 by simply being relentlessly attacking and aggressive. Fans will get behind that and it would set us up for the playoffs.
Let’s find a system that allows for more attacking intent and give opposition teams a fright. A 4312, a 532, a 442, it doesn’t really matter, let’s just go for it a bit more. A change from the 4231 would be nice though, it feels like we have been playing that formation since about 2013. And please, please, please try to add a bit of urgency to the build-up side of our game.
I mentioned Livingston earlier and I remember a game at Tannadice last season with one small piece of play that has stuck with me. They had a throw-in in the final third at the bottom of the Eddie Thomson stand. The ball was launched into the box by Alan Lithgow, it was cleared. Then first time, and on the volley, the ball was launched back into the box. They won a corner as a result which was also cleared to the half-way line but, almost with one touch, it was once again leathered right back into the box. Now that might seem a meaningless little exchange in play but within the space of about 2 minutes the ball was in our penalty area about 5 times and it caused us problems. Every single time it was an instinctive reaction by the Livi players.
Fast forward to yesterday and we had to witness, late in the game, Siegrist stand with the ball at his feet, unsure of what to do. He played it out to Robson, who played it to Reynolds. He then played it back to Siegrist, it went back to Reynolds and then back to Siegrist again. The goalkeeper then launched the ball forward. All of that took probably about 40 seconds. A thing that could have happened in about 5 seconds took what felt like an age. Why?
I read a book recently and one chapter focused on Danny Cowley and his brother Nicky. They manage Lincoln City who sit top of League Two and the pair are very highly thought of down south. The reason I bring this up is that they have one tactical approach that is Livingston-esque. They play the percentage game and instruct their players to get the ball into the box a certain number of times each match, with the number being staggeringly high. They do this because at that level (and the Scottish Championship isn’t a million miles away) the statistics show that a ball fired into the box 26 times will result in one goal. Once in the box, 84% of goals happen within one or two touches.
This is all beginning to sound a bit like a ramble, and I had no plan to spend my Sunday morning writing about Lincoln City, but the point I am making is that we have to be more direct, we have to be more expressive going forward, and we have to put teams under pressure. If Neilson and the players can have a right good go in these remaining games then at least we can approach the playoffs with confidence.
Player Ratings –
1 – Benji Siegrist – Actually had very little to do but looked unsure when he was in possession of the ball and possibly could have been stronger at their first goal. 4
49 – Charlie Seaman – Probably his poorest game for United and his inexperience was badly exposed yesterday. 4
30 – Mark Reynolds – Played like a young, inexperienced central defender. Both he and Connolly had very poor games. 3
55 – Mark Connolly – Looked shaky and hesitant from the first whistle. Struggled to make decisions and caught our for pace. 3
17 – Jamie Robson – After three or four really confident and promising performances this was a massive step back. 4
47 – Ian Harkes – He needs to be given a role that allows him more freedom. Could he be given a chance as a number 10? His strengths are definitely in the attacking area. 6
18 – Calum Butcher – Really, really struggled and lost possession of the ball on countless occasions. 4
7 – Paul McMullan – He is such a frustrating player. Can go from beating players with ease to struggling to control the ball. His end product continues to be very poor. 4
10 – Nicky Clark – He scores goals but he goes missing in games and drifts about too much to be trusted as a number 10. 5
15 – Aidan Nesbitt – Tried to use the ball but he lacks any cutting edge and ran out of steam. 4
9 – Osman Sow – To be fair to him he did well during his short time on the pitch. Why Neilson picked him to start after being injured is beyond me. 5
14 – Pavol Šafranko – You always get the same from Pavol. He worked hard but continued to look isolated upfront.
12. Sam Stanton – Made a massive difference when he came on. Tried to get forward on the ball at every opportunity.
25. Sammy Smith – His second spell at Tanandice seems to be going the same as the first. Badly underused and never gets to play in his natural position.
Man of the Match – I counted three players who would have received pass marks yesterday. Pavol Safranko knocked his pan in once again, Ian Harkes continues to show his ability when in possession and forgotten man Sam Stanton made a big difference when he came on. Nobody deserves man of the match though.
Up Next – What better way to bounce back from yesterday than playing a team that have all of a sudden found form? Dunfermline away is traditionally a big day for United fans but we travel to East End Park next week to face a team that have discovered a system that now works and is getting results (we can but dream). The style under Stevie Crawford has changed since he was first appointed and it can only be described as ‘industrial’ but it is working. It is now five wins on the bounce and five clean sheets.
Not to worry, we do well against physically imposing sides who rarely concede….
The Steak Bridies are good though.
Championship Results –
Falkirk 2 – 0 Ayr United (Friday)
Ross County 2 – 0 Greenock Morton
Queen of the South 0 – 2 Inverness
Partick 2 – 1 Dundee United
Alloa 0 – 1 Dunfermline