Dear oh dear.
What a way to finish our Betfred Cup campaign. It was the most ‘United’ of way to go out and it leaves us all wondering what we can expect as the league campaign hurtles towards us. This is a familiar script and the reaction in the ground and on social media last felt eerily familiar. You could go back to July 2018 and July 2017 to find similar concerns and worries. The fans will never all agree on everything but the anxiety, anger and frustration mirrors the fact that this all feels very familiar. This year has added pressure given the length of time we have spent in the division and with our neighbours involved in the league so it is only natural that the deja vu we are all experiencing feels much more visceral and concerning with that pressure to succeed.
Before we begin to look at things in more detail, I have a confession to make. This is actually all my fault. I jumped the gun and it has backfired badly. It all started early yesterday when I remembered (you forget these things from time to time) that it is my birthday today (edging ever closer to the big 40). Add to that a trip away for a few nights to Liverpool and Manchester and I found myself beginning to write the framework of a match review before a ball had been kicked. It was stupid. I tempted fate and the football Gods did not like it. This is my punishment.
Actually, who I am I kidding? It has nothing to do with me and EVERYTHING to do with us treating our final Betfred tie like it was a bounce game played on a nice sunny evening in Dundee. Our relaxed and pleasant surroundings might have been part of our own pre-match build up but East Fife didn’t want to play that game so they instead turned up and followed the ever so handy and reliable three part plan that has been the achilles heel of every United team we have seen in recent years.
Action Point 1 – Defend aggressively and with structure.
Action Point 2 – Put United under pressure in all areas of the park, especially across the back four.
Action Point 3 – Attack directly and with intensity.
Sounds easy doesn’t it? It is. This brand of football isn’t particularly challenging or intricate but it works, and it works so well that I have lost count of the number of teams that have visited Tannadice under McKinnon, Laszlo, now Neilson and I have found myself quickly thinking – “Wouldn’t it be nice if United played that way?“
Last night was game seven of our pre-season/Betfred schedule. If this was game one (and we did play like this against East Fife in game one) then you would be tempted to talk about players being rusty, lacking fitness and lacking the vigour that comes with match practice. That’s okay, if it is game one. This wasn’t game one. This was actually a game that could have, and should have, seen the club into the next round of a competition that we have openly talked about as being a “priority” this season. It was actually a pretty huge game for the club and financially it could have been a big boost to our coffers if we had navigated our way into the next round. Neilson post-match talked about players being jaded but I am sorry, that is really not acceptable. Of all the games this should have been the one to lay down a marker. The last home game before the league starts and a chance to progress in the cup should have been motivation enough.
Our previous manager was rightly criticised for treating the Betfred as part of our friendly schedule but this year the focus was supposed to be different, and maybe it has been, the chat in the paper has certainly been different. Last night though? We played it out like it was a meaningless friendly (like we did a few weeks ago against the same opposition). East Fife were the team who wanted to win and wanted to fight for every ball and that is the worst part. It should have been us.
Where does this leave us ahead of our league opener against Inverness? The truthful answer is – I haven’t got a clue. We don’t seem to be playing differently and we haven’t really shown anything ‘new’ in pre-season. What we have done is upgrade in one or two positions but we are still short in other areas. Also, much of that doesn’t really matter if we have yet to find a system or a tactic or a style that actually works consistently.
The most galling thing about what might unfold over the next few months is the damage a bad run might do to a feel good factor and positive changes the board are working on behind the scenes. The club is making the right moves but it HAS to get it right on the park at the same time.
By the way I do have a bit sympathy fans who will read this and say that we haven’t kicked a ball yet and that it is the league that counts. Yes it is the league that counts BUT we need to prepare properly and get momentum before we enter our league campaign. We need to show fans what to expect and we need to be making improvements. Having been at the games I, like many others, are worried that those improvements are not really there. The reason for the anxiety over the league is down to the fact that we all do realise how important this is and how big a year we have ahead of us. It is natural to feel angry and disappointed over what we saw last night (and in spells during the other fixtures).
Neilson has a structured style and it has been talked about before in this blog more than enough. Playing the way we play is actually okay up until a point (and in some games). Yes we might win a reasonable amount of points, the tally from last season shows that our style does still gather rewards, BUT, what we do run the risk of is imploding or turning draws into losses and wins into draws. We play very much ‘on the edge’ of us grinding out a result but that edge can slip into disaster very quickly, like it did last night. A bit of possession, a bit of control but no real penetration or aggression will get you to a point but if you are facing a team who suddenly realise how to get the better of you it is very difficult to recover.
So, what now? Well, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I really don’t know. The Championship this year is full of teams going through huge rebuilds and there is big, big uncertainty at some of the clubs in the division. However it is not going to be good enough to rely on the uncertainty of others or for us to grind our way over the line each week. It leaves us badly exposed to the results that killed us last year and might again this season.
Neilson? I really want to like him and I have said in previous posts that I want to believe he is the right man. He is a passionate individual who I believe has the support of the players and staff at Tannadice. Is he the right man? I know people who think he isn’t and those numbers are slowly creeping up. You would think he will be given time, or at least some time but we have a very, very tough opening to the season –
- Saturday 3rd August – Inverness – Home
- Friday 9th August – Partick Thistle – Away
- Saturday 24th August – Dunfermline – Away
- Friday 30th August – Dundee – Home
If we don’t get off to a good start it will truly feel like the same old story once again and the almost yearly tradition of United searching for a new manager might be upon us once again.
I really didn’t want to get so ‘ranty’ before a league ball is kicked but you could not come away from last night feeling anything but anger and frustration. Yes other teams have slipped up in this competition and yes teams have had dreadful Betfred campaigns in the past and gone on to do great things but this is a Groundhog Day feeling and I fear what will come next if we don’t take this as a wake up call and get our act together.
The worry is that we are still seeing the same style, the same weaknesses and the same lack of aggressive and forceful performances. We never force the game. We haven’t had a manager since being in the Championship who employs the ‘have a go’ brand of football I have talked about before and many of us want to see. Paying good money to see our central defenders play a game of two touch between themselves isn’t worth it.
A friendly against Shrewsbury this Saturday and hopefully an opportunity for the travelling United fans to enjoy a great away trip. It is the last chance for a truly relaxed atmosphere before it all kicks of on the 3rd. If you are going, enjoy it!
For me I am away for a few days but I plan on publishing some season previews for each of the Championship sides and those will hopefully begin to appear as of next Wednesday (31st July).
The last thing I want to say before ending this post is a comment on the blessing and the curse that social media gives us. I’m a football geek and I am self confessed addict. I probably take things too seriously and I analyse every moment of every match. I do actually enjoy taking it all in and looking at the small details but a weakness of mine is that I take it all to heart when I go home and then start to look through forums, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I love the interaction online and whether it be a quick Twitter chat, an Instagram photo, a Pie and Bovril discussion or a listen to one of the excellent United podcasts, I love soaking it all up. What I don’t enjoy is nights like last night (and what might come over the next few days). It stresses me out, maybe more than it should! Seeing fans debate and argue is a by-product of how we take in football but what I don’t like is the fall out from the types of performances we have seen in recent years and it is something that is happening far too often
Football teams lose matches, we all accept that, but the way in which we lose seems always be so meek and ‘meh’ that it creates all this additional stress on us. If we were losing games 3-2 after ‘baws oot’ performances where we went all Jimmy Calderwood and played with 4 strikers in the last 20 minutes then it would all be a little different and we would at least have some positives to discuss.
Seeing fans debate about how little we competed or how slowly we played is taking its toll…