It has been just over two weeks since United swept aside the team from across the road and it has been a frustrating wait for another league match.
We’ve had our non-event of a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Cup match, and for Scotland fans we’ve had the added bonus of two completely inept performances from the national team (see my rant about that here).
Thankfully the league campaign is now back up and running with a long trip to 2nd place Ayr United giving United the chance to go for 5 out 5. A win at Somerset could have left us with at least a five point gap at the top of the table. The pressure on United this season is different than in previous years. We are at the top, so we need to keep setting the pace. It makes a refreshing change from playing catch-up but the nerves and anxiety now also morph into something slightly different. We are the team that everyone wants to beat and every opponent will be right up for the fight.
Since the Arbroath match, and our 129th penalty shootout defeat, we’ve added to our first team squad. Despite the transfer window closing, we moved to sign free agent Troy Brown on a six-month contract. The central defender, who has spent all of his career in England, uses up the remaining budget we had and will act as a replacement for Mark Connolly, who will be out for a few months. It is a blow to have Connolly out but from reports it sounds like Brown is an old-fashioned, no-nonsense defender.
The injury to Connolly, and the release of Frederic Frans, means that a central defender suddenly became a priority for the club and if Brown does become an able replacement then a six-month contract is fairly low risk for both United and the player. In his interview with ArabZone he mentioned that his partner is expecting their first child so he will be desperate to impress and secure a longer contract.
Brown’s signing does now mean the end of Elliot Frear’s endless trial at Tannadice. The winger has now left the club after spending the last three and a half years training with United over at St.Andrews.
In 1999 I experienced Somerset Park for the first time. We needed a Sieb Dijkstra penalty save to avoid an exit from the Scottish Cup. I don’t think that I have ever seen United win away to Ayr and that record continued yesterday (some might question my life choices and why I keep making the long trip). After about an hour yesterday I realised that we were heading for yet another winless journey.
This post will be a mixture of deflation and disappointment but I am also keen to point out just how good the start to the league has been and that we are still very much on track to achieve our objective of winning the title. We also now have a run of games that are as favourable as we could hope for. Achieving a return of 12 out of 15, and during a set of fixtures that would be described as potentially the most tricky start possible is still a very positive thing and we need to hold on to that, rather than panic.
What did make yesterday more of a frustration is partly due to Ayr continuing to get the better of us, and for the fans it is a long, long trip to make to then leave feeling let down. A drive home like that can mean you let your mind wander and maybe feel more disappointed than you would normally.
Additionally, the way yesterday could have panned out and then how it did pan out, left us all feeling like a huge opportunity had been missed. We could have been five points ahead of the rest, as it stands we are on level points with Ayr and only two ahead of Inverness (their late winner closing the gap).
Yesterday was a bit flat, a bit abject and a bit of a mess in terms of us not taking control of the ball. We started incredibly slowly. The first-half was when the damage was caused and in this league you cannot have 45 minutes of lacklustre football. A team like Ayr with a group of players who hold a very strong record against us will always lap up the opportunity to punish United. We are the team to beat in this division, more so than ever before.
I thought that in the first-half Ayr played some very good football and we couldn’t cope with the front three. Their link up play was executed at pace and they had some lovely triangles of passing. Luke McCowan, Michael Moffat and Alan Forrest were a constant threat, with Moffat controlling the final third. The evergreen Mark Kerr dominated our midfield and we really did not compete for long spells in that opening half of football.
The decision to deploy Calum Butcher in midfield and give a debut to Troy Brown seemed to knock our momentum from previous games and in hindsight I wonder if Neilson now thinks that maybe giving Brown a debut was an error. Not that Brown was particularly poor, but with Butcher at the back we seem more comfortable on the ball and it allows the duo of Stanton and Harkes to cover more ground.
Luck was also not on our side yesterday and although Ayr deserved to win, it could have been different if Nicky Clark’s late header had been a few millimetres further to his left. As it proved, that was the decisive moment and Ayr scored their second moments after us hitting the post. You make your own luck in football and for us it wasn’t to be.
I didn’t seen enough of the three edge of the box free-kicks and the suggestion that one could have been a penalty. Again, you create your own luck and we didn’t do enough to see yesterday as an injustice.
The sign of a truly good team is how they deal with a setback like this. Football is very reactive so fans and players need to show what they are made of as we return to Tannadice next Saturday. Supporters are understandably a bit deflated and nervous after yesterday but the players are the only ones who can turn that around and get things back on track.
Player Ratings –
1. Benjamin Siegrist – He didn’t actually have a huge amount to do despite Ayr controlling large spells. His record of not saving penalties continues. 5
2. Liam Smith – Probably his poorest game in a United shirt. Looked a bit nervous and made a few costly errors. He will bounce back. 4
19. Troy Brown – A difficult game to make a debut in. Defensively looked okay, but his distribution was pretty poor. 5
6. Mark Reynolds – Looked very, very nervous and uneasy. Like Brown his passing was way off and Moffat had the better of him. 4
17. Jamie Robson – His toughest afternoon of the season so far against the excellent McCowan. Coped well and continues to improve. 6
7. Paul McMullan – Had a very poor first-half but more involved after the break. One of those days where his final ball let him down. 6
12. Sam Stanton – Never got the near the ball early on but did come into the game a bit more. Not a great afternoon for Stanton. 5
18. Calum Butcher – Struggled in spells but our only real aggressive physical threat over the 90 minutes. Used the ball more when he dropped back. 6
8. Peter Pawlett – Drifted in and out of the game but did not contribute enough. Looked exhausted after 60 minutes. 5
27. Louis Appere – Another impressive display, caused problems and had plenty of running in him. Disappointed to see him pushed out on the left. 7
24. Lawrence Shankland – A really quiet afternoon from someone who would have been desperate to impress. Both former Ayr players will be really disappointed with their afternoon. 5
10. Nicky Clark – Could have saved a point. Really should be scoring when given chances like the header yesterday.
23. Ian Harkes – We looked much better when Harkes came on. He needs to be given a run in the team.
11. Cammy Smith – Hit the post/bar late in the game and looked reasonably lively. Another who needs more game time.
Man Of The Match –
Slim pickings on a day that only produced some fairly average displays. Probably for me the best player in a United shirt would maybe be Louis Appere. He was always looking for the ball and he got the better of the Ayr right-back on most occasions. Unlucky with some of his balls into the box.
Talking Tactics –
The one thing that I am not enjoying is the recent trend for us to change our shape very early on. We seem to move Appere out on the left to accommodate Peter Pawlett as a shadow striker behind Shankland. For me our strengths this year have been more about using Appere to run the channels and hold the ball up. Pawlett doesn’t have that same ability and yesterday our long diagonals from both central defenders were literally aimed at nobody, with the ball regularly running out of play.
The Positives –
It has to be said that yet again we had a great support, with over 1,100 making the trip from Dundee. Unfortunately the first-half killed a fair bit of the atmosphere created early on and it was a tough journey back up the road for everyone.
I would also say that in general we do seem to be creating more chances this season. It feels a bit more direct and the football we play does allow for more balls into the box, but as I mentioned in the previous section, we need to have more targets to aim at.
Need To Work On –
Shankland cut a lonely figure upfront yesterday and it was disappointing that after a run of him having support, we reverted to a system that put too much pressure on one striker doing all the work.
We also really struggled to have any impact from our set-pieces. Very few found their target and we seemed to settle for leaving Reynolds and Brown back in defence when we had some attacking opportunities from free-kicks and corners.
Up Next –
Back to Tannadice and another visit from Arbroath. Hopefully this time we will be much more up for it compared to the Tunnack’s Cup and given Arbroath’s fantastic start to the season. Dick Campbell has his side playing very well and his team know how to frustrate, whilst hitting teams effectively on the break.
Our home record this year must be almost entirely comprised of victories, these are the games we must win.
Let’s get back to it.
Championship Results – Week 5
Arbroath 1 – 1 Partick Thistle (Friday)
Ayr United 2 – 0 Dundee United
Dundee 2 – 1 Alloa
Dunfermline 0 – 1 Inverness
Queen of the South 1 – 0 Greenock Morton
Alloa vs Ayr United
Dundee United vs Arbroath
Inverness vs Queen of the South
Morton vs Dundee
Patrick Thistle vs Dunfermline