We are now into December 2019 and this is always a time of year that I struggle with, football wise. With different family, work and personal commitments, a busy festive schedule and the generally rubbish weather, I always look at the winter fixtures with a sense of trepidation and recent years haven’t been to kind to us. The history of United in the Championship during these winter months doesn’t make for great reading with regards to the December-January period but this year does feel different and we are in a strong position entering this challenging run. As long as we don’t make an Emil Lyng type character our marquee signing, or bring back Alex Nicholls in January then we will be fine I’m sure…
A few weeks ago I mentioned in one of my match reviews that I would like to get into a position whereby performances were as important as points (it is nice to enjoy watching football), but for the next few weeks I am happy to get some victories, regardless of performance level. We have been playing very well but I am more than okay with a few scrappy wins over the winter period. Trips to Cappielow and Gayfield will undoubtedly see us face a tough 90 minutes conditions wise, so three points is all that matters.
Moving on to yesterday, we have just had a prolonged spell out of action so the visit of Alloa was a chance to get back into the swing of things at the start of a busy week. It was also a chance to exorcise some demons given our horrific performance last time we faced Peter Grant’s men. Much like our history of winter fixtures in the Championship, our history of games against Alloa is pretty bleak.
Lineup wise Robbie Neilson had given some pre-match hints at the possibility of Lawrence Shankland returning to action but the reality was always going to be that this fixture came a little too early for him. The best striker in Scotland had to settle for a place on the bench and it was probably the right call given the upcoming schedule.
As for the starting eleven itself, the manager stuck with the same side who faced Queen of the South 124 days ago when we played our last league fixture.
So, what a bizarre, bizarre first 45 minutes…
If this match report contained the line – “United scored their fourth goal after 15 minutes” it would have honestly not flattered us. We created more chances in the opening spell of yesterday’s game than we did during Csaba Laszlo’s entire tenure as manager. Wave after wave of attack, chance after chance, MacDonald save after MacDonald save. Then, Alloa scored out of nowhere…
The encouraging thing though? Everyone was still enjoying the football on show. After the goal went in there was no booing, no discontent and no anxiety. Several times during the first half I turned to the people next to me to comment on how much I was enjoying the game. People continued to get behind the team and the players responded by bombing forward at every opportunity.
We played down the slope in the first-half and we were attacking with such a high defensive line and with such positive pressure that it seemed inevitable we would equalise, and we did, just in time…
The real positive of that type of supportive atmosphere is that as a fan you can continue to get involved without worrying about the outcome. Fans were clapping, cheering and singing even though we were behind. It has been a long time since that kind of vibe has been in the air at Tannadice but it was further proof that things are different now. Long may it continue.
Despite the encouragement and the positive first 45 minutes, the second half felt a little slow and laborious in comparison. We were still in control but it felt like we had lost a bit of energy, maybe with the team now shooting towards an empty stand and up the hill. It was still a methodical and measured display but it didn’t reach the explosive and frantic energy of the early stages.
In the end it was a thoroughly deserved victory and it edges us one step further along this road to promotion. The league table makes for positive reading and we are playing with confidence. The fans are responding in both numbers and atmosphere. Results have also been kind to us in recent weeks so we now have a chance to get a win on Tuesday night that could see us 10 points clear at the top.
After some long and hard years in this division we are now in the driving seat and playing with a swagger and strength that has been lacking in previous campaigns. The challenge is to now maintain and keep chipping away at the league as we approach and enter the winter months and the rough weather. We are in charge of this league, which is a very different feeling for us, but the players and management should be relishing this challenge.
Player Ratings –
1. Benjamin Siegrist – A few nervy passes and some hesitancy when building from the back. Took some very important high balls late on. 6
2. Liam Smith – I love his ability to read the game and nip ahead of his opposition number. He has tremendous energy and was given the Man of the Match award at the game. 8
44. Paul Watson – Another strong and controlled display. Can’t see him being dropped anytime soon. 7
6. Mark Reynolds – Feels like a different player this year. Physically and mentally tougher, which makes a huge difference. 7
17. Jamie Robson – My Man of the Match. Unlucky not to score a superb goal in the second half. 8
7. Paul McMullan – Had his man beaten every single time. Still is hit and miss when it comes to the crucial moment but another great game from him. 7
18. Calum Butcher – The dictionary definition of a Butcher performance. Measured in the tackle and dominant in the middle. 7
23. Ian Harkes – Yet again we see prolonged spells of his excellent ability. Has really kicked on in recent matches. 7
12. Sam Stanton – Drifted in and out, which is standard for him. Maybe could have had more of an influence on the game at times. 6
10. Nicky Clark – Another crucial goal and another strong performance. A new contract is on the table and he probably deserves an extension. 7
27. Louis Appere – Maybe guilty of not imposing himself on the game in the first half but he became a vital player for us in the second 45 with another great performance. Delighted he notched the winner. 7
3. Adrian Sporle – A change that added a bit of energy down the left flank as we tried to see the game out.
25. Adam King – Another body in the midfield for the final moments.
Man Of The Match –
As mentioned in my ratings it was Jamie Robson for me. In the early stages the Alloa midfield were incredibly narrow down his side so it fell to Robson to provide width down the left flank (especially as Stanton drifted inside). Time and time again he overlapped and it caused huge problems for the opposition. In the later stages he did his defensive work superbly and had a fantastic run and shot which deserved a goal. On a day where he received his 100th appearance shirt it was a fitting display from someone who has become a vital part of this team.
Talking Tactics –
Although we continue to deploy our 442 the shape did change in the later stages of the first-half and for most of the second. The move from 442 to 4231 was a strange one given our dominance but it resulted in a goal fairly quickly as Clark drifted in from his left midfield role to grab the equaliser.
The three in behind Appere did move around a fair bit but I would personally hope that we don’t stick with the 4231, given how effective the flat 442 has been. You would hope that Shankland’s return would see us remain with Clark/Shankland as the front two for most fixtures.
The fullbacks were incredibly important yesterday, both Smith and Robson were superb at providing additional width and support. Our strength from the right and left back areas has been a huge strength for us this year.
The Positives –
The first half was fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable. We yet again seem to be turning on the style at home and the fans love it. That momentum and strength is the reason we are winning games and it was testament to the performance levels that nobody was hesitant or anxious despite being one nil down.
Need To Work On –
Without Shankland we do definitely miss a bit of that attacking aggression in the penalty box and that magic touch at the vital moment. Both Appere and Clark are always in the right place but they sometimes lack a bit of that clinical edge. We do need to be more ruthless at times, especially in fixtures without Sir Lawrence. Today could have been a huge banana skin despite the dominance.
Up Next –
Part two of a three part seven days. We travel to Cappielow on Tuesday night and although the trip isn’t ideal it should be a game we approach with real confidence.
If we can get a win against Morton it would relieve a bit of pressure ahead of a tough trip to Gayfield next Saturday. We are entering a really busy period, with some huge fixtures. One thing is for sure though, the tangerine army will be out in force over the next few weeks, with a sell-out derby on the horizon and a huge support heading to Arbroath.
The upcoming midweek fixture (and my long journey to Greenock) means that a match review for Tuesday is unlikely! Sorry!
Championship Results – Week 16
Arbroath 1 – 1 Dundee
Dundee United 2 – 1 Alloa Athletic
Dunfermline 3 – 1 Greenock Morton
Inverness 2 – 0 Ayr United
Queen of the South 1 – 2 Partick Thistle
Ayr United vs Arbroath (Tues)
Greenock Morton vs Dundee United (Tues)
Arbroath vs Dundee United
Ayr United vs Alloa
Dundee vs Dunfermline
Greenock Morton vs Queen of the South
Partick Thistle vs Inverness