I am struggling to type, I think even my fingers have put on weight this week. Hopefully everyone has had a throughly enjoyable few days and for those of you, like me, who have eaten their own body weight in sweets, the food coma thankfully just about wore off in time for the Dundee Derby.
Before we move on to the small matter of the game itself, a few words on where we are as a club. Christmas is often a time for reflection, and you don’t have to look too far back to see the astonishing transformation at Tannadice. In October and November of 2018 we were in a really difficult situation, both on and off the park. Yes we had secured the services of Robbie Neilson and the results were improving, but the financial state of the club was pretty dire and the infrastructure at United was in need of some serious surgery.
Then, last December, it all changed.
It will take a whole separate post to go through all of the improvements made during these last twelve months but we are all now looking at a totally different club. Everything from merchandising to ticketing, youth development to sport science and stadium maintenance to communication has been looked at and improved.
As I said on Twitter earlier this week – United will still lose games and the club will still make mistakes, but things are on an upward trajectory and the mood around the club is incredibly positive at the moment.
Long may it continue…
Now for the important bit. The Dundee Derby.
I’ve said many times before that I don’t really know what to expect from a Dundee Derby blog. The game usually goes by in a flash, the emotions are high and the sensible football fan in me gets chucked in the bin.
I know many supporters (on both sides) had approached last night’s game from different perspective in comparison to earlier in the season. The Dundee fans were understandably a bit hesitant to get hopes up given recent meetings and United fans had the luxury of a huge points gap regardless of result.
The match itself though? Well, as soon as I left the house last night it all kicked in, the nerves, the anticipation and the knowledge that I would get to see Sean Dillon on the Tannadice pitch one more time.
Football is a hugely reactive experience. Emotions are always very immediate. However, football is also, more often than not, a game of context. Fans, generally, can sometimes let go of this but last night it felt like most United supporters put that performance into the context in which it deserves.
For me there are three things to look at –
The context of the game as a Dundee Derby…
For a fixture like this you always have to prepare yourself for very little quality but plenty of action. Whilst we didn’t get a huge amount of goal mouth action last night the game played out like it should have. Blood and thunder, silly tackles, loose refereeing and lots of really, really shit football. It is actually what makes the Dundee Derby the most watchable in Scotland. There isn’t really the pretence of “we are going to play them off the park here” and there certainly is not any historic or political baggage. It is all about a battle of energy, emotion and physicality.
I spoke to a couple of non-United/Dundee fans last night after the match and they both commented on how “enjoyable” the game was for the neutral, which is interesting given that the football on show from United (especially in the second-half) offended my eyes in the extreme. It really wasn’t great, but as a footballing masterclass a derby rarely is.
United goal aside the opening 45 minutes were fairly chance free, apart from an excellent save by Siegrist and a few half moments in our favour. We didn’t really get going but neither did Dundee and it was United who had the majority of the ball. We had lots of posturing, lots of stupid fouls and a huge amount of terrible refereeing for both sides. The officials, I felt, never had control of the game and although it may have added to the neutrals enjoyment of the game it certainly added to my blood pressure.
Unfortunately in the second half Dundee decided to get quicker, sharper and more aggressive, whilst we fell deeper and deeper, giving the ball away at every opportunity. Dundee looked fitter and more physical, whilst we hid and made countless errors. The midfield battle swung in Dundee’s favour with Dorrans in particular pulling the strings in the middle of the park.
In the end a draw was probably just about right but in truth I don’t think Dundee wouldn’t have been undeserved winners if they got a late goal (it certainly didn’t look like coming from us).
Which leads me on to the match as a one-off –
The context of the game as a single performance…
Pretty crap to be honest. Nobody can really be pleased with what we witnessed last night. Although we had a decent amount of the ball in the early exchanges we didn’t really do much damage and it all felt a little flat. Then in second 45 we turned in a pretty rotten performance. We could not hold on to the ball, we looked really tired and our back four were forced so deep that the only out ball was a long diagonal to nobody, allowing Dundee to press and push us.
We ran out of ideas (and energy) and as the game wore on it looked more and more likely the something was possibly going to give, leading to a potential Dundee winner. The crowd felt anxious and the atmosphere turned towards the Dundee fans, buoyed by their equaliser and performance level.
Despite all of the early positivity, the great goal and the superb atmosphere, the battling qualities you need in a game like this seemed to drain from the United players as the game progressed. It was very disappointing.
Thankfully, after a period of really poor stuff from United, the final few minutes were a bit flat for both teams and Dundee seemed to just run out of steam in the final seconds. Neither keeper had a huge amount to do in terms of emergency saves in the closing moments and as the final whistle went, a weird sense of relief, disappointment and that word ‘context’ washed over the crowd. So…
The context of the game as part of the season…
Look, we have just won nine matches on the bounce and have drawn the tenth, leaving us still unbeaten during this run, still unbeaten at home for the season, still unbeaten against Dundee and still with at least an 11 point lead at the top (depending on results tomorrow). It’s not too shabby. At all.
Would I have taken 7 out of 9 against Dundee at the start of the season? Yes. Would I have taken a 10 match unbeaten run that included 9 victories? Absolutely.
The mood leaving Tannadice last night was still positive, and it still absolutely should be. We remain in total control of this league and in a very healthy position (although it would be nice to get back to some free flowing football and hopefully that will come). For me the Dundee game last night felt like the closure of the first half of the season. I always viewed this game as being a big psychological event pre-January window and post-second quarter. With the last game against Dundee not being until very late in the season we can now fully focus on the job in hand.
It is okay to be disappointed at a performance and maybe even a little angry that we didn’t play well in such a meaningful fixture (that is what being a football fan is about). However it is also okay to then reflect on the positives and remember that it is always important to have…..context. We are still a very capable team and we still have lots of quality. A bump or two in the road is to be expected (even though it is more disappointing when it comes in such a huge game).
As for that is next? Well a seven hour round trip to Dumfries is what everyone wants to kick-start 2020!
Let’s get back to winning ways next week. C’mon United!
Player Ratings –
1. Benjamin Siegrist – One excellent save early on and then a game of him just going about his business. Fairly quiet despite the Dundee pressure. 6
2. Liam Smith – I think looking at the game as a whole Smith did his job well but he was erratic at times, guilty for the equaliser and pegged back heavily for most of the second 45. 6
44. Paul Watson – Yet another strong performance overall but poor at the goal in terms of his positioning and strength. 6
6. Mark Reynolds – Stood up to the test of the late Dundee pressure and defensively he performed very well. 7
17. Jamie Robson – Similar to Smith he did well but was forced further and further back as the game went on. 6
7. Paul McMullan – He has such a wonderful touch and turn but he also has the most frustrating football brain of anyone at the club. Made some dreadful decisions on the ball. 5
18. Calum Butcher – Astonishingly, despite committing 48 fouls, Butcher almost escaped without a booking! A dominant early spell but faded badly. 7
23. Ian Harkes – Really bright early on but (as I keep saying about everyone) faded badly after the break. 6
27. Louis Appere – Worked his socks off and always offered a decent option but didn’t get much joy down the flanks. 6
10. Nicky Clark – A great goal for Clark and his good form continues. Looked to have picked up an injury which meant he had to go off. 6
24. Lawrence Shankland – Cut a lonely figure for much of the game and it got worse once we dropped deep and started to launch long balls forward. 6
3. Adrian Sporle – Looked bright during his time on the pitch. Would like to see more of him at some stage.
Man Of The Match –
Unfortunately this is a difficult one, and not in a good way. The game fell so flat for United that everyone had spells of drifting in and out of the game, whilst also being guilty of poor control and poor passing.
I know that Butcher got this award at the game and he did play well, but for me the area of the pitch that remained consistently strong throughout (apart from the equaliser) was the central defence, in particular Mark Reynolds. The midfield faded badly and it was left to the defence to mop things up. Unfortunately, due to our shape, they ended up being guilty of launching balls forward but their primary job was to keep Dundee out, and the largely did that.
Despite the Dundee pressure they didn’t really create much and the defence stood strong. Reynolds has performed very well over these last few weeks and last night again he provided strength and assurance at the back.
Talking Tactics –
In a similar vein to the Ayr United match. We didn’t find a shape or system that worked tonight, despite a few small shifts and changes in personnel. We also changed things very early again and that seems to be something of a Neilson trait at the moment.
It also maybe shows you how little faith Neilson has in some of the players on the bench that he did not use someone like Cammy Smith in the number 10 role late on, just to give us a different dynamic.
The Positives –
Again I want to mention that word context. Despite the Dundee performance they didn’t get a winner and we remain unbeaten. There is still a strength to this United team that looks different in comparison to previous seasons. We can grind things out when we need to.
By playing poorly and still leaving Tannadice relatively unscathed it is something that we can take some positives from (even if the performance itself was pretty guff).
A word must also go to the display team, who organised a fantastic spectacle pre-match. It was great to have flags in each of the stands, with the hoisted display looking particularly great. The squad of fans who travel to every single game and organise these things put a huge amount of effort, time and money into these displays and hopefully at some point they can organise a JustGiving type fund for people to contribute to.
Well done to all involved.
Need To Work On –
Well, other than the fact I can’t rip James McPake for a third time this season I maybe still worry that we don’t seem to have much to work with when things are not going our way. Neilson isn’t the most experimental of managers and our squad at times still looks a bit short on options. Last night was an example of something not going to plan but us also not really changing anything to try and make a difference.
Maybe we do need a few recruitments in January? I would be keen for one or two attacking options and maybe another central midfielder. Even just a few good six month loans to help us get over the line.
Up Next –
A long, long trip to Dumfries. We do at least have an extra day recovery but the journey to Palmerston isn’t one that many of us will relish given the disaster last time we visited (I, of course, will be there with bells on).
The match against Queen of the South is the first of two tricky away fixtures on the bounce (the other being Partick) so it will be important to get something to keep our run going and to see us keep chipping away at the league season. Elsewhere Dundee play Caley next Saturday so that could be an important game for us to keep an eye on.
In theory we could also have a new face or two in the squad for next week. We might also start to see players leave. January will probably be fairly quiet but we should expect a few bits of business over the next month.
Also, and finally, HAPPY NEW YEAR! All the best for 2020, to everyone (and United).