Apologies but this blog might be a tad shorter than usual. With such a quick turnover between games and with this being a Tuesday night fixture it puts a bit of pressure on my own time. Only having a couple of days between matches also means a lack of club news and I certainly do not waste any time speaking about the idiotic behaviour of certain footballers at other teams, so expect a slightly condensed review.
One benefit of having another game so soon after the last one is that the momentum this early in the season doesn’t slip. We were all lifted massively by the victory on Saturday and in sport it is good to keep busy when you are full of confidence. As a fan it has been great looking back over two successful games on our return to the top division.
The game against Hibernian is yet another big test of this new era at the club but Micky Mellon will have the squad right up for this. Our opponents boast a 100% record and they have scored 6 goals in their opening two victories.
With an attacking threat that could well be the best outside Rangers and Celtic, Hibs would arrive at Tannadice looking for 9 out of 9.
Unlike most of these ‘Previous Meeting‘ sections during the first round of games, we don’t need a rewind to 2016. Indeed we have actually played the Easter Road side twice in this calendar year. In January we met each other in the Scottish Cup. Both games were great occasions played in front of big crowds (remember them?)
Reflecting on the 2-2 draw at Tannadice and the 4-2 defeat in Edinburgh I think that most fans looked at these performances as the first real indicator that this squad could potentially compete in the Premiership. At the time we were comfortably sitting at the top of the Championship table so a test against Hibernian was an exciting prospect and one that whetted the appetite for top-flight football.
The Easter Road game was a hard luck story, with United just missing a few key elements and being guilty of one or two fatal errors. Despite falling short I remember the mood amongst the supporters, it felt like we were back to where we wanted to be and the singing as we all left the ground, despite being knocked out, summed up the confidence we had.
The (very familiar) team that evening was –
Benji Siegrist, Liam Smith, Mark Connolly, Mark Reynolds, Jamie Robson, Peter Pawlett, Callum Butcher, Dillon Powers, Ian Harkes, Louis Appere, Lawrence Shankland.
So, with Lawrence Shankland failing a fitness test and Liam Smith unfortunately ruled out it meant another change in shape for Micky Mellon –
Ryan Edwards being drafted in for his debut meant returning to the 352/532 that we started the season with. Unfortunately our plans were thrown off course very early on after a sickening clash of heads involving Jamie Robson. Although Adrian Sporle is effectively a direct swap you would think that the switch (and serious injury) did have an impact on our game plan and early rhythm. The game might have only been a few minutes old but I thought that in the opening moments we were looking really sharp and creative. Unfortunately the creative bit didn’t really last…
I’m actually quite glad I am cutting this review a little short. The first 45 minutes, certainly post-Robson injury, really didn’t get going as a football match. Don’t get me wrong – and I cannot stress this enough – we once again witnessed lots of energy, lots of battling and some really positive physical play but when trying to move forward we really didn’t do enough in the wide areas or in the pocket of space on the edge of the box. In saying that, we didn’t really look uncomfortable or out of place. We competed with Hibs and denied them the opportunity to get into an attacking rhythm across the pitch. This needs to be seen as a real positive. Let’s all remember where we have been these last few years and what the club are now trying to do. I would rather be witnessing a stodgy but committed performance against an in-form Premiership side than against someone at the lower end of the Championship.
As the game wore on we unfortunately did start to unravel positionally and for a spell of about 10-15 minutes I felt a Hibs goal was increasingly likely. I am not sure what changed but we just seemed to lose a bit of concentration. A dip in our work-rate allowed Scott Allan and others to begin to play with a bit more freedom.
The goal settled the game a little and we did get back into things but the lack of final ball or unpredictable moment of creativity meant we always looked a little short and, Pawlett’s brilliant chance aside, we never really got close to scoring.
As a 90 minutes we can probably say that the result is disappointing but the performance was decent enough. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible either. A point wouldn’t have flattered us but in the Premiership one moment and the game slips away from you.
It is never nice to lose but we did reasonably well and we gave Hibs enough of a game to once again suggest that we are on the right path. Micky Mellon, as is now standard, gave a very honest and open post-match interview, highlighting the need to be more creative and clinical. It is this cutting edge that we missed last night. It doesn’t help that the squad is looking very light in the forward area and hopefully we can get Shankland and McMullan back, whilst also looking at one or two additions.
1.Benji Seigrist – Seemed a bit hesitant last night, certainly when coming for short passes. Maybe could have been a bit more imposing at the goal.
20. Luke Bolton – A little out of place positionally in the first-half but to be honest he offers a lot going forward. Bolton is full of energy and looks like he could be a really decent player for us.
12. Ryan Edwards – As debuts go it was solid enough. He made some really good blocks and will undoubtedly be a threat from set-pieces but he should have been taken off after hurting his hamstring. Could be out for a couple of weeks now..
5. Mark Connolly – Guilty of one or two rash moments (it was his toughest test so far), but in general did well.
6. Mark Reynolds – Again a consistent enough performance and no complaints defensively. Both he and Connolly were to blame for some poor long balls.
17. Jamie Robson – Sadly taken off with that head injury. Wishing him a speedy recovery.
23. Ian Harkes – Another 90 minutes full of running and effort. He always looks busy and always wants to get involved. Still guilty of not imposing himself enough in possession but already he is looking a much better player this season.
18. Callum Butcher – A third very up and down game for Butcher. I personally felt he was a bit better at the defensive elements last night but his passing was way off at times.
8. Peter Pawlett – Genuinely this must be some kind of laboratory made Peter Pawlett. Looks fit, sharp and covers a huge amount of ground. Hasn’t yet got into the rhythm of influencing a game creatively but his defensive work and positioning is much improved. Should have grabbed an equaliser late on.
10. Nicky Clark – A frustrating evening for Clark. The game for us probably hinged on Clark being the difference maker. Playing in that link role meant it could have been all about what he did on the ball but he wasn’t ever in possession often enough.
27. Louis Appere – Not enough service and nothing to really work with. His touch wasn’t as strong as normally is and he will be a bit disappointed that he didn’t make more of an impact running directly with the ball.
3. Adrian Sporle – The early change for Robson. We all want him to do well and he does show some of his great technique from time to time, however he didn’t ever impose himself on the game physically and he doesn’t have the same enthusiastic, quick off the mark acceleration someone like Robson gives you..
11. Cammy Smith – He has been used in every game but I still worry he isn’t influential enough to make that difference you want to see from the bench.
15. Logan Chalmers – Good to see the youngster again but his biggest role during his time on the pitch, whipping in left footed set-pieces, didn’t work.
30 – Lewis Neilson – A positive cameo from the young defender.
This is one of those awkward games where everyone was okay but nobody really stood out as having a particularly great 90 minutes. If it was purely on influence in-game you could make a case for Luke Bolton given the number of crosses into the box and opportunities he managed to fashion for himself, but like everyone else he got 90% of the way there but missed that little bit of quality at the end.
Effort wise I don’t think you can fault anyone. As a base level of performance this continues to be a real positive and something that will carry us far this season. Last night once again I thought Ian Harkes covered a phenomenal amount of ground and he deserves recognition for this.
When we heard about the Smith injury I was worried we might need to alter our shape and with Hibs playing a very wide 442 against Livingston I was concerned that we would be left quite exposed either side of the central defenders.
In the first-half there were definitely two or three passages of play when either Luke Bolton or Adrian Sporle didn’t quite get back in time which left big gaps but to be fair the middle three didn’t ever really look completely swamped.
I am enjoying the flexibility we have. Moving system to system I think will keep opponents guessing. We are also covering so much ground that tactically we can always deny opponents the room to breath when they have the ball. Being competitive is a big step forward for us. In this return to the Premiership it is actually all I ask of the team. Once we gain a foothold in the league and we are competitive then the rest of the elements can be worked on.
The final noticeable thing was again the freedom people like Harkes, Clark and Pawlett had to swap about when they were pressing the opposition defence. Mellon wants his players to participate in different things. They seemed comfortable doing that without leaving too much space. This awareness and the energy to do that is something we have lacked in recent years.
Tactically there is no doubt that we are making positive steps forward under Mellon.
Well we again got 90 minutes of committed football and that is always going to be a positive. I think that if you reflect on the systems and methods we have endured recently then this is a very different team.
I remember writing blogs under Laszlo and Neilson, basically giving up after just a few paragraphs because I felt that the players were not giving enough effort so why should I bother? I don’t feel like that under Mellon. For me I know that watching United at the moment is enjoyable, not just because we are in the Premiership but because we have a group of hard working and enthusiastic players who are performing under a very trustworthy, positive and grounded manager. Lacking that little bit of quality is something that needs addressed but I am happy to have this type of full blooded and well organised football right now.
I used a throwaway line from a sports book a few weeks ago in my ‘Summer 2020’ blog thread (I’m sure you all remember it). It was a line that reflects how I want my United team to be – “You can lose, but don’t be losers“
I think that Mellon and the players are fitting that bill right now. Yes we will lose and yes we will experience some big bumps, but we are most certainly not losers in the way we apply ourselves each and every 90 minutes at the moment.
We’ve all seen groups of losers take to that pitch in recent times. This is most certainly not a group of losers.
I’m still going to leave this blank from a performance point of view but I will just mention something that I think we all know – The squad is looking pretty thin in places.
It would be unfair to compare ourselves to Hibs, they have had a few years to build a truly Premiership level squad, but we are certainly in need of some additions and that was highlighted last night. It is undoubtedly most obvious in the forward areas and we miss another creative force or a striker who can offer either a genuine physical threat or something unpredictable.
I apologise for forgetting who actually said this on Twitter but yesterday morning someone mentioned that this time last year we were prepping for away days at Dumfries and Alloa again. It is this kind of reflection that will be important during this long and hard Premiership season. Remember where we were. Being a bit frustrated over last night is maybe understandable but given what we’ve been through I’m happy to feel a bit frustrated in the Premiership against a side who will possibly finish third this season. Also, sitting here with 4 out of 9 is probably what most of us would have targeted out of our first three games.
After the game I was having a message conversation on Twitter with someone and I went on a bit of a ‘rant’ (it was more an outpouring of blog emotion). I said that I was a bit fearful of writing the blog this season because I know that we will have a long and hard year. I am not fearful of my own ability to deal with that, I’m far too pragmatic and sensible, but I am a bit fearful of panic and dismay setting in. Social media makes suffering defeat a lot, lot worse and it heightens emotion. The reaction to last night was fairly muted and I think that most fans realise we are trying really hard but still lack a bit of end product. Let’s keep it that way. I am actually perfectly happy to be in that position right now. We have been out of this division for a number of years and being a bit behind others is to be expected from a newly promoted team who has to build a Premiership quality squad.
We will get there, but it will take time and there will be difficult weeks ahead. I absolutely think we are improving all the time and I have complete faith in Micky Mellon.
On Saturday we make the journey to Dingwall. It is usually one of those away trips that fans either dread, and just never go, or see as one of those fantastic long journeys that requires almost an entire day on a bus.
Ross County have made a strong start to this season and, as is tradition, have had a bit of a squad makeover. It is a bi-annual event at Victoria Park, signing and releasing what feels like an entire squad of players (plus nick one or two from Inverness Caley). This year they have also decided to break up the management duo of Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson. In June Ferguson moved upstairs to become Chief Executive, whilst Kettlewell, the world’s angriest human being, was left as manager in his own right.
Well first of all we should expect a pretty positive County team, given their strong start to the season. They have enjoyed very good spells in each of their games, plus they have two or three players who are playing with a great deal of confidence. They have one of the better forwards in the league, Ross Stewart, and they seem to be using a fairly flexible 4312, which has served them well so far.
Expect Billy McKay and Stewart to lead the line but the noticeable difference so far with County is their ability to mix and match when they go forward. Their shape seems to be much more fluid this season and this needs to be something we watch closely.
This fixture is one that we probably all look at as a winnable game. We have navigated our way through some teams that will all be looking for top-six but County are the first side we face who, realistically, will have similar aims to us this season – be competitive and maintain your place. It might be that our immediate expectations have been adjusted due to the positive performances (the same could be said for County), but across an entire season we probably have similar season objectives.
Given the result last night I am really looking forward to this one. I want to see how we respond to our first defeat.
Dundee United 0 – 1 Hibernian
St.Mirren P – P Celtic (Again, players being tubes)
Aberdeen P – P Hamilton
Motherwell v Livingston (Wednesday)
Rangers v St.Johnstone (Wednesday)
Ross County v Kilmarnock (Wednesday)
Weekend 15th/16th August
Celtic v Aberdeen (15:00)
Hamilton v St.Mirren (15:00)
Kilmarnock v St.Johnstone (15:00)
Ross County v Dundee United (15:00)
Hibernian v Motherwell (17:30 – Sky Sports)
Livingston v Rangers (16:30 – Sky Sports)