Ross County vs Dundee United – Matchday Four

Well, here we are again. It has been a busy week of football for United and as we approach match four we can be pretty satisfied with our results so far. The midweek defeat against Hibs was a disappointing result in isolation but once again the performance contained some of the basic elements we are now witnessing under Micky Mellon – hard work, determination and a high level of physicality.

I think that I sometimes forget that we were only recently toiling in the Championship. Football is such a reactive sport that 90 minutes can skew your view on how things are progressing. Feeling disappointed after a defeat is only natural but it will take time for us to be at the consistent level the club is aiming for. This new project under Mellon has shown us enough to suggest that United are moving in the right direction.

Reminding ourselves that we are just a few games into Mellon’s tenure, and that we are just a number of weeks into our Premiership season, can help bring a sense of perspective on individual results.

As we approach the long trip north we prepare to face a team that has had a very strong start to their own campaign, but this is a date in the calendar we all probably have written down in our mind as one of the more winnable games of the fixture list.

After Ross County we have a three week run of – Celtic (home), Kilmarnock (away) and Rangers (away). Some points from the game in Dingwall would provide us with helpful credit in the bank ahead of these very tough challenges.

In the 2018/19 season, the Championship title was decided over two dates – 30th March and 5th April.

On the 30th, United played Queen of the South at Tannadice. We lost 2-1. It was a horrible result and one that piled the pressure on our next game – Ross County.

I didn’t go to the game in Dingwall but my memories of watching it on the TV were – A cracking Safranko goal, some glorious missed chances, poor tactical changes by Neilson and a late equaliser that ended our title hopes. I think that is about it? We all then know what happened a few weeks later in our Playoff Final…

United’s starting eleven that evening –

Benji Siegrist, Paul Watson, Mark Reynolds, Mark Connolly, Jamie Robson, Callum Butcher, Ian Harkes, Paul McMullan, Nicky Clark, Peter Pawlett, Pavol Safranko.

I had a conversation with someone during the week about how my match blogs go through the same cycle each year. The first few are always much, much longer, because there are often new things to speak about. Then, after a handful of games, and once we have settled down, I end up week on week using the same small selection of words over and over again.

Under previous managers I would often repeat phrases like – ‘boring’, ‘pedestrian’, ‘rigid’, ‘sideways’, ‘no Plan B’, ‘weak’, ‘lack of effort’.

Now? I am trying to find as many words to describe ‘hard working’ and ‘enthusiastic’ as I can. Which I am perfectly about (and long may it continue).

Our starting eleven yesterday was probably as ‘weak’ as it has been. That is NOT a criticism of any player (as I will get to in a minute), but it definitely was the side that felt the thinnest in terms of experience and it was absolutely a matchday squad that highlighted the areas we need to strengthen.

The flipside? This early on in his time at Tannadice I already absolutely have trust and faith in the manager to get the very best out of our players. Yesterday’s line-up didn’t make me want to feel annoyed or overly frustrated, instead it simply made me feel like I wanted to support the players and trust in Mellon.

It was also a team that in all honesty just simply would not have existed under our previous managers. They would have probably tried to do the following – shoehorn Clark into a wide role instead of Chalmers, play Butcher in the middle instead of Reynolds, play Reynolds at left-back instead of Sporle, possibly even have Powers as a defender and maybe even as a right-back. How often were we sick and tired of managers trying to contort our side to accommodate older and experienced players rather than just do what Mellon does and simply ask the question – “Right, who is next in line to play right-back?”

It seems so obvious but giving our players an opportunity to actually go and play is really what we all want. Mellon mentioned during the week that if you are playing for Dundee United then it suggests you have quality, so if the first choice right-back is injured then you simply move down the line of right-backs, rather than just wonder “who fancies playing right-back today?”

Before I get side-tracked further, let’s move on and speak about the game itself.

The opening 45 minutes was, in my opinion, probably the poorest we’ve had under the new manager. We huffed and puffed but our control over the ball was poor and we never really settled into any kind of possession rhythm. It was an even game with both teams being guilty of the same things (it also highlighted how little difference there is between some of the tams in this league).

Of course Coll Donaldson had to score, that was inevitable, but our reaction to that goal was really positive and in one of our rare moments of actually shooting rather than trying to pass the ball into the net we secured our equaliser.

Micky Mellon has been very consistent in using the phrase “being asked questions” in his interviews. Well, yesterday the questions asked were –

“How are we going to react after falling behind?”

“How are we going to win this game after a disappointing opening 45?”

The answer (and this is when I revisit my Mellon Thesaurus) is – hard-work, continuous effort, a will to win and a constant level of energy. You do these things and games fall in your favour more often than not.

Yesterday’s second-half proved, without doubt, that there are many, many teams in this league who are not any better than us. We have faced a couple of sides so far that have enough individual qualities to suggest that over a season they may begin to pull away (or maybe not if Mellon has anything to say about it). However, there are many other teams in this league, like Ross County, who we absolutely can claim to be better than.

Every game against teams like Ross County will be won or lost based on who can maintain energy levels for the longest. The second-half yesterday played out much like the game against Motherwell. We started strongly by pressing the opposition and they could not cope with it. It meant we had a strong spell where we became more confident, our passing was suddenly sharper and we managed to create three or four very good chances. It was proof, to me, that in many of our games this year, sheer determination and enthusaism will get us over the line.

That game yesterday was one that we would have not won under previous managers, ESPECIALLY after going ahead. We would have clammed up, sat back and hoped for the best. What did we do yesterday? Well in the 85th minute we had a 17-year-old defender winning the ball high up the pitch after hassling a County midfielder, before then breaking upfield and nearly setting up a third goal. That is the difference.

Our winner was a fantastic piece of play by young Logan Chalmers and it was a very controlled and clinical finish from Nicky Clark. Special mention to both goal-scorers yesterday, I am delighted for Clark who has gone through so much this calendar year (and is now playing top-flight football for the first time), but also to Peter Pawlett. The work he has clearly put in during lockdown is there for all to see. He has probably covered more ground in four games than he has his whole United career.

Yesterday was proof, yet again, that we can trust Mellon, trust his process and trust in his ability to give young players a chance whilst getting the most out of our thin squad. This is as good a start as we could have hoped for, and – In Mellon We Trust.

1.Benji Seigrist – Another week and another game without a huge amount of constant pressure. Didn’t have to make any really challenging saves, but dealt with everything as well as he could have.

22. Kieran Freeman – Making his debut yesterday. Looked a little nervy early on, and that meant he was maybe a bit out of position on occasion but he grew into the game and he will be delighted to get his first start. Well done Kieran.

5. Mark Connolly – Delighted with his new contract earlier in the week, Connolly put on a display that highlights the reason we want him to stick around. Solid and committed in the tackle, he marshalled the defence and dealt with any aerial threats.

6. Mark Reynolds – He, like Connolly, dealt with everything. Another who is showing that he can cope perfectly well in most of these games and that he will be in this team for a long time yet.

3. Adrian Sporle – We all recognise that he is not an out and out left-back and again it was highlighted yesterday that his strength is in going forward. In the second-half he did brilliantly in taking the pressure off and carrying the ball into the final third.

18. Callum Butcher – Growing into the season as the games progress. He is becoming more and more of a physical presence and is now having more of an influence on games. He, along with Harkes and Pawlett, didn’t do enough in the first 45 but then turned it around in the second.

20. Luke Bolton – His best game for us so far. Full of energy, full of desire, Bolton is someone who is relishing each and every game at the moment. Could have scored two goals and was a constant threat down the right.

23. Ian Harkes – Probably his weakest first-half showing. His passes were not connecting and he was struggling to cover much ground with the ball. All change in the second-half though. Once we started to control the ball he became one of the players to really dominant the game.

8. Peter Pawlett – I don’t really know what else to say about Pawlett. Yet again I want to give him credit for the work he has been putting in, and although he still has moments of disappearing in a creative sense, he cannot be targeted by anyone for lack of work anymore. Delighted with his goal, I hope that he can now begin to get the ball in the net regularly.

15. Logan Chalmers – A second start for Chalmers and he again didn’t look out of place. He is a player who clearly has fantastic control over a football and it is now his chance to build his momentum so that he can develop into a regular starter.

27. Louise Appere – I feel for Appere at the moment. It is probably the one bit of our system that isn’t quite working yet. He is being left in this isolated role as a lone striker, which isn’t really his strength. Once he can play alongside Shankland or another striker I have no doubt he will get going.

Subs –

30. Lewis Neilson – Nicky Clark will rightly get the plaudits but I felt the introduction of Neilson really changed the game for us and allowed United to control the ball. He has fantastic composure for someone so young, and he instantly became a calming influence at the back by driving forward comfortably with the ball.

10 – Nicky Clark – Really pleased for Clark, who gets his first goal from open play. He is someone who I hope doesn’t feel to harshly treated given he is in and out of the team at the moment. His role of super sub works perfectly when we are trying to find a little bit extra late in games.

11. Cammy Smith – I don’t want to feel like I am talking down Cammy Smith each week but he is probably the one sub who isn’t really getting as involved as I would like him to when he has his 20-30 minutes on the pitch. Edit – It has been pointed out to me that maybe I haven’t given Smith credit for the pass to set up the winner yesterday. Sorry!

4. Dillon Powers – The calming influence we need in games like yesterday. He isn’t in the team due to the form of Pawlett, Harkes and Butcher but it is great to have someone so reliable on the bench.

Yesterday’s award is an easy choice for me. Luke Bolton.

He is a player who seems to be growing and growing with each game. I like his energy and he is incredibly quick over his first 5-10 yards. This was evident against County and he probably should have scored at least one goal, but given that we won we can forgive him!

One aspect of his game that will probably please his manager the most is his ability to contribute to both attacking and defensive elements. Yesterday he was constantly helping out Freeman in the defensive areas, before then breaking forward and helping out with the attack. This kind of flexibility is exactly what Mellon demands from his players, and we have already seen that with the likes of Pawlett and Harkes.

It is common for United fans to fall in love with a loan signing, Bolton is quickly joining that club.

A return to our 4141 that seems to be favoured in away games and in fixtures where we need to maybe suss out the opponents.

The only obvious weak point in this shape comes with the lone striker and it is made worse when you don’t get players in and around the target man. In the first-half we struggled to help Appere yesterday and you can see why fans are pretty keen on us investing in a genuine hold up striker who can be called upon when we want to play this way.

As I have mentioned in previous weeks, the system is actually probably not as important at the moment, given the work and effort on display. We are becoming fitter and fitter as the weeks go on, which is helping us maintain levels of energy that make the difference between winning and losing.

I don’t think this is particularly difficult – three points and another away win.

What pleases me most about this whole experience is the trust and faith the fans are now having in our players. I mentioned it post-Motherwell, but it is true, the feeling amongst the fans is great and it gives Mellon a huge amount of freedom to simply just go and do his job.

Once you have the fans backing and once you have their trust it is a huge help when making decisions, like giving youngsters time on the pitch. Yesterday the call to give Freeman his debut would have previously been met with a bit of suspicion under other managers (but let’s face it, they simply wouldn’t have made that call in the first place). Yesterday though, it was a case of us all trusting Mellon and that is huge. It also gives players the confidence to just go and play football.

From a performance perspective I’m happy to keep this blank…again.

The one thing I do want to change is something we have no control over…getting back to games.

The reaction to yesterday’s win was again fantastic. Social media is a constant stream of positivity at the moment but the reality is, it can’t replicate the real thing. Yes it is great we can see our games but the downside to watching your team every week from the comfort of your own home is the separation anxiety you get when you realise you would rather be in your seat, on a bus, or with your friends and family at the game.

I am delighted we are doing so well, and long may it continue, but the thought of cheering the team on in person isn’t something that is going away, and the desperation to get back to Tannadice is growing each and every week. It won’t be long…..

“We Are Dundee United”

Those four words are quickly becoming a club motto. I fully expect to see it on season ticket promotional materials or stitched into the collar of next season’s kits.

The culture shift at the club, even in these few weeks of the Mellon regime, is astonishing. It almost makes you embarrassed to think that our previous manager and his coaches were banging on about their culture shift for months and yet nobody every really believed it. Now? We do.

I’ll give Mark Ellis (@Mrcento) credit for his tweet standing out in sea of similar tweets last night but he put it best when saying that Mellon just “gets it”. He is proper football man and a proper manager. He understands that winning mentality doesn’t come from false promises and he also gets that winning mentality doesn’t come from playing teams like Alloa away and saying “well this is a difficult place to come”. Mellon doesn’t do that, he doesn’t bemoan a lack of players or multiple injuries or the state of a pitch. He talks about causing problems and having confidence in the his players. He talks about Dundee United and what it means to play for this club.

I was guilty of maybe having the attitude of United being plucky underdogs this season, and looking to 10th place as being okay because it means we would survive. For that I am sorry Mr Mellon, you wouldn’t accept that so why should I? Why should any of us? I’ve been swept up by MellonMania and I can no longer accept 10th place for Dundee United.

Mellon gives off the impression that he is someone who demands constant high standards and positivity. He also strikes me as someone who privately is happy to destroy anyone who doesn’t buy into this winning attitude. I have no doubt that if he knew where I lived and saw me write “well I’d be okay with 10th place” that he would come to my door, grab me by the neck and say “here, look at me you wee d**k, we are Dundee United and we don’t settle for 10th place. Sort yourself out”. That makes me happy.

The game we’ve all been waiting for. Celtic.

I don’t know what to say about this fixture other than me just being honest. Games against Celtic are torture.

Since I was about 12 I’ve suffered from the same psychological issue anytime we play against Celtic – fear. I won’t lie, I just assume that anytime they get the ball they are going to score. Part of me wishes I could just relax and ‘enjoy’ these fixtures but I never have and probably never will. A quick look on Arab Archive tells me that I have only seen United beat Celtic five times in 26 years. That’s it.

For reference – 1-0 in 1997 (the McSwegan lob), 2-1 in 1999 (Easton and Dodds), 2- 1 in 2009 (Daly and Dods), 1-0 in 2012 (Scott Robertson) and 2-1 in 2014 (Cifcti and Armstrong).

We’ve scored 2 goals in the last 7 meetings (compared to Celtic’s 24).

So yeah, I know this is meant to get everyone totally pumped and excited for next week but…

Trying to write about Celtic is both easy and not particularly exciting. I think we all know what to expect next Saturday and you don’t need me to tell you who the danger men for Celtic might be or for me to point out that we will not see a huge amount of the ball.

What we can hope for is another display that makes things as awkward as possible for Neil Lennon’s players. You very rarely get a chance to dominate Celtic but what you can do is make things difficult for them. I have no doubt that Mellon will have a few things up his sleeve to try and make it an uncomfortable evening of football.

Hopefully we also see Lawrence Shankland and Jamie Robson return to the squad, with the slim possibility of also maybe having Paul McMullan involved in some way.

Celtic P – P Aberdeen

Hamilton 0 – 1 St.Mirren

Kilmarnock 1 – 2 St.Johnstone

Ross County 1 – 2 Dundee United

Hibernian 0 – 0 Motherwell

Livingston v Rangers (Sunday)

Weekend 22nd/23rd August

Saturday

Aberdeen v Livingston (15:00)

Motherwell v Hamilton (15:00)

Rangers v Kilmarnock (15:00)

St.Mirren v Ross County (15:00)

Dundee United v Celtic (17:30 – Sky Sports)

Sunday

St.Johnstone v Hibernian (16:30 – Sky Sports)