On Christmas Day, as Dundee United fans tore open their presents, dined with family and drank merrily through the crisp night, they did so with a warmth at the centre of their being. For the Tangerines sat two points atop the Ladbrokes Championship. Twenty months of pain was slowly evaporating and there was real hope that 2017 was going to be their year.
Those same United fans must be wondering what was in those Christmas drinks, because the hangover has yet to shift three months later. In just nine Championship games they’ve gone from leading the table by two points to sitting ten behind leaders Hibs, trailing two other sides in the promotion chase.
A 14-game unbeaten run that was halted before the New Year has given way to a sequence of two victories in 11, knocking them from the Scottish Cup and all but ensuring the treacherous path of the playoffs in an increasingly forlorn bid to return to the top flight at the first time of asking.
Back in mid-November, in the midst of their impressive form, I looked at how United had turned themselves from slow starters into title rivals. Now, almost four months to the day, it only felt right to investigate exactly what has gone wrong with the Tannadice club.
Overachieving earlier in the campaign
There’s a good chance, some may even say a likelihood, that United’s terrific unbeaten run earlier in the season was an anomaly. Fourth in the division, behind Morton, Falkirk and Hibs, is maybe exactly where this squad deserves to be.
Perhaps they built up a house of cards based solely on momentum and confidence, and when the first sign of adversity came along the whole thing came tumbling down.
Looking at the start of their run, which followed an indifferent beginning to the campaign, it wasn’t like the team suddenly clicked and starting swatting aside opponents left and right.
They dug out a win against Morton after losing to them in the League Cup earlier in the week, then rescued a point away to Hibs despite playing terribly in the first half. That was followed with a 1-0 defeat of Stranraer in the Irn-Bru Cup before they bettered St Mirren when the Paisley side were at their lowest ebb.
The only stand-out results were a 4-1 win away at Queen of the South, who themselves were plummeting down the table, and the Tannadice victory over Hibs, which was a tad fortunate itself seeing as the visitors missed a penalty at 0-0.
Squad lacking balance, width and pace
The squad is well stacked in some places and too light in others. In Lewis Toshney, William Edjenguele and a rejuvenated Mark Durnan, not to mention an experienced deputy in Sean Dillon, they have a strong centre-back corps. But at full-back the standards don’t match up.
Toshney has often been deployed on the right of the back four and, as manager Ray McKinnon should know from their time together at Raith Rovers, it’s not a position he tends to excel in. The defender has endured a poor campaign at Tannadice as he’s been shunted around the defensive positions, falling way short of the form he showed at Cowdenbeath and Raith Rovers in each of the last two seasons.
At left-back, Paul Dixon boasts a pair of Scotland caps on his CV, but seems to have lost a yard or two of pace since returning to the club for a second spell. Young Jamie Robson is stronger going forward, but McKinnon is still hesitant to hand over the position on a full-time basis to the teenager.
The lack of added impetus from either of the full-back positions really hinders the attack, which generally plays without much natural width. For much of the season centre midfielder Scott Fraser has been used on the flanks. And while Blair Spittal is often viewed as a wide player, at least since his arrival at Tannadice, his form can be inconsistent.
Meanwhile, there’s a dearth of options in attack, with midfielder and top goalscorer Anthony Andreu often deputising in the lone striker role. Simon Murray runs a marathon in every game. He adds an injection of pace missing from the rest of the side, but his composure can often let him down in the final third, and he’s not exactly suited to playing up top by his own.
Poor January window
In fairness, McKinnon tried to address the needs of the squad in the January transfer window and even tried to conduct some of his business early by recruiting Thomas Mikkelsen in the first week. Unfortunately, you can’t always get it right in the free agent market, and the Danish striker has yet to show he’s an improvement on Simon Murray.
The other bit of business saw the club allow Tope Obadeyi to go, bringing in Alex Nicholls to fill the void out wide. While Obadeyi was frustrating to watch, he could beat his man on occasion and there’s little to indicate from Nicholls that he’s anything other than a downgrade on his predecessor.
Too reliant on star performers
If they were handing out MVP awards, American-style, in the Ladbrokes Championship then surely Andreu would win the award at a canter. It’s hard to imagine where United would be in the table if they didn’t have their talismanic midfielder, who joined last August on a season-long loan from Norwich City. He’s netted 16 goals from midfield in all competitions and is the team’s only reliable source of creative output. The same kind of reliance has been bestowed upon Edjenguele and goalkeeper Cammy Bell at the back.
If these guys aren’t at their best then Dundee United don’t win. McKinnon has tried rearranging the pieces around them, as managers tend to do in times of stress, hoping to discover the next magic formula. Unfortunately, it’s often a case of the more you tinker, the further the situation spirals.
Defensive record has nosedived
There was a five-game stretch during the unbeaten run where the side didn’t concede a single goal. It would seem the 3-0 defeat at Easter Road, hot off a narrow loss at Dumbarton, broke United’s defensive resolve.
Over the last 12 games in all competitions they’ve conceded 34 goals. That’s an astonishing 2.8 goals per game.
While members of the backline may have failed to keep up their pre-Christmas form, any coach worth his salt will tell you good teams defend as a unit. There’s been a real disconnect with the identity this side established for themselves earlier to the campaign, and the one currently limping into the play-offs.
With discontent continuing to rumble on behind the scenes, amid terrifying financial figures, McKinnon is under pressure to steer this drifting vessel back on course, and to do so quickly.
• Once again, thanks to Stuart Milne and Derek Keilloh for their help with researching for this article.