A United win was always going to happen some time, though few envisioned it would come in such an emphatic fashion. Craig Fowler looks at how the hosts were able to humiliate their beleaguered visitors
The performance of Blair Spittal
Regardless of tactics or defensive ineptitude or controversy or whatever, when any team sticks five past another there has to be at least one player who puts in a special display, and for United that was Spittal.
Casual observers of United have been impressed with the youngster all season as he’s put in a few eye-catching displays in front of the TV cameras, most notably in both Dundee derbies. His own supporters, however, have been frustrated by his contribution the rest of the time. He’s young and plays in an attacking position. Therefore, inconsistency is going to be a fault in his game. The problem is he’s one of their most creative outlets, due in part to poor squad building from the previous managerial regime, and has been relied on too heavily.
Against Kilmarnock he played with a carefree confidence boosted by recent good performances and, perhaps, the reassurance that a burden is being lifted from his shoulders as Mixu Paatelainen continues to try and strengthen the squad.
So, just how good was he? Well he scored twice and registered two assists – in the first half.
Gary Locke instructed his two attacking wide players in the team’s 4-2-3-1 to remain high up the park and not track the runs from United’s wing backs Spittal and John Rankin. In hindsight this sounds insane - Spittal ran the show while Rankin helped himself to a goal - but there was a degree of rational behind it. The home side have been porous in defence throughout the season, conceding a number of soft goals, and Locke thought having his front three going up against the back three of United would enable them to exploit a susceptible unit.
Instead, the back line that truly need protection was Kilmarnock’s. Both full-backs, particularly Stuart Findlay on the left, couldn’t handle the one-on-one battle with the attacking player. He lost Spittal for the first goal and when the United player was allowed to get down the outside a short time later, Findlay could only block the ball out of play, leading to the corner from which Mark Durnan would head the hosts 2-0 up.
Away midfielders neglected their defensive duties
At first it seemed the instruction was for Kallum Higginbotham and Greg Kiltie to remain high up the park on all United attacks. Once it went 2-0, the pair started dropping back to cover. Although, with the poor job they at the back, they really needn’t have bothered.
Kiltie and Findlay conspired to give Spittal too much time at the third goal, when the youngster’s cross-cum-shot found the back of the net. Then, at the fourth, Kiltie drifts too high up the park thinking Killie are going to counter, allowing Spittal the time and space to cross to the back post where Higginbotham, guilty of ball watching, allows Rankin to sneak in behind him.
There’s also the little matter of the fifth goal. A couple of away defenders could do better, but Jamie Hamill sitting in front of the back four does absolutely nothing to interrupt Sean Dillon’s run. It may seem a little pernickety to point out such an error, but there’s no way a player should be running 45 yards, play and one-two before charging into the penalty area and not encounter a challenge from the opposing defensive midfielder.
The use of Ryan Dow at the No.10 role
For the most part, Paatelainen kept his team in the preferred shape of recent weeks – a back three with a bank of four in front of it – but he made an alteration up front for this match. Instead of two attacking midfielders behind a lone striker, he paired Simon Murray and Billy Mckay together with Ryan Dow supporting in the hole. This enabled the hosts to press from the front with greater efficiency, with each striker working hard for the team. However, the stand-out performance from the trio was that of Dow.
The natural winger thrived in a central position, using his quick feet and strong dribbling to manoeuvre around opponents in close proximity, while his tendency to drift out to help on both wings gave United’s attacking greater fluency and made him a nightmare for the defence to pick up. Should Hamill or Stevie Smith (later Craig Slater) follow him out wide? Or should the defence pick him up? Kilmarnock never answered that question.
Improved defensive solidity from United
It obviously wasn’t a perfect defensive showing as they still conceded a goal, and John Souttar’s no-look 40-yard back pass was the type of mystifying error we’ve come to expect from the league’s bottom side, but there were still a number of factors to feel encouraged by.
First and foremost, Gavin Gunning cut out the ridiculousness and looked like the talented defender he can be when his head is properly in the game. Mark Durnan also had one of his better showings in a United shirt in addition to scoring the second goal. It enabled the hosts to limit Kilmarnock to one clear-cut opportunity from open play.
The sale of Ryan McGowan should free up some wages to be spent reinforcing this area of the pitch further. Paatelainen’s side will not blow opponents away in such a manner many more times this season, so they’ll need to keep such solidity if they’re to have a chance of staying up.
Sean Dillon became Lionel Messi
Ok, so the world’s greatest player may not include a run where he controlled a ricochet with his face among his favourite ever goals, but you have to admit it was a terrific run from the centre back.
Dillon has only scored twice this season. In fact, Dillon has only scored seven goals in his entire nine-year career at Tannadice. However, if this campaign to anything to go by, these efforts are well worth waiting for. Make sure to check out his thunderbolt against Ross County back in August, if you haven’t seen it already.
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