Dundee have struggled to find an identity through 14 games of the Ladbrokes Premiership season, writes Alan Pattullo
This was the area that filled Dundee fans with excitement at the start of the season. With Rory Loy and Kane Hemmings supplementing the talents of Greg Stewart, and young star Craig Wighton waiting in the wings, it looked as though Dundee could boast an almost embarrassment or riches.
So much so that the decision to send Wighton away on loan to Raith Rovers wasn’t greeted with complete dismay. Dundee then swept Kilmarnock aside 4-0 on the opening day (Stewart 2, Loy 2) and it seemed as though manager Paul Hartley’s principal task was to manage expectations.
But injury ruled Loy out of the next league match against Hearts and Dundee have not been the same since half-time in that clash, when they led the visitors 1-0 and looked set to record a second successive league victory.
So Loy’s injury has hampered Dundee’s progress, while Stewart will also be the first to confess he hasn’t quite reached the heights of last season. He has, though, still scored five times in 15 appearances. Hemmings, meanwhile, has notched 5 goals in 14.
These aren’t ruinously poor totals. Indeed, they are fairly good - if they can all reach double figures then Dundee shouldn’t be too far from a top six place.
But it just hasn’t quite clicked yet. At least not in the way Dundee fans had hoped. The feeling persists that given the right support, the strikers will improve - if they stay clear of injury, and if Paul Hartley can figure out how best to employ them. Loy has been played out wide too often, for example.
If attack has been disappointing, it is nothing compared to the defence. Scott Bain has been resolute enough in goal. If he has not been quite as confident looking as last season, then it could be down to the never-ending changes in front of him in central defence.
It was clear to everyone that this was where Dundee had to strengthen after last season, when James McPake and Thomas Konrad failed to strike up the kind of relationship that inspired confidence. Daryll Meggat, a left-back/centre-half, came in from Alloa, while Julen Etxabeguren was signed from East Fife. Both have been in and out of the team and have still to adapt to the step up, Meggat most noticeably. Etxabeguren has been further impaired by injury.
So for the most part, Hartley’s choice has been to perm two from McPake, Konrad and the Bulgarian Kostadin Gadzhalov, another who looks unsure at this level. At full back, Dundee also look suspect; Kevin Holt, a signing from Queen of the South, shines when Dundee are going forward, but his defensive qualities remain unconvincing. The same could be said for Paul McGinn at right back.
Still much work to be done here for Dundee, though it’s clear Kevin Thomson’s continued inability to play more than two or three games in succession has been unhelpful. When he has played, the skipper brings a sense of calmness and assuredness to the area in front of the back four that enhances the performance of those behind him.
No-one has truly shone. When Gary Harkins plays, he still brings a touch of class to proceedings. But of the regular starters, perhaps only Scott Bain can claim to have been a consistent performer, with flashes of brilliance – such as a last-gasp save against United in August which helped Dundee gain a point after a late comeback.
Paul Hartley. Some would contend his star has dipped slightly over the course of the first few months of this season. There’s no question he has been badly served by injury to key men, such as Loy.
But he has still to pinpoint a system that truly suits this group of players. With no real width, and with a lack of pace in the side, Dundee do look a bit laboured at times as they try to build attacks. From has dipped and on a current run of just three points from 12, there are fears Dundee could be drawn further downwards in the league than their present position of seventh.
Still, it is a lot better than Dundee have been used to in recent years and he retains the faith of the majority of the fans.
Must do better
No question it is the defence. But you wonder whether improvement is possible, certainly in the middle. Konrad is simply not tall enough to be the commanding presence required while McPake, while giving his all, has always been prone to resort to last-ditch defending. Galdzhalov simply isn’t good enough for the Scottish Premiership and the jury is still out on Etxabeguren.