“We are a different side from last year.” That was Jackie McNamara’s striking admission in the aftermath of Dundee United’s 1-0 win over Partick Thistle. It was the most salient point in three minutes of the United manager trying to summarise what it was like to again watch his team play relatively poorly in a match, but still win the three points.
Dundee United 1-0 Partick Thistle
Scorer: Dundee United - Ciftci (84 pen)
United supporters are struggling to come to terms with this new identity as they slowly realise they are watching a different incarnation of their beloved side. Jeers filtered down from the stands at sporadic points throughout the match as United struggled to get into any sort of rhythm going forward, let alone repeat the fluency which caught the eye of Scottish football fans up and down the country last term. Andrew Robertson and Ryan Gauld have gone, and it appears a lot of the attacking flair has left town with them.
Having said that, United are not a bad side. In fact, they are a very good side. They have taken 22 points from ten matches and sit second in the Premiership, having amassed five clean sheets. That is the result of their current consistency. New signings Jaroslaw Fojut and Callum Morris have solidified the centre-back positions, while Sean Dillon has done an excellent job of neutralising the threat from the opposing winger in his new role as left-back. Unfortunately for United, their new-found defensive prowess comes at a cost, and the attacking foursome, led by match-winner Nadir Ciftci, have found it increasingly difficult to unlock stubborn opponents without the help of a marauding full-back supporting from deep, even if Dillon’s long ball did help spring Ciftci for the winning goal.
“I don’t think we’re playing at our best,” admitted Dillon after the match. “That’s not to say, ‘wow, watch out for us’, but I certainly think we’ve got more to give.
“The goal came with a bit of luck. For me it’s just a clearance, just a punt up the park, which I don’t think I caught particularly well. I think Nadir might have even been offside. We’re digging in and getting some breaks of the ball, it was certainly unfortunate from their point of view, but once we got that break we punished them.”
Ciftci should have been flagged offside, but when the ball arrived at his feet he still had more than 40 yards to go to goal. Lesser players would have bottled under the pressure, but Ciftci maintained his head start and eventually drew a foul inside the penalty area from Thistle centre-back Dan Seaborne, earning the defender a red card before Ciftci tucked away the penalty.
It meant that the mercurial striker eventually won the battle which, for so long, had been dominated by the Thistle centre backs. Chris Erskine has stepped up this season, scoring four league goals thus far, but last season’s triumvirate of excellent supporting players – Ryan Dow, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong – have struggled for consistency. As a result, Ciftci has found himself isolated as other teams have enjoyed a greater share of attacking possession and forced United to retreat deep into their own half, which Thistle did to great effect in this game.
The Firhill side will feel they should have taken all three points and they might have done so if Christie Elliott’s second-half curler hadn’t come back off the top of the crossbar. Even in defeat they were pleased with the improvement from their two trips to Tannadice last season, where they suffered 4-1 defeats each time, and if Kallum Higginbotham had been fit he may have provided his side with a match-winning spark.
Such a quality is why Ciftci remained on the park despite his struggles. Keeping his emotions in check has been a problem for the striker in the past, but on this occasion he concentrated on his football, kept plugging away and eventually got the chance to be the hero once more. His captain hopes the eventual reward he received for his persistence will help encourage him to continue fighting until the death in “ugly” games like this one.
“Nadir is a great lad. He’s a fantastic player, we all know that. But sometimes he gets a little frustrated,” said Dillon.
“I don’t want to play in ugly games. I want to play in games where we pass the ball, but it can be frustrating for our front four and for Nadir, in particular.
“He persisted. It was a frustrating day for him but he stuck it out and thankfully for us he’s come up with the goods when he’s got the chance. It’s a pressure situation for the penalty, and he’s put it away. He deserves a lot of credit for that.”