This was one of those afternoons when the performance proved secondary to the end result which saw them deposit three points in less than glamorous fashion against part-time opposition.
Scott McDonald's opportunist 80th minute winner is all they'll care to remember after newly promoted Brechin threatened for considerable spells to leave Tannadice with what would have been regarded as something of a shock result by holding the title favourites on their own patch.
The 33-year-old former Celtic player had been preparing to return to his native Australia during the summer following his departure from Motherwell, but United must be extremely grateful that he chose to remain in Scotland with his late goal enough to get them through this most torturous of 90 minutes.
Ray McKinnons's side remain outright top of the Championship and the only team with a 100 per cent record, which their manager took as the only consolation.
“Hopefully we won't have to remember that game come the end of the season and we can just remember getting the three points on the board, “ McKinnon said afterwards. “From start to finish, I thought we were slow. It's hard to explain why. Most of my team were off the pace and we didn't have any tempo at all.
“I've got to give Brechin credit but we didn't pass the ball well or get in behind them. Football can be like that sometimes but the important thing today – and we re-iterated it at half-time – was that this was a must-win game. It wasn't great to watch nor pretty in the slightest.
“There will be games like that throughout this season that are really frustrating. That was frustrating for me to watch and I'm sure it was frustrating to play in.
“Most of them needed to up their game but for whatever reason they just couldn't get a spark into their game. We've had a lot of games recently so we'll take this win and just move on.”
United were strong favourites to make it three straight league wins and began in positive fashion with Scott Fraser releasing Billy King down the left, but his shot was blocked.
Brechin were trying to attack whenever the opportunity arose. In 20 minutes, Aron Lynas sent over a cross which Andy Jackson rose for but couldn't make the necessary connection.
Soon after, Euan Spark rolled in Jackson who duly chipped the ball over advancing United keeper Harry Lewis, but there were no takers to finish things off.
The hosts had lost their way as half-time approached and suffered a considerable let-off two minutes before the break. This time Jordan Sinclair's cross was deflected by United defender Mark Durnan on to the post, before bouncing back and hitting Harry Lewis as the home keeper eventually gathered.
Brechin began the second-half with Lynas crossing for Sinclair and his 20-yard left-foot volley brought out a superb save from Lewis.
They were gradually growing in confidence and t heir next attack saw Spark's lay-off fall perfectly for Jackson, and his low shot fizzed just inches past Lewis' right-hand post.
United, by contrast, were struggling to find their feet although in a rare flurry forward Fraser put through McDonald, who could only fire wide.
But they finally made the breakthrough with ten minutes remaining. It was simple stuff as Stewart Murdoch's cross picked out substitute Patrick N'Koyi. As the ball came off N'Koyi, McDonald was on hand to to scoop a shot over Smith to bring a massive sigh of relief for the hosts.
Glebe Park manager Darren Dods, who had a four-year spell as a player with United from 2007-2011, had nothing but praise for his players’ exertions. “It was a great effort,” he said afterwards. “We made it hard for Dundee United and had one or two chances ourselves to do something.
“If he had managed to get our noses in front, it would have put more pressure on United and made things interesting. But you have to remember they're a good team even if they weren't at their best here.
“It was a pretty routine cross which led to their goal which was disappointing from our point of view having contained them otherwise.
“But having come to Tannadice and put on such a performance, that's the level of display we now need to try and keep to.”