Dundee are on the hunt for a new manager after sacking Neil McCann on Tuesday. Craig Fowler looks back at his tenure and where it all went wrong
Having pragmatically used the players at his disposal to earn Dundee enough points to guarantee the club’s safety, Neil McCann committed to a gameplan closer to his football ideology when he took full-time control in the summer of 2017.
The Dens Park side, bucking the trend of many a team in the bottom six, were going to control games through possession-based football. This, McCann reasoned, would help the players grow and the club to realise its full potential. After a terrific debut campaign back in the top flight under Paul Hartley, they’d underachieved in each of the following two years, which eventually led to the former manager’s sacking. They were trending downwards and a strategy had to be put in place to change that.
To an extent it worked - in a ‘the-operation-was-a-success-but-the-patient-died’ sort of way.
Dundee did manage to control games with their passing. They were fourth in the league in ball possession and played the third fewest long balls. In Glen Kamara, McCann found an absolute gem from Arsenal’s youth academy. The midfielder had barely played any competitive first-team football in his career before turning up in Dundee, but he masterfully operated at the base of the midfield with poise, grace and anticipation. Coupled with the technical skills and furious barking of Paul McGowan, this midfield pair provided a solid base for the manager to build his footballing structure.
Unfortunately, he was barely able to get the rest off the ground. While they could pass the ball and, therefore, win the midfield battle, they frequently lost the war due to their deficiencies in the two most important areas of the football pitch: their own penalty area and that of their opponents.
It should have been a lot easier. Frequently Dundee found themselves in great scoring positions but failed to take advantage. Expected goals (xG) is a stat which rates the quality of chance. In that particular table, Dundee were fourth in the Ladbrokes Premiership last season. Only three other teams created better opportunities over the course of the campaign, not including Aberdeen, the team who would finish second. But instead of being the goalscoring kings of the bottom six, only Hamilton would net fewer goals.
If this were a small sample size we could put it down to luck. But across 38 games it means the forwards lack finishing ability and composure in front of goal.
Sofien Moussa was the poster child for the team’s problems in attack. Signed by McCann, the Tunisian striker could be effective on occasion. With broad shoulders and a hunger for combative play, he could unsettled even the most accomplished defenders in this division. However, his control was often wayward and his finishing from open play was almost nonexistent. When he did finally break his non-penalty duck, against Hearts on April 1st, the Dundee social media team were moved to tell fans that it wasn’t an April Fool.
As hard as they found converting chances, they had zero problems whatsoever giving them up at the other end. If we once again measure by expected goals, Dundee were the second worst team in the league for allowing quality opportunities. Even when Jack Hendry was at the heart of the defence - and do not let recency bias cloud your judgement, he was excellent at Dundee - they were still a soft touch at the back.
Throughout McCann’s tenure the defence remained a problem. The partnership of Steven Caulker and Josh Meekings, for example, should have brought success based on past production, but the Dark Blues continued to be sliced open. And when they weren’t they were gifting chances on a plate. This contributed to a terrible home record which saw his side win just as many league games away from home as they did at Dens, while every cup exit was suffered there too.
When McCann brought in Graham Gartland he let it be known that was his assistant’s area of expertise, saying: “I will be able to let Graham go away and work on certain things with the centre-backs and full-backs in the full knowledge that I can get to the front end of the pitch and start zoning in on certain specifics.” Whatever Gartland did with the defenders, it didn’t have the desired effect, though the readiness in which his boss changed the defensive set up, whether it was a three, four or five-man defence, couldn’t have helped.
While recruitment certainly hampered McCann’s progress on the training field, both of his own doing and the previous incumbent, he still failed to get the best out of the talent he had. There’s no better example of that than Scott Allan. He was the best attacking player McCann had during his tenure and he didn’t fully figure out what to do with him. Allan was a creative force when he played, but many other aspects of his game were exposed in an unfamiliar role on the wing, leading to him dropping in and out of the starting XI. Then, just when it looked like Allan was finding his stride in a dark blue jersey, he was allowed to join Hibs in a three-way deal which saw Scott Bain (who’d fallen out with McCann) go to Celtic and Simon Murray join his boyhood heroes. Murray would go on to score a vital double in a 2-1 away win at Partick Thistle, but there’s little doubt Dundee still got the raw end of that deal.
All of this would have been acceptable for a Dundee board who were clearly willing the McCann experiment to work. He would have remained in the job even if there was the slightest inclination that things were improving this season. But they weren’t. They were only getting worse.
Managing director John Nelms fully backed his manager in public, saying Dundee were in a “false position” after the defeat to Hibs, their sixth on the bounce to begin the Premiership campaign. Even the happiest of clappers weren’t ready to swallow that brand of Kool-Aid, and with good reason. Through eight games they have the worst defensive xG in the league (and they’ve still to play Celtic or Hearts), while only St Mirren have been worse at creating chances. It’s not longer a case of poor finishing, Dundee just aren’t cutting teams open.
In the end, it was clear Nelms didn’t fully believe his words either. He and the board did, however, see that there was still some potential there and wished for an elder statesman to come in and assist his young manager. Whether it was their intended target or McCann himself who knocked back the idea, we can’t know for sure. Regardless, the failure to find one sealed McCann’s fate, leaving Dundee to rip up one project and start again.