After two victories from their opening six games it looked as if Dundee United fans were in for a long wait for their club to rejoin the elite of Scottish football following last season’s ignominious relegation.
Even when Ray McKinnon’s men faced Hibernian on week eight, despite the 1-1 draw there appeared such a gulf between the sides in the first half that nobody really took the possibility of a United title challenge seriously, least of all the Tannadice faithful who’ve been through the ringer during the last 16 months.
And yet, just over six weeks later, United sit just a point behind their Easter Road rivals at summit of the Ladbrokes Championship and currently hold a seven-game winning streak. The two sides are due to meet each other at the beginning of December in what’s sure to be a tantalising match on Friday night football.
So how did United go from such a stuttering start to undoubted title contenders?
The formation of a cohesive back four
Dundee United’s back-line was horrendously error-prone last season. It was so bad that Gavin Gunning, a player who picked up the ball mid-game and walked out of the club, wasn’t even the worst offender in the unit. To begin this season, they recorded only two clean sheets in their first 15 games. They’ve since tallied five in their last seven.
The team have responded surprisingly well to the blow of losing Lewis Toshney, injured during the draw at Easter Road, with Mark Durnan forming a solid partnership alongside summer signing William Edjenguélé (or “Edge” as fans tend to call him).
There was so much chopping and changing of the unit last term, and even the opening months of this season, which is rarely conducive to a watertight back-line. United finally have cohesion and it’ll be interesting to see whether Toshney comes right back into the starting XI. He played in the recent win over Dunfermline, though several notable first-team members were rested for the Irn-Bru Cup clash.
Organisation throughout the side
It’s not just in defence where there’s been a marked improvement from last season. At best, the Tannadice squad could be described as a soft touch. At worst, a disorganised rabble. It didn’t look much better at the beginning of this campaign, but with time McKinnon has managed to whip them into shape and added some much needed structure. They rarely stray from their 4-2-3-1 system, which keeps them solid defensively while building a platform for their short, possession-based attack. Edjenguélé and Cammy Bell have emerged as leaders of the side and their influence has been rubbing off on some of the younger talents.
Improvement of under-performers
If asked in May “who would you happily drive to their next club?” your average Dundee United could produce a list as long as your arm. Among the chief perpetrators were Mark Durnan, Scott Fraser and Charlie Telfer. All three were kept on for this season and all three have justified the faith shown in them by the club.
Durnan, in particular, has been completely unrecognisable over the past few weeks. Where as last term he would think too much about things, often allowing the ball to drop when he shouldn’t, or taking it for a walk out of defence when it was ill-advised, now he’s keeping things simple and concentrating on being a no-nonsense defender first and foremost. The subsequent rise in confidence has enabled him to look more comfortable with the ball at his feet, as evidenced by his terrific run which started the move he himself finished in the 1-0 win over Falkirk.
As for Fraser and Telfer, where last season they were shrinking amid the cloud of negativity, they’re now revelling in the feel good factor playing on a successful side. Fraser, guilty of hiding before, now uses his skill and passing ability to help United dominant games, while Telfer finally appears to have found his role as a neat-and-tidy player alongside Willo Flood at the base of the midfield. The boo boys just don’t know what to do with themselves.
So many players were discarded at the end of last season. Therefore, in able to challenge at the first time of asking, McKinnon needed to get it right in the transfer market. Adding nine new players in such a short space of time is usually risky business, but they’ve all contributed to the squad. In addition to those mentioned, there’s been Stewart Murdoch, who helped tighten up the midfield before his injury, Dutch duo Frank van der Struijk and Nick van der Velden, and attackers Tobe Obadeyi and Cammy Smith. It’s given United great strength in depth at every position - except, perhaps, the most important one.
Greater discipline and organisation are all well and good, but to win a title you need to have real quality in the final third. At present, Andreu is providing such input, with an incredible eight goals from 11 games since joining on a year-long loan from Norwich. The former Hamilton midfielder and £1million-man is just too good for the Ladbrokes Championship level and United pulled off quite the coup by tempting him to return north.
There remains a worry that United rely too much on the playmaker and if he sustained the sort of long-term injury which befell Murdoch or Toshney, they may struggle to penetrate stuffy opponents. He’s even spent time playing centre forward this season as United lack an out-and-out front man behind Simon Murray.
As much as the former Arbroath hitman runs his heart out and provides a presence in attack, there remains a doubt whether he’s the man to fire them out of the second tier. Four goals from 12 games isn’t a bad return, but if they’re to match the firepower of Hibs, it’s felt a new striker must be recruited in January if United are to go beyond merely providing a challenge and actually win the Ladbrokes Championship crown.
• Thanks to Stuart Milne and Derek Keilloh for their help with researching for this article.