Last season, even at their best, Dundee were a fairly predictable side. It was a case of getting men behind the ball, doing their best to protect a flaky defence, and relying on Marcus Haber to lead the attack on his own. The Canadian is not the most dynamic of strikers, nor is he a clinical finisher, but he can hold up the ball with the best of them in Scotland and this was enough to build a gameplan around.
Having looked like the favourites for relegation in October, Dundee managed to claw enough points together so that when they suffered the seven-game losing streak which saw the end of Paul Hartley’s tenure, they still had enough in the bank to get themselves out of bother with two victories and a draw in Neil McCann’s first three games.
Whatever happened next is anyone’s guess. Stories went back and forth on whether McCann was staying to take the job on a permanent basis, before he eventually left and Dundee attentions turned to Jack Ross. When Ross decided to stay and finish what he started at St Mirren, McCann was the unlikely candidate to be announced only a few hours later. Apparently the Sky Sports pundit only returned to pick up his laptop. Even in the mad world of Scottish football, it was an unusual manner to go about hiring a new boss.
While his appointment may have been somewhat chaotic, his work in the summer transfer window has been anything but. Dundee have already begun assembling a side which, on paper, looks significantly stronger than the one that so nearly dropped out of the division last season. McCann has been quick but diligent in his recruitment, refusing to either panic or dally on his signings as he builds up the squad piece by piece.
When Hartley was heading for the exit, many pundits remarked that he’d been dealt a bum hand by the sale of Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings. While it’s undoubtedly true that Dundee would not have struggled to such a degree had the two stars stuck around, replacing your best talent is part and parcel of being a manager in Scottish football. And it didn’t excuse the rest of the squad, which was a heavily unbalanced unit with far too many neat-and-tidy central midfielders. The Haber signing likely saved them from the drop. Without the striker, it’s hard to imagine Dundee staying in the league or Hartley lasting until April.
McCann has immediately set about trying to correct such mistakes. Dundee were short of natural width and a creative midfielder and, already, the bodies have been brought in. Both Roarie Deacon and Randy Wolters are wingers who play with a degree of pace, power and represent a goal threat from midfield. Then there’s the addition of Scott Allan on loan from Celtic, giving the side some much-needed creatively in the centre of the park.
In defence some further recruits are probably required, but young centre-back Jack Hendry represents a gamble well worth taking. When the youngster came through at Partick Thistle at the same time as Liam Lindsay, who this summer made a six-figure move to English Championship side Barnsley, Hendry was looked upon as the better prospect. If he can put his frustrating experience at Wigan Athletic behind him, he could be an excellent player at the heart of the Dees defence for years to come.
The addition of Lewis Spence from Dunfermline was a bit of a head-scratcher, but then the midfielder is only 21 years old and there must be something McCann believes he can mould into a top flight talent. Furthermore, he fits into the model of player which Dundee have recruited so far. With the exception of Woulters (who’s 27) every signing has been 25 or younger and they all have something to prove.
The new boss seems far from done either. There are still a few positions he’s looking to strengthen, including in attack where the No.9 jersey has been left open for a new recruit rather than being handed to Haber.
Even if Haber remains the first-choice striker, Dundee still go into the new season with flexibility. Their strongest starting XI already fits nicely in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Allan would start at No.10, where he’d be expected to use his penchant for a slipped through pass for either Deacon or Woulters to run on to. In front of the back four, O’Hara and McGowan would put in enough work for the rest of the team to do their own thing, while a rejuvenated Kevin Holt and last season’s Player of the Year Cammy Kerr will provide threat on the overlap, where they’ll look to hit Haber with crosses into the penalty area.
If such a system doesn’t suit the occasion, McCann can easily switch it to a 4-4-2, bringing Faissal El Bakhtaoui or Craig Wighton off the bench to support Haber, and installing another industrious midfielder like James Vincent into the central four, allowing Allan to concentrate on providing the guile.
The return of Hibs to the division, not to mention St Johnstone keeping the core of their squad together, will probably mean a top six finish is outside of Dundee’s grasp. But after the worries of last season a comfortable mid-table finish, and perhaps a decent cup run, would represent significant improvement.