The Strange Season of Dundee United
As the 2019/20 season was brought to an abrupt end, Dundee United ended their four-year stint in the Championship and would be making their long-awaited return to the top flight of Scottish football. The return of United was seen as a big positive for the league as one of the nations biggest clubs were making their comeback to a league where many believe they belong. Although the league would miss out on another decent-sized support for the time being, the Terrors return brought back a big gun with an abundance of history in past decades.
With United being one of the bigger clubs in Scotland with owners who were putting a good amount of money into the club, there was great optimism that the Tayside team would be competitive addition to the league. United were looking strong to win the Championship league title as they commanded a 14 point lead with 8 games to go, despite form lacking in recent weeks. The signing of Lawrence Shankland was a massive influence in this success, with the striker scoring a massive 28 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions, leading to the former Aberdeen youth being called up and scoring for Scotland. With a highly rated striker on their books, many people early on were tipping United to make quite the impact on the top flight this season.
The preparation for United's return season to the top flight could have gone a lot smoother as legal issues and a departing manager added an element of uncertainty to the upcoming season. As United benefitted from the decision for points per game to decide the season, they were dragged into a legal battle alongside Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers against Heart of Midlothian, Partick Thistle and Stranraer. United would win this case and remain set to play in the Premiership but were then rocked by Robbie Neilson's decision to leave for his beloved - and United's recent legal opponents - Heart of Midlothian. Former Tranmere Rovers manager Micky Mellon would take over from Neilson, the first time the Scotsman was involved in professional football in his home country.
The start of the season was decent enough for a team just promoted from the Championship as United picked up 7 points from their first 4 games, with consecutive away wins against Motherwell and Ross County being particularly noteworthy. This was without star man Shankland who was out injured for 3 of these 4 and would miss a further 2 following this. A valiant losing effort against Celtic earned Micky Mellon's side a lot of plaudits, with many impressed by how the club frustrated Celtic and almost clung on for a valuable point. Looking back at said result, it looks a lot more indicative of Celtic's issues rather than United's quality.
Since that opening couple of weeks, United have experienced a fairly inconsistent season with a clear issue coming through. Quite surprisingly, even with great forward options such as Lawrence Shankland, Marc McNulty and Nicky Clark, United have really struggled in attacking phases this season. Only Ross County (10) and St Mirren (8), the league's bottom clubs, have scored fewer goals than Dundee United's 12 this season with even more worrying numbers backing this number up.
Dundee United have the least amount of shots on target per game as their measly 2.3 per game is lower than St Mirren (3.4), Hamilton (3.1), St Johnstone (2.9), Livingston (2.75) and Ross County (2.6), teams who United have considerably better attacking options than. It will be massively concerning for United that they are underperforming so drastically in front of goal, with United registering two or fewer shots on target in 9 out of 16 games this season already. This includes a very poor 0 away to St Johnstone, 1 at home to Livingston and 1 away to St Mirren.
According to ModernFitba expected goal stats (modernfitba.com), only St Mirren (13.14 xG) and Hamilton (11.76 xG) create worse quality chances than United in open play (13.36 xG) which shows further struggles in creating chances. Looking at the goals United have scored this league campaign and you see most of their joy comes either from set-pieces or reacting to loose balls within the box, rather than playing players through with key, creative passes. Again using ModernFitba stats, United have registered 139 attempts this season, the 4th lowest in the league with 89 of these were in open play, the 6th lowest in the league.
United have had some joy going down the flanks, with the likes of Luke Bolton, Liam Smith and Adrian Sporle putting dangerous balls into the box. Sporle has probably been the most threatening when playing as a wing-back due to how high up the pitch he gets but has missed a fair bit of action in the past few months due to injury, meaning United have lost a pretty decent outlet. Sporle is the only player this season for United to have scored and registered an assist so far this season, albeit that is only one in each tally.
Nobody at United has registered more than one assist, showing there isn't really a creative outlet within the squad at Tannadice this season. The likes of Ian Harkes, Jeando Fuchs and Calum Butcher will put themselves about the park but don't quite have that quality on the ball in the final third to punish teams. Paul McMullan was a key creator for United last season registering 10 assists in the league but missed the start of the season due to injury and hasn't been able to squeeze his way back into the team just yet. If McMullan can get himself fit, he will definitely be a boost to United's squad and bring something to their attack with his desire to get forward. Louis Appere is another player who had a decent season in the Championship last season with 9 goal involvements but is another who hasn't played as much this season for the Terrors. Perhaps when United get these kinds of players back to full fitness, then we will see a much better attacking output from Micky Mellon's side. If Mellon doesn't fancy these players, it can only be assumed that United will be bringing some new faces in to try and boost their attacking prowess.
However, despite all of this, Dundee United sit in the top 6.
The above stats would make you think that United are struggling but quite bizarrely, it is quite the opposite. United are more than comfortable with their league positioning as teams have failed to capitalise on having a better share of the chances against Micky Mellon's side. The last 8 games has seen United only register 3 shots on target in 3 of the games but have only lost two of them, both against Livingston, showing they aren't being punished too heavily. This run of 8 games actually has United come out with 10 points, with key wins over Ross County and Hamilton keeping United in the top half. In the last 5 games, only Rangers have picked up more points than Dundee United showing that they are making up for their shortcomings in front of goal elsewhere.
The attacking prowess of Dundee United has taken quite a beating but there is credit that must be given to Nicky Clark. Clark has 7 league goals already as the forward has stepped up to become United's main man this season, with vital braces against Hamilton and Ross County earning the club valuable points. Clark seems better suited than the likes of Marc McNulty and Lawrence Shankland to drop deeper and make things happen, giving reason as to why Clark has been able to excel better than his teammates this season. Clark could do with more output from his partners as he has scored 58.3% of the goals United have scored in the league this season.
Benjamin Siegrist has had a great season for Dundee United and is a large reason as to why United have managed to stay within the top 6 for so long. Siegrist has made the second-most saves in the league (behind Hamilton's Ryan Fulton) with 4 clean sheets to his name, with noteworthy performances against Aberdeen and St Johnstone being highlights this season. Siegrist is a sure contender to be in the Team of the Season with his displays already this season as he is kept his team in the game plenty of times. Siegrist makes an average of 3 saves a game, with only Fulton and St Mirren's Jak Alnwick making more a game. Siegrist is an incredibly valuable asset for United and if United remain in the top half, he will be a key reason why.
United's ability to cling onto results is something that not many others have been capable of doing. The likes of Motherwell, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock have had inconsistent seasons so far and Dundee United deserve credit for how they've been able to battle this season with their backs up against the wall and keep teams at bay. Two consecutive 4-0 losses against Rangers and Kilmarnock have really harmed United's goal difference but in the other 14 games this season, they've only given up 12 goals so far. United very rarely concede more than once in a game, with only the two aforementioned results and two losses against Livingston seeing them concede at least twice in a game. Micky Mellon has made his team quite stubborn and will be confident of continuing this throughout the season and with familiarity to the league and its competitors, there is no reason they can't improve on this furthermore. If not, though, they could end in quite an uncomfortable position later on in the season.
It really has been an odd season for United as they haven't showcased their attacking abilities but at the same time, have not been overly punished for it. Had Motherwell not gained 6 points from forfeited games, United would be sitting in 5th place, showing that their form this season has been fairly solid so far. United are capable of so much more and will be confident that they can improve which gives them a fantastic chance of ending their first season back in the top flight by finishing in the top half. The January transfer window could be massive as it is clear United need more creative players to supply their forwards, with a couple of additions possibly making a massive difference on their current struggles.
At the same time, United have to be wary that they avoid defensive displays like the one against Livingston at the weekend if they don't improve going forward. If Micky Mellon's side becomes complacent at the back, it could be a very nervy ending to the season as it has been the main key to their success so far. Either way, it is worth keeping an eye on United's performances as teams will likely have a boost in the New Year and after the transfer window with new recruits. United will probably be safe but it may not be as close as it is looking just now.
Make sure to go to www.modernfitba.com to find more stats from all the Premiership clubs this season. It is a great site ran by a good group of hardworking people who deserve more support. You can subscribe to their Patreon for exclusive access where you will find a number of stats that show you how teams and specific players are performing.