A disappointing start to the league campaign against tough opponents gave Dundee United a stark reminder of how much quality has vacated their squad in recent years. Craig Cairns looks at whether the departures this year are too tough to replace.
Other than a horror show at Parkhead, Dundee United made a solid start to the 2014/15 campaign. After their 6-2 victory in the New Year derby, United sat in third place just three points behind leaders Aberdeen. Then, the speculation linking two of their standout performers to Celtic, culminating in their eventual sale, wore them down. A subsequent series of five matches against Celtic over three competitions saw them fail to win, including in the League Cup Final, and they never really recovered.
This was even more disappointing given they had managed a win over the eventual champions earlier in the season. Their disappointment was compounded when they ended the season with a sequence of ten matches without a win, followed by three wins in eight, which saw them drop out of the European places and into fifth. After losing two key elements of their side, Dundee United went from being one of the league’s most entertaining sides – and one of the most effective at counter attacking – to a team full of promising talent struggling for any kind of consistency.
It’s been a tough year for Dundee United in the transfer market. This summer saw yet another key player has departed for Celtic, meaning they have now sold 25 of their 58 league goals from last season to them. The figures look even worse when just looking at league goals from this year. Between them, the three have scored 48% of Dundee United’s league goals since January, even though two of them were only there for the month of January.
Austrian striker Darko Bodul and Dutch midfielder Rodney Sneijder have been added to address these issues. Bodul scored a modest amount of goals in Austria and Denmark, though only managed one goal for Altach last season, while Sneijder is a technically proficient attacking midfielder who, if all goes well, will excite the fans.
Dundee United have more than a few players with potential within their ranks and the progression of these, along with the new additions, could see them become a potent side again next season. A lot will depend upon how much the likes of John Souttar, Blair Spittal, Charlie Telfer, Aidan Connolly and Robbie Muirhead flourish during the next nine months.
It wasn’t just the attack that Jackie McNamara had to address. Dundee United conceded more league goals than Hamilton and Partick Thistle last season before Jarosław Fojut packed up his locker, declaring Dundee a “shit city”. Coll Donaldson, still only 20-years-old, joins the club after his release from QPR. He previously won a move to London after some impressive performances for Livingston, while Mark Durnan joins from Queen of the South where he impressed as a ball-playing central defender. These two have begun the season as the new centre-half pairing and could signal that McNamara intends his side to pass the ball out from the back more often.
McNamara came to the club with a lot of promise after an impressive spell at Partick Thistle. He has since performed very well, on the verge of outstanding had he won either of the cup final appearances or sustained their fantastic league form for longer across one of the last two seasons. United have recorded fourth and fifth place finishes under McNamara – a solid if unspectacular tenure so far.
Unfairly caught up in some bad press over a bonus dispute last season, McNamara’s job has been made increasingly difficult by continually having his side raided during transfer windows. Johnny Russell, Barry Douglas, Andrew Robertson, Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Çiftçi have all now departed since the manager’s arrival.
The attacking trio from last season is a bigger loss than the manager has had to deal with until now. Nonetheless, encouragement should be had in the knowledge that, other than a few duds, the transfer market is an area where McNamara has performed well. All while nurturing young talent effectively within an exciting style of play.
With so many key players leaving – and the little we know about some of those who have arrived – perhaps we should use this section to select a player that could become the next youngster to emerge as a key component of the starting line up. Some are purchased, some are promoted through the youth system but, either way, Dundee United do something better than most teams in the country when it comes to progressing young players.
McNamara likes his side to keep the ball down when attacking – 11 of their 27 (40%) league goals since January have come through either short passes or from low through balls – usually after winning the ball and breaking forward quickly. Players such as Spittal, Telfer, Connolly and Muirhead, as well as one or two others, have already displayed in flashes, the confidence and technical ability to thrive in such a system.
The progression of John Souttar is perhaps the most exciting of the lot. He began to establish himself at the base of the midfield towards the end of last season after breaking through as a raw, 16-year-old ball-playing central defender in 2013. Since then he has grown into a more composed holding midfielder who can break forward with drive and skill.
He’s also starting to build up a very decent YouTube reel of tricks and attract interest from another of the vultures constantly circling Tannadice. If, in the eyes of McNamara, he hasn’t already established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet, he will have by the end of this season.
Six players that may need to step up at United next season
1. Michał Szromnik
The 22-year-old goalkeeper experienced a debut to forget against St Johnstone, being at fault for both goals in a 2-0 defeat. That remains the Pole’s only start for the club, although he did manage a clean sheet in a two-and-a-half minute substitute appearance. If things don’t work out with Luis Zwick, who has started the season as first-choice, Szromnik may be called upon again.
2. Coll Donaldson
As mentioned earlier, the centre of the Dundee United defence was particularly soft at times last season, meaning McNamara has wasted no time in selecting the former Livingston defender for his debut. Donaldson possess strength, is quick and, like his fellow new recruit Durnan, is comfortable on the ball.
3. Charlie Telfer
Telfer burst onto the scene at Tannadice last season, causing everyone to wonder why he wasn’t given any chances in that awful Rangers side previously. He failed to sustain his early promise after his arrival but an extended run in the first team could see him become one of Dundee United’s main playmakers this season.
4. Aidan Connolly
When at his best, Connolly was perhaps the most exciting of the attacking Dundee United youngsters still at the club. A tricky winger who has a knack of appearing in the right places to score goals, like Telfer an extended run in the first team could see him become an important player.
5. Ryan Dow
The underrated Dow has shown tireless workrate, great ability on the ball and is a goal threat – all while being overshadowed by others. He has played a few different positions for the club and, if he can regain his pre-injury form, he may become one of United’s key players this season.
6. Robbie Muirhead
Signed in January from Kilmarnock, the young striker has already impressed in his few starts thus far, scoring twice. He almost marked his first start for the club with a raking effort versus Celtic, forcing a tremendous save from Craig Gordon. He has the ability to shoot from anywhere and was recently nominated for UEFA Goal of the Season.
The young players in the squad won’t quite be the next Robertson, Gauld, Armstrong etc, but they will make enough of an impact to keep United in the top six, with McNamara likely weaving some magic in the transfer market once more.