The Scottish Premiership continued at the weekend with Dundee United’s visit to Motherwell. The home side are fancied by many to challenge for the European places this season, however, an opening weekend defeat to Ross County saw them come into this match with a point to prove. Meanwhile, Dundee United had looked promising in their 1-1 draw with St Johnstone and aimed to perform well in Micky Mellon’s second game in charge. Motherwell played on the front foot and tried to take the game to the visitors. However, it would be United who came out victorious thanks to a second-half goal from captain Mark Reynolds.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used and how they contributed to the result. The analysis will cover both sides and their respective approaches panned out.
The home side continued with their 4-1-4-1 formation which was used in their opening fixture. Trevor Carson continued in goal while Liam Grimshaw and Declan Gallagher kept their places in defence. Bevis Mugabi came in to replace Nathan McGinlay with Ricki Lamie moving to left-back. Mark O’Hara played in the middle of the park behind Allan Campbell and David Turnbull. Rangers loanee Jake Hastie continued on the right with Sherwin Seedorf came in on the right. Chris Long continued to lead the line.
The visitors changed to a similar 4-1-4-1 rather than the 3-5-2 used the previous week. Former West Ham player Benjamin Siegrist remained in goal. He was protected by a back four of Liam Smith, Mark Connolly, Mark Reynolds, and Jamie Robson. Callum Butcher played in front of the defence with Ian Harkes and Peter Pawlett ahead of him. Manchester City loanee Luke Bolton played on the right with 20-year-old Logan Chalmers on the other flank. With talisman Lawrence Shankland out injured, the onus was on Louis Appere in attack.
With both sides opting for the same formation, they were able to cancel each other out which lead to an interesting contest. There was a focus on the flanks with over 80% of both sides’ attacks coming from out wide.
Dundee United’s defensive play
As mentioned earlier, Motherwell were the side who looked to play on the front foot for most of the match and had 61% of possession. Due to this, the visitors saw themselves do a lot of defending. They set up in a fairly low block as they looked to deny Motherwell space between the lines. Smith and Robson at full-back stuck close to Seedorf and Hastie when they moved inside, minimising the impact they could have. Luke Bolton and Logan Chalmers also tracked the full-backs well as they pushed on denying even more options.
David Turnbull would often be the man to play between the lines and link the play for Motherwell. However, United’s low midfield forced him deeper to get on the ball, as shown below. Chris Long wasn’t too keen to drop deep either which lead to the hosts trying to force difficult passes.
Turnbull playing deeper can be seen again below. The midfielder is forced far deeper than he would like to be in order to create chances. Dundee United’s low block again closes off the options which he has in attack, forcing him to pass sideways to Campbell. Jamie Robson at left-back is also well-positioned in order to get out to Seedorf if Turnbull attempted that pass. This was a feature of the match with the usually dangerous Turnbull unable to make a single key pass.
Motherwell were often allowed a lot of time on the ball as they brought it out of defence. Mugabi and Gallagher were the most frequent passers for the Steelmen, making 68 and 67 passes respectively. This is an indication of how often the ball was played around the back as they looked for a chink in the visitors’ armour.
In the example below, Gallagher attempted to bring the ball out of defence. He was closed down quickly by Pawlett and forced backwards to O’Hara. This suffocating of progressions happened regularly. The defence would be allowed the ball in their own half but as it crossed the halfway line, the press would be triggered. As shown, Butcher rushes onto Campbell and Appere closes down O’Hara while the other defenders close onto their men. This left O’Hara with no clear option on the ball, maximising their chance of turning it over.
The effectiveness of United’s defence can be seen by Motherwell’s passes, below. The high volume of passes between the central defenders shows the time they were allowed on the ball while they also progressed it into midfield. It is once it reached the midfield where Dundee United began blocking off passes. A number of the hosts’ passes were played towards Turnbull, however, very few were then able to be progressed into the final third.
Motherwell’s attacking struggles
As mentioned, the hosts enjoyed the majority of possession without being able to create a great deal going forward. This was their issue against Ross County as well. On that occasion, the issue appeared to be that they struggled to get Turnbull on the ball as he played narrow on the left. However, on this occasion, he saw more than enough of the ball but couldn’t pick apart Dundee United’s defence.
As shown above, the home side operated a much higher press. While the visitors allowed the ball to progress as far as halfway before closing down, Motherwell got in the faces of United’s defenders straight away. Hastie came in from the right to close down Reynolds while Long pushed onto the goalkeeper as the ball was moved to him. While the front line was active in trying to win the ball back, when they were successful, options were limited. The midfield often stayed deeper and weren’t on the same wavelength. These attacks too often become disjointed with players all over the park.
While the Dundee United low block contributed to their struggles to progress the ball, Motherwell didn’t help themselves at times. As shown below, when the ball was brought out of the defence there were areas of space. As Mugabi carried the ball forward, nobody in an amber shirt shows for it. Instead of dropping between the lines, the midfield either shuttled sideways or moved forward.
Campbell and Turnbull both could’ve dropped into the space behind the visitors’ attack and midfield which would shorten passing lanes and increase the chances of completing the pass. In attack, Chris Long also found himself isolated at times. Instead of dropping into the space behind the midfield, which had been left open by Callum Butcher, Long remained high up the park forcing a long pass.
With the introduction of summer signing Jordan White, it became clear they were going to look to more direct passes as an out-ball. When this change was made, it would be expected that they would look to play balls to the forward and get bodies close to him to collect the second balls. However, when the ball was played forward, White all too often found himself isolated as shown below. While the ball is in the centre of the park, White is the only player in a central area for Motherwell. There is a large pocket of space which you would look for the midfielders to play in, however, nobody got close to him, resulting in a loss of possession.
As shown by their shot map, Motherwell didn’t have as many shots in the box or the width of the goal as they would’ve liked. The majority of their efforts were from distance and didn’t trouble Siegrist in the United goal. Despite this, they achieved an xG of 1.26 which suggests they were wasteful. The two main opportunities fell to Chris Long and Tony Watt within the six-yard box, however, neither could finish.
Dundee United’s right flank
As shown below, 53% of Dundee United’s attacks came down their right-hand-side. This was likely a tactic deployed by Mellon in order to take advantage of Motherwell’s preference to move the ball to their own right side. This meant that they could attempt to overload this flank to create opportunities. Luke Bolton was the away side’s most advanced player which demonstrates this emphasis on the right wing.
An example of this overloading can be seen below. The ball is with Luke Bolton Just outside the Motherwell Box. Liam Smith can be seen making a run on the outside of the defender. As well as this, Ian Harkes in the right third of the pitch while Peter Pawlett made a run from the centre of the box. This gives the visitors a four-on-three situation in the attack, meaning they will have a spare man to play with.
Overall, this was an entertaining match as both sides looked for openings. The majority of the chances created by Dundee United came on the break as they soaked up Motherwell’s pressure. While they didn’t look particularly dangerous going forward, they never gave much up at the back and got the victory thanks to this.
On the other hand, the hosts came into the match as favourites but were disappointing. They failed to break down United and struggled to find openings. It was clear they were eager to get key players such as David Turnbull on the ball but were unable to do much when they did. The introduction of Jordan White added a physical presence but they failed to take advantage of this, not getting enough bodies close to him.
Motherwell clearly still have a lot of improvement to make if they are to meet many people’s expectations this season. No goals in their opening two matches could be a concern for Stephen Robinson, while Dundee United can be happy with a victory without their two main attackers. Micky Mellon will be pleased with how his side have shaped up and will look for continued improvement.