A decent match in which Peter Houston’s men played some quality football. Aberdeen rarely looked comfortable in the match and Craig Brown will be disappointed with his team's efforts. After talk of a possible top six finish, Aberdeen now find themselves slipping back down the table, without a win in their last three.
Dundee United were once again forced to change their back four, bringing in Timothy van der Meulen for Paul Dixon. Stuart Armstrong was dropped to the bench with Prince Bauben restored to the starting line-up after his goal in Inverness on Tuesday. This meant that United stuck with their 4-5-1/4-3-3, with Craig Conway and Danny Swanson flanking David Goodwillie in attack.
Rory McArdle and Nick Blackman were the players to miss out for Aberdeen, both of them dropping to the bench and being replaced by Zander Diamond and Derek Young. Craig Brown has favoured a 4-4-2 in most matches since taking over as manager at Pittodrie, preferring a 4-5-1 against the better sides. It was a mark of respect that he decided to drop Blackman and go with Scott Vernon as a lone striker. Sone Aluko was chosen to provide support from the left of midfield with Ryan Jack deployed in a more conservative role on the right.
Once the game settled it was clear that the home side contained more quality from middle to front. Paul Hartley and Robert Milsom looked composed on the ball but were let down by their teammates higher up the pitch. Sone Aluko failed to find space, Vernon was isolated and Derek Young looked lost in a more attacking midfield role than usual.
The Dundee United midfield moved the ball quicker and more accurately, which was down to their superior movement, forming triangles to pass through their opponents. Scott Robertson sat the deepest of the central midfielders but all three showed a willingness to get forward and support the attack.
The movement of United’s front three also caused no end of problems, especially Conway and Swanson, who would look to cut inside and run at the Aberdeen defence. Most of the danger came through Swanson on the right wing, however, it was a goal from the left side and a set-piece that put them 2-0 up by half time.
United first half goals
As mentioned, despite all Dundee United’s enterprising forward play, it was a set-piece that broke the deadlock. Not only this, but Aberdeen were temporarily down to ten men while Diamond was receiving treatment for a gaping head wound. Even in his absence, it was shocking marking by Aberdeen, who allowed three unmarked players to attack Conway’s inswinger at the near post.
The second goal was even more fortuitous and was the result of an uncharacteristic long ball from van der Meulen. The Dutchman, more often than not, looks to keep it simple but this time opted to send the ball long towards Conway. Although inaccurate, his pass was poorly cleared by the head of David McNamee into the path of Conway. He skipped inside before sending a shot towards goal that should have been dealt with but was parried into the net by Jamie Langfield.
Even though Aberdeen deserved to be 2-0 down going into the break in terms of performance – their first chance form open play was in the thirty-fifth minute - they will feel a bit hard done by given that it was careless defending from a set-piece and a goalkeeping error that cost them.
At half time Craig Brown brought on Josh Magennis for Sone Aluko and moved to a 4-4-2. The substitute made an instant impact as all of a sudden there was someone in the Aberdeen attack who was quicker to the ball than the United defence. His appearance culminated in a simple goal – a tap in after a long ball from Langfield wasn’t dealt with - and for a brief spell it seemed that Aberdeen might take something from the match. They began playing a higher defensive line and employing an aggressive offside trap.
Peter Houston responded by withdrawing Conway for Andis Shala. Shala provided more of an aerial and physical presence in attack but the success of the change came from the positions of Goodwillie and Swanson behind him.
United retained their midfield three but just the two just in front of them were given licence to move freely between the lines and Aberdeen struggled to cope. The home side began to dominate again and it wasn’t long before they put the game out of reach of their opponents.
Their first two goals may not have been the prettiest but their third reflected the quality of Dundee United’s play during parts of the match. Goodwillie dropped deep to receive the ball and dinked a perfectly flighted ball over the Aberdeen defence and into the path of Swanson, who had made a darting diagonal run. He took the ball in his stride before angling his body and finishing expertly with a curling strike.
Craig Brown responded by throwing on another striker and in turn Peter Houston withdrew Swanson for David Robertson, moving to 4-4-2 with a narrow midfield four and stifling any Aberdeen attempt to get back into the match.
Aberdeen may feel aggrieved by the manner in which they conceded the first two goals but in the end the scoreline truly reflected the performance of both sides. United’s third was a goal fit to win any match and was far more indicative of their play.
The substitution by Craig Brown at half time had the desired impact, however, the response from his opposite number was even more effective on the outcome of the match. It was another great result for United which was based on the movement of the midfield and attack, the effective way in which they moved the ball, and the pace and trickery of Conway and Swanson.
A little over a month ago Hibernian showed the danger of playing a high defensive line against Dundee United – it was Conway who punished them that day – and Aberdeen found themselves victims of the same fate last night.