It’s only early days in the football season, but things are already looking bright at Tannadice. At least brighter than usual.
After a poor Betfred cup campaign that ended with them finishing 3rd in their group, United fans were worried. It looked like it be would another season in the Championship that was the same as all the others, a team with good players that would occasionally show how good they could be but would regularly come up short. This time made worse by the possibility of Dundee getting back to the Premiership at the first time of asking, leaving their city rivals as quickly as they had joined them in the second tier.
However, the fantastic start the team has made in these first three games has gone a long way to get the fans back on side. Obviously, Shankland has gotten the most plaudits, already getting 7 goals in 3 games, more than double his closest competitor (Bob McHugh with 3), but he’s not the only one deserving praise. Paul McMullan has picked up 4 assists, only one away from equalling the amount he got all of last season, Jamie Robson has once again shown improvement under Neilson, putting a game-winning second-half performance away to Partick Thistle, and Louis Appéré has appeared basically out of nowhere to become both a first-team regular and one of the club’s most exciting young prospects.
However, there is one element of United’s start that has both neutrals many United fans confused. And that’s Nicky Clark on the left-wing.
Nicky Clark is the typical lower league poacher. Short and stocky, with an ability to appear from nowhere in the eyes of opposition defenders. The winner he scored back in January against his former club Dunfermline is a good example of this.
The defence, who had either gone to force Cammy Smith off the ball, were marking Pavol Safranko, or were just straight up ball watching, hadn’t picked up Clark on the edge of the 6 yard box…
…When Nesbitt released the ball into the box, the former pars player quickly moved around to the front of Longridge…
…Then flicked the ball with his head up and into the back of the net, Robinson’s flailing right hand doing about as much to stop the ball going in as Longridge’s desperate diving header.
This type of goal is typical of the idea that many people have of Nicky Clark. What people don’t think is a player with any kind of creativity. He’s the player to get on the end of goals, but he can’t set them up. He’s also not particularly fast either, a quick yard or two of pace but can’t beat a man in the long run. He’s smart with his movement, not fast. So why is Neilson playing him on the wing? Especially when Louis Appéré, who has been playing up front alongside Shankland, is much more suited to playing in that position?
Okay, It’s best if I show you an example of Neilson’s tactics in action before I explain them. This is from the first game of the season, a 4-1 win over Inverness.
It’s the 52nd minute. Mark Reynolds has picked up the ball on the halfway line from a failed attempt to control the ball from Tom Walsh. Immediately, he plays the ball forward to Stanton.
Stanton runs forward, assessing the options in front of him. Clark (circled in red) is running alongside him, while Appéré (circled in blue) is further upfield. For Caley, makeshift right-back Carson is tracking the run of Clark while Donaldson marks the striker. Normally, the winger would go down the byline while the striker would either go into the box or go central to receive a pass from the edge.
Instead, Clark runs in from wide into the box, dragging Carson out of position with him. Appéré meanwhile, drifts out wide to receive the ball, Donaldson going with him. Charlie Trafford, not knowing whether to pressure Stanton or follow the two runners, does nothing, allowing the United man to pass it out wide to Appéré. A few seconds later, the youngster cuts back and goes to cross the ball in. Donaldson should be in the box ready to head the ball away, but that role instead falls to 5ft 8 Carson, who has been forced into the centre back spot by United’s smart attacking movement.
The Ball comes in, and…
The ball flies high past Carson, and meets the head of Shankland, who nods past Ridgers’ late dive with ease.
So, the point I was trying to make with all that is while Nicky Clark may be playing on the wing, the role of a winger he is not taking up. Instead, his role hasn’t changed all that much at all. He’s still a target man, he’s still expected to get in the box, but in doing so, He’ll force the players marking him into making decisions that will drag them out of position. Also, this tactic, while being fluid, also forces the players to maintain a certain shape for it to work. previously, under McKinnon, Laszlo and even Neilson the previous season, the wingers were expected to frequently swap. This would work on occasion but usually would mean that the wingers were stuck on the same side, leaving a massive gap for the opposition to exploit when someone like Billy King or Tope Obadeyi inevitably lost the ball. The fact that the switch only occurs when the team is on the attack, and only on one side, significantly lessens the possibility of this happening.
I also want to point out the importance that Louis Appéré plays in this setup. Someone obviously needs to go into that space that Clark leaves behind, and the academy graduate does so with ease. Watching him, you can see why Roma took him on trial a few years ago, and why the United academy staff persisted with him even while they were loaning him out to the juniors. He’s quick, both with the ball at his feet and with his decision making, strong enough to hold off most defenders in this league, and is a fantastic crosser of the ball. He suits this system down to the ground.
Considering the success United have found so far, I would expect that this would be the attacking set up of the side for a while. Though Pawlett is coming back from injury, I doubt he would suit this style as well, so I expect Clark to stay as on the wing. And I fully expect, despite this article’s existence, that Scottish Championship fans will still say: “Clark on the wing? What is Neilson thinking?”