WITH one casual aside, Stuart McCall succinctly summarised Dundee United's season.
"They are probably just as dangerous when they're defending a corner," the Motherwell manager said ruefully as he reflected upon the defeat meted out to his side by the Tannadice team on Tuesday.
The statement spoke to the conflicting characteristics of Jackie McNamara's team; one that is capable of haplessness defensively but moments of rampant menace in attack. How many teams score twice at Celtic Park, miss a penalty and force Fraser Forster to make two splendid saves yet still ship six goals at the other end?
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It is a conundrum that McNamara has attempted to address in his four matches in charge, winning three to move United to within four points of Motherwell in second place and revive hopes of a European place.
On Tuesday, he deployed Jon Daly at centre-back in a move that stiffened the back four and enabled United to attack with greater pace, given the captain's lack of mobility can slow the play in the final third. It worked a treat, United producing one of their most accomplished performances of the campaign and one that would have been reflected by a more handsome margin had it not been for the interventions of Darren Randolph in the Motherwell goal and some erratic finishing.
Still, as the manager observed, keeping clean sheets will enable United to win matches, given that they have failed to score in just one of their previous 20 Clydesdale Bank Premier League games. That record is in part a consequence of Johnny Russell's quiet gathering of goals. The 22-year-old now has eight in his last seven appearances and needs just one more to breach the 20-goal barrier for the campaign with at least 12 games remaining.
His finish on Tuesday was unerring, the highlight of a mature 90 minutes during which he was a persistent pest as a lone striker. "I've gone through spells when I haven't been scoring but the last few weeks have been pleasing," he said. "With the service you get in this team, it is hard not to score."
Russell referenced Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong, the other two prongs in United's attacking trident. Both gifted with the speed of thought and sleight of foot to complement their pace, the duo were also excellent at Fir Park, with Mackay-Steven's outrageous 70-yard burst upfield after a Motherwell corner giving Russell the opportunity to score the winner.
"His part in the goal was wonderful," the striker said. "He showed strength and pace to get into that position and the through ball didn't leave me with much to do. He is incredible. You go to football to see players like that and sometimes I get caught up just watching him during the game."