It is easy to become overwhelmed by the numbers when examining Dundee United's recent performances, but perhaps the story behind the statistics is even more enlightening.
For an hour of this game, Jackie McNamara's side toiled. They were ponderous in possession, struggled to find space and were unable to create chances as the howling wind and driving rain caused passes to skid away and misjudgements to be made. Worse still, they were playing against a Kilmarnock side with just 10 men after the 22nd-minute dismissal of Rueben Gabriel. Then they scored and the entire narrative was irrevocably altered. Suddenly Allan Johnston's side, who had put so much into that opening hour and were arguably the more impressive of the two teams, were swept aside. "Patience was key," said McNamara. "I was always confident of scoring because they keep going until the final whistle."
The contest, though, was shaped by another whistle midway through the opening half. Gabriel had been booked after 18 minutes after a desperate lunge halted Stuart Armstrong, but the Nigerian then tugged the Dundee United player back four minutes later and Euan Norris again brandished yellow, followed by a red. It was a moment of crassness and the lack of reaction on the home bench and the midfielder's jersey-over-head trudge towards the tunnel spoke of such stupidity. "The first booking was harsh, but the referee seemed quick to get cards out to book our players," said Johnston, who had no complaints about the second caution.
That Norris booked three further Rugby Park players in the first half alone was indicative of his penal approach, but it would be unjust to suggest Kilmarnock were overly robust in their attempts to halt United. Indeed, on the rare occasions they retained possession they played pleasingly if without any real penetration in the final third. A Jackson Irvine overhead kick was the only time Radoslaw Cierzniak was truly troubled in the first half, and the keeper had little to do in the second either until Kris Boyd's late header from Rory McKeown's cross soiled his clean sheet.
Still, the meanest defence in the league could ultimately afford to be blasé about the concession. The excessive deliberation that characterised United's play in the opening half was replaced in the final half hour by the coruscating attacking that has drawn them so many admirers. Craig Samson, who thwarted Brian Graham, Stuart Armstrong and Andy Robertson in the first half, could do little when United finally seized the initiative with a splendidly simple goal. Graham took a long pass on his chest 20 yards from goal, spun and released the advancing Armstrong, whose early low cross was rattled high into the net at the back post by Keith Watson. In the space of a few seconds, an hour of diligent work by Kilmarnock was spoiled. "We had restricted them to very few chances, but we switched off for the goal," said a rueful Johnston.
That gave United the impetus and - as they did to Hearts last weekend and the Rugby Park club the weekend before in the Scottish Cup - they found another gear in the final 20 minutes to burnish the scoreline. The points were secured when Armstrong gathered possession on the left and drove into the area, bamboozling two defenders before wriggling clear and sliding a composed finish underneath Samson. Then, a couple of minutes later, the midfielder took advantage when Sean Clohessy dawdled to burst into the box and, although his shot was saved, Ryan Gauld was on hand to convert the rebound.
That was punishment enough, and more than Kilmarnock deserved, but United had a record to maintain and would not be denied. Robertson challenged Samson for a cross and, although the goalkeeper punched away, Goodwillie alighted on the loose ball and rammed a shot low into far corner. "I don't think there were four goals in it," Johnson said. But the way United are playing just now, there are always four goals in it.