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Kilmarnock 1 Dundee United 4: United to the four again as subtle tweaks change little

JACKIE McNAMARA appeared a little disinterested when asked about his Dundee United side's increasingly astonishing run of goalscoring, one which has yielded 21 goals in their last five matches and, even more incredibly, at least four in nine of their 20 outings this term.

Ryan Gauld is lifted up in celebration after scoring United's third goal. Picture: SNS
Ryan Gauld is lifted up in celebration after scoring United's third goal. Picture: SNS

The latter statistic beggars comprehension but, rather than revel in the numbers and dwell on what has been as pleasing a few weeks as anyone at the club can remember, the manager's focus is on answering the questions still to come. Can United maintain this form? What can they achieve if they do? How would the receipt, and subsequent acceptance, of a debt-clearing bid for a player next month affect that?

It is thought the club are resolved to not sell during the impending transfer window unless they receive an offer so generous that it cannot rationally be baulked but even before that becomes a live issue, there is plenty to exercise McNamara's mind. Foremost is a run of five games in 15 days over the festive period, beginning with Saturday's visit of Ross County and culminating in the hosting of Hibernian on January 4.

As the manager spoke of the need to make full use of his enviable squad during a frantic fortnight, the thought occurred that it takes a brave man to alter an XI who are playing in such a coruscating manner. Yet that overlooks the fact that, not only does McNamara have form for bold selections - note the introductions of Ryan Gauld and John Souttar during the tickly bit of last season - but also that he has changed his team subtly even during the past two or three weeks. Brian Graham has replaced the injured Nadir Ciftci in the last two games; club captain Sean Dillon was reinstated in place of Gavin Gunning against Hearts last weekend; while on Saturday, Mark Wilson made way for Keith Watson.

The right-back scored the goal that cleaved open the contest on Saturday and it appears that he and Wilson will effectively job share over the next few games. "It's been frustrating," said Watson of his recent exclusion. "Mark has been playing well so it's been hard to get back in. We've both had injuries [in the past] so it is a big ask for us to play so many games in a short period but when I get my chance I need to play out my skin."

Scoring helps, of course, but it is indicative of the manner in which United are playing that full-backs have scored eight of their goals this term. Five have come from left-back Andy Robertson but he is just one of six players who have found the net at least five times over the course of the campaign, with the Tannadice team developing a habit particular to successful sides by burnishing scorelines in the closing stages of games.

Indeed, it is now reaching the point that anything other than a resounding victory will be considered a little underwhelming, at least by the fans. The closing stages on Saturday, for example, were soundtracked by the supporters braying for a fourth goal. "A win's a win to us but to score four again is amazing and we want to keep it going," said Watson. "It's almost as if the fans would be disappointed with only two or three goals."

In truth, United did not deserve to score four on Saturday. The visitors were disappointing for much of the first hour, a combination of the conditions and a diligent display by Kilmarnock suffocating their style, but ultimately the crass dismissal of Gabriel Reuben at the end of the first quarter, after receiving two silly bookings, cost the Ayrshire side.

Despite a stirring effort from the players, the home supporters slipped into their apparently default state of apoplexy as the game neared its conclusion, with manager Allan Johnston subject to the brunt of their anger. Quite what he is to do about the naive defending that contributed to Watson's goal or the lapses in concentration by tired players that enhanced United's win remains to be seen but at least some succour can be taken from the performance of the young players in the Kilmarnock XI.

Lee Ashcroft, Rory McKenzie, Chris Johnston and especially Craig Slater all played admirably in the circumstances, with the latter pointing to what the likes of Gauld and Souttar have done at United as an example for Kilmarnock's young players to follow. "I've played against those boys all the way up through the youth system and you could always see they had a massive amount of quality," said Slater. "Them getting a chance shows the boys here that there's no reason that we can't stay in the team if we get a chance."

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