ARRIVING at a new club and earning a place in the starting XI can be challenging in and of itself for any young player shipped out on loan to gain first-team experience, and doing so while learning a new position can be an arduous task for any player. It can take weeks or months until they finally understand the ins and outs of a role – and the tactical system that surrounds it – but Luke Bolton has wasted no time whatsoever in getting acclimatised in his new surroundings.

The 20-year-old, on loan at Tannadice from Manchester City, has only been in the City of Discovery for a little under two months but has already become one of the first names on Micky Mellon’s team sheet. Deployed on the right flank, Bolton has found himself playing at right wing-back and as a right winger during his time at Dundee United so far, dependent on the formation (usually a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2).

Bolton’s previous loan spell, at Luton Town in England’s second tier last season, gave the Englishman a good grounding in defence as he normally filled in as a full-back but this year, he has been given a more offensive role at United. As a wing-back he is required to make surging, over-lapping runs down the right and when utilised as a winger, most of his time in possession is taken up by carrying the ball forward and teasing deliveries into the opposition area.

The importance of Bolton in Mellon’s starting XI cannot be understated. Since the former Tranmere Rovers manager came in earlier this summer, there has been a clear shift in approach from the side that won last season’s Championship title under Robbie Neilson. Where the latter had no real tactical identity and often played with a narrow midfield, the former has introduced a solid, disciplined system that relies heavily on counter-attacking effectively and with purpose.

A key aspect of Mellon’s game plan is that the wide players must drive forward with the ball and attempt to catch out their opponents on the break when the opportunity presents itself, and that is demonstrated in the numbers his side have been posting so far this term. Only Celtic (36) and Rangers (34.6) attempt more dribbles per game than Dundee United (30) in this season’s Premiership, and no-one at Tannadice does so quite like Bolton.

Not only is the Man City the loanee attempting more dribbles per game than anyone else at the club, but Bolton’s dribbles in the Premiership this season total 43 – only Rangers’ Ryan Kent has more to his name so far this term.

This stat highlights the industrious nature of Bolton on the right wing but there is another that pays testament to his technical ability, too. Attempting lots of dribbles is all well and good but if you go on to lose the ball, then it’s not especially helpful to your side’s chances. But Bolton has not only been one of the league’s most hard-working wide players during the season’s opening exchanges; he is one of the best dribblers too, with 69.8% of his runs with the ball successful – a figure only narrowly bettered by Ross County’s veteran midfielder Michael Gardyne, who is the Premiership’s standout performer at this early stage of the campaign.

Driving upfield with the ball is a key aspect of Bolton’s role at United but while the youngster only has one assist to his name so far this term – teeing up Mark Reynolds for the game’s only goal in a 1-0 win over Motherwell at Fir Park last month – the underlying data suggests more are on the way.

Expected assists (xA) measure both the quantity and the quality of chances created during any given game, leaving us with a figure (based on the probability of an opportunity being converted) that gives a clear indication of a player’s creative output over the course of a game. After seven games, Bolton is the second-highest scoring player at United in this regard with an xA/90 of 0.65, with Peter Pawlett (0.91) the only player outperforming the new arrival.

Translating that statistical promise into real-word action is now the goal for Bolton but the data implies that he is not far away. Aside from his debut, Bolton has at least one key pass – a pass that leads directly to a shot – in every appearance he has so far made under Mellon and when we examine the winger’s crossing statistics, there are signs of encouragement.

The 4.4 crosses per game that Bolton averages is more than any of his team-mates, and is the eleventh-highest tally of any Premiership player this season. His accuracy of 37.5% might not sound especially high but is one of the best rates in the league at the time of writing, and bodes well for Bolton in his quest to bump his assist numbers up.

It’s been a whirlwind start to life in Scotland for Bolton but he has so far taken every challenge that has come his way entirely within his stride. The early-season indicators are not only that United have won a watch with the loan recruit, but that the deal to bring him from the Etihad Stadium might just be one of the smartest pieces of transfer business completed in Scotland this summer.

He might only be here for a season until heading back to Manchester but it looks like he will have a big part to play in United’s first season back in the big time. The long-term future of Bolton looks bright but in the short-term, it will be orange.