Without the mega money television deal their neighbors down south have secured, much of Scottish club football, with it’s grand history and passionate fanbases, remain virtually unknown to the world outside the United Kingdom. Even the largest of Scottish clubs located in the city limits of Glasgow cannot escape the fate of a smaller existence in the football world.
While the rest of the world may not be aware of it, Dundee United have a rich, deep history that fans of the club can be proud of. During the 1980’s, the Terrors success saw them become part of “The New Firm” with Aberdeen. In 1982-83, United won the Premier League, joining Aberdeen as the only non-Glasgow club to win the league since 1964. United even beat Barcelona in the semi-final of the 1987 UEFA Cup. While those heights have not been reached by the club for some time, the past few years have seen recent success with top six and even European spot finishes, a Scottish Cup, and a well known youth development system that has sent the likes of Ryan Gauld, Barry Douglas, Andrew Robertson, Gary Mackay-Stevens, and Stuart Armstrong to bigger clubs for decent profits. Yet, this year Dundee United find themselves in last place in the SPFL, manager Jackie McNamara sacked, and Mixu Paatelainen trying to pick up the pieces and keep United in the SPFL Premiership and away from the bare knuckle brawl of a division that is the Scottish Championship. So how did United find themselves from possible European Spot contender to relegation fodder? We can look at advanced stats for some answers.
Here we have the stats for this year’s Dundee United team, as well as stats for United after 16 matches (the same spot they are this season), after 24 matches, and the complete 2014-2015 season. Looking at the big picture, Dundee United had obtained 23 more points last season at the same point of the season they are currently. They then picked up 14 more points in the next 8 matches, before finishing the season by picking up only 11 points in the next 14 matches. Clearly something happened between the first part of the season and the last that saw United start their downward trend to where they are today. Now, you might be wondering why I chose to highlight where United were after 24 matches. I can assure you that this was not a coincidence picking this part of the season. After this point in the season, something changed for United that I believe led them to where they are now. That is the first game Dundee United played without these guys.
Of course, the table can lie about the strengths and weaknesses of a team, so there is a need to look at all the stats to get a better idea of just what is happening. One stat we can look at is PDO. PDO was originally developed for ice hockey, you calculate PDO by the following formula: PDO = ( (Goals For / Shots For) + ( 1 – (Goals Against / Shots Against) ) ) * 1000. PDO is used to explain how a team performed historically, since if a team is scoring a lot of their chances and not allowing goals in the chances they allow, they are probably doing well. It measures a team’s efficency. When we look at Dundee United’s PDO this year compared to last year, it is a lot lower than last year. Scoring 16 goals less and allowing 13 goals more than the previous year at the same point will do that. Along those lines, the great Dutch football analytics blog 11tegen11 has come up with the idea of Expected PDO, or xPDO. They describe the difference between the two as “Normal PDO measures how efficiently a team has converted shots into goals, and prevented the opponent from doing so. xPDO measures how efficiently a team converts shots into goals, and prevents the opponent from doing do, given the shot quality for and against, and assuming league average conversion of xG into goals.” The formula for xPDO is xPDO = ( (xG For / Shots For) + ( 1 – (xG Against / Shots Against) ) ) * 1000. A team that has a PDO that’s much bigger than their xG might be “lucky” (a word that causes great hand wringing in the football analytics community) or their good results might be unsustainable. Similarly, a team with a much lower PDO than their xPDO might be considered “unlucky” or on the receiving end of some bad bounces. With a PDO of 902 and a xPDO of 989, Dundee United could certainly claim to be the bad side of Lady Luck.
Looking at Dundee United’ Expected Goals per match in 2014 16 matches in, 24 matches in, and 38 matches in compared to this season, we see a big increase. This season, United are averaging 0.85 xG per match, compared to 1.18 xG per match at the same point of the season in 2014-2015, 1.25 xG per match before United sold Gary Mackay-Stevens and Stuart Armstrong, and 1.08 at the end of the 2014-2015 season. We see a dip of 0.17 from that match 24 to the end of the season, a dip that continued this season for reasons we will continue to explore.
One could assume with a lower xG average this season, Dundee United would also have a lower shot average and this is the case. This season(8.75 shots per game), United are averaging more than a shot less at the end of last season (9.92), 2 shots less to 16 games in last season (10.75) and 24 games in (10.875). Before Billy McKay’s arrival a few matches into this season, United’s attack was even more anemic, though it is clearly still not at the level it was last season.
Shots on target per game tells a similar story, though this season’s Dundee United have a slightly higher average than last season’s team at the end of the season, but not the team last season that featured Armstrong and Mackay-Stevens. Those two are not exactly volume shooters and are more creators than scorers, so while their absence was felt on the offensive end when they left, there was another departure from United. A striker who wasn’t afraid to shoot it anywhere and was rewarded with 14 goals last season, by and far the highest on United.
Stats for every player that played for Dundee United last season can be found here, though looking at Nadir Ciftci’s stats, you can see he clearly did not mind shooting. Ciftci had more than three times as many shots as the next United player. He knocked in 14 goals last season, though only 9 were not from penalties and with an xG total of 9.95 for the season that seems about right. Cifcti, Armstrong, and Mackay-Stevens were a huge part of United’s attack last season, each averaging over 0.5 Goals and Assists per 90 minutes. Take those three out without proper replacements and you will see one of the main reasons why Dundee United have struggled this season.
On the other end of the field, Dundee United have allowed 13 more goals this season than at the same point as last season. Yet, you probably cannot blame the back four for United’s bad start this season (or you can at least hypothesize that their performance is good enough to earn more than 8 points), as their xG conceded per match is nearly identical to the end of season total from last year and 16 matches into last year. In fact, the xG conceded total from this season is lower than it was 24 matches into United’s previous season, though no one has accused Gary Mackay-Stevens and Stuart Armstrong of being the defensive anchors of any teams.
Similar to xG conceded, the total number of shots Dundee United are conceding to their opponents this season is actually lower this season that the same point last season and 24 games in. They are conceding slightly more shots on target than last year. The higher shots on target has meant more work for Dundee United keeper Michal Szromnik. Szromnik went from backup to Radoslaw Cierzniak to starter this year, though a 6% decrease in save rate from last year to this year might be an indicator of a downgrade.
The relegation of Hibs and Hearts (albeit Hearts’ financial problems gave them nearly no chance to stay up the year they were relegated) have shown that no club is “too big” in Scotland to stay up. Hibs and Rangers struggles and failure to win promotion from the Championship last season shows what a struggle that league is, no matter how big of a club you are. By experiencing some bad luck, not finding adequate replacements for their three best offensive players last season and a possible downgrade at keeper, Dundee United find themselves in serious relegation trouble. There are lots of points still available, though with the 11th place SFPL Premiership club having to play a playoff with a Championship club, pulling themselves off the bottom of the table does not assure Premiership football for the Terrors next season. There are a few other SPFL clubs that have flaws that make them susceptible to relegation and Dundee United should theoretically more resources than these clubs. Chairman Steven Thompson and Manager Mixu Paatelainen need to substantially improve the squad in January. If they do not, dark times could get even darker on the tangerine half of Dundee.