Games in the Scottish Premiership can be won and lost on the smallest of tweaks and, although it ended in a draw, both Aberdeen and Dundee United almost strategised their way to victory on Saturday.
It was as much a battle of brains as it was brawn at Tannadice as the first league New Firm derby in over four years ended in a stalemate.
The opening hour or so was all Aberdeen as Derek McInnes’ Dons dominated the midfield, with Lewis Ferguson the maestro and Ross McCrorie the enforcer.
Calum Butcher, Peter Pawlett and Ian Harkes just couldn’t live with the young Scottish duo in the centre of United’s midfield five.
The Terrors were chasing shadows as the Dandies’ midfield passed rings around them, with both McCrorie and Ferguson also prepared to put their foot in and risk finding their way into referee Alan Muir’s book.
The Granite City men enjoyed 60% possession throughout the contest and a huge 67.5% in the second half.
That platform allowed the likes of Jonny Hayes, Scott Wright and Ryan Hedges to force the best out of Tangerines’ No 1 Benjamin Siegrist who pulled off six stunning saves to keep his side in the contest.
In the opening period, Micky Mellon instructed his side to keep the ball, “pinch” the pitch and try to contain an Aberdeen side exploiting the wide areas as United narrowed.
The Dons fired in 29 crosses from open play compared to the hosts’ eight, with Hayes and Hedges the tormentors in chief.
That all changed in the second 45, however, as Marc McNulty and Liam Smith entered the fray and United switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2.
That, and the late introduction of pacey youngster Logan Chalmers, gave the hosts new impetus to break down Aberdeen’s dynamic 3-4-2-1.
They did so by surrendering possession and breaking on the counter as the contest evened out as it went on.
United fought hard, winning 55% of their duels in the second half, with Chalmers having the best opportunity of the match denied by Dons keeper Joe Lewis late on.
United boss Mellon was happy with the desire shown by his side to stay in the game but admits they must pose a stronger attacking threat.
“I think to get a clean sheet against a really established Aberdeen side at this level we had to show all the qualities we showed on Saturday,” he said.
“Of course, the Dundee United we all want to see has to be better with the football but it’s a continual development job.
“I’ve done these as a player and a manager now eight times, developing teams after promotion and seeing what happens when you go up a level, and the signs are always the same.
“What we’ve got to do is gradually build on it like we’re trying to do and keep making improvements.
“Certainly, in terms of desire and defending your 18-yard box, I see the beauty in that as well.
“I thought some of the stuff was fantastic and my goalkeeper has made some good saves, which he’s always capable of.
“We ended up with, probably, the best chance of the game – a one-v-one with the goalkeeper.
“We’re showing development and we want to keep moving it forward – to be better with the football and dominate games but that’s going to take time.
“We’ve not been in the Premiership for four years now. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again – I know what it takes to try to do that.
“I know I need to be patient but I’ve certainly got a group of boys there attacking it the right way.
“They’re relentless and will keep going – they’re fit as fiddles.
“The intensity of the training every day is great and the reason why is because you’re going to need it when you play teams like Aberdeen.”
Despite their endeavour, creation was a conundrum with the supply line to star man Lawrence Shankland and fellow-Scotland international McNulty cut off all day.
They stagnated up front isolated and starved of the chances predatory strikers like them thrive on.
The Terrors could only muster three shots on target on Saturday afternoon, with Shankland touching the ball just twice in the box.
United aren’t enjoying the same respect and time on the ball as they did last term but Mellon insists that simply comes with the territory for a team newly-promoted from the Championship.
He continued: “This is about a team that just got promoted – that’s a fact.
“We’ve just come out the Championship and of the 20 players we have something like 18 played in the Championship last year.
“That’s what’s going on – they’ve come up into the Premiership and 18 out of the 20 haven’t played at this level for about four years.
“They’ve got to develop, there’s more asks, more athleticism, bigger and better players who are asking questions at both ends of the pitch.
“Do you know what? They’re attacking it and they deserve and unbelievable amount of credit for that.
“Saturday was a massive result in terms of Dundee United moving forward but it isn’t the Dundee United we believe we’ll end up creating.
“I think, if you look at Aberdeen, Derek McInnes has been there for seven years and has many more transfer windows behind him than me.
“In another few transfer windows you might see a different Dundee United so we’ll keep a level head on it, try to build and keep trying to make this group better.
“In terms of desire, we’re right up there, I’m so thrilled and pleased for them. We need to find that consistency now.”