Unbeaten Premiership leaders Rangers are a tough nut to crack but, with a revitalised Lawrence Shankland in their ranks, Dundee United may just have the right tools to do it.
The champions-elect have conceded a mere eight goals in 29 games this season, with just one of those coming at home, as United head to Ibrox on Sunday looking to bolster their top-six ambitions.
The Gers, once again, will put their perfect record in Govan on the line with the confidence they can defend it as they canter to a first top-tier title in nine years.
However, going up against three-in-two hitman Shankland, there should also be quiet trepidation that it won’t be as simple a task as usual for the Light Blues to shut down the opposition.
Scotland star Shanks followed up his goal in the 2-0 victory at Ross County a fortnight ago with two in a 3-0 win over Livingston at Tannadice on Saturday, prompting boss Micky Mellon to praise the forward for adapting to a new system.
“Lawrence always works hard. I think we’ve found a way of playing that suits Lawrence, suits us and makes us a force,” he said, speaking to DUTV.
“We’re very linked in with our thinking. We know what we’re trying to achieve.
“Lawrence is a big, big part of that. In fact, the front three are a big part of that.
“[Against Livingston] it came off a lot. When you’ve got players who are technically as good as the front three who started, then you can add [Marc] McNulty to that and [Louis] Appere, it’s superb.
“You’re pleased you’ve got those types of players.”
More expansive United is benefitting Shankland no end
Just how has boss Mellon tweaked their system in the last two matches to suit their 25-year-old talisman then?
Comparing the Tangerines’ new set-up to the one often adopted earlier in the season, the contrast is stark.
As predicted, it’s come to pass that Mellon’s Terrors have opened up and become more expansive the closer they’ve moved to safety – a switch-up in philosophy that has benefited Shankland no end.
Earlier in the campaign, he cut a frustrated figure leading the line, with United struggling to get the ball in the box and next to no chances falling his way in some games.
His lack of goals were, in part, down to his battle with a thigh injury and being away on Scotland duty but, in the main, it was a bi-product of United’s formation and style of play.
Set up in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 with a focus on defence-first, Shankland was often isolated and doing a lot of running back into his own half to defend and pick up the ball.
Indeed, it was a style of play best illustrated when Livi last came to Tannadice back in October, winning 2-1.
Shankland didn’t have a single touch inside the Lions’ penalty area, whereas on Saturday he had 14, proof he and his team are thriving in a new 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 formation.
In fact, Shankland had the joint second-highest number of touches in all areas of the pitch for United, tied with Liam Smith on 55 – a total only bettered by Jamie Robson (59).
This increased involvement with the ball in the right places has the former Ayr United marksman looking far more effective.
With five more goals to his name since netting in 2-0 win over Kilmarnock on December 23, Shankland’s league season total has risen to, by his high standards, a far more respectable seven.
Defensive discipline leaves Lawrence looking a more complete player
Part of his success is his willingness to still carry out the defensive side of the game but do it higher up the pitch.
Shankland led the Terrors in duels (28) against Livi and won possession back eight times for his side – only Calum Butcher scored better in the latter category.
He looks a fitter and more complete player for it, credit must go to Mellon for that, as proven in his self-determined third goal against Livi.
Winning a header high up the pitch, he ran onto his own knockdown, led Josh Mullin on a merry dance before curling home beautifully beyond Max Stryjek.
Even for his first and United’s second in the opening period, United’s willingness to defend and press high up the pitch – even when down to 10 men – had Shankland in the right place to do what he does best.
His finishing ability has never been in doubt, as displayed when substitute Ian Harkes did a grand job to win possession and slip him in with a lovely through ball, as Shankland put United two to the good.
That killer instinct has never deserted Shankland, the difference now is he’s getting into the right positions because the system allows him to.
With three in behind him – a natural left-sider in Adrian Sporle, the dynamic Louis Appere or Marc McNulty on the right and either Peter Pawlett or Ian Harkes through the middle – he looks free to revert to the Shankland of old.
Although at the expense of top scorer Nicky Clark, we are now seeing the talismanic Shankland whose 28 goals led United to the Championship title last term.
That is a prospect that should have a few at Ibrox shifting uncomfortably in their seats this weekend.