As Scottish Premiership strikers go, Dundee United have an embarrassment of riches.
Between Lawrence Shankland, Nicky Clark, Marc McNulty and young Louis Appere, United’s is an attacking unit that, before the season started, would’ve been the envy of many.
For one reason or another, boss Micky Mellon has struggled to find the right mix of the four to strike a winning formula on a consistent basis, with the Terrors the league’s second-lowest scorers on 23 alongside Hamilton.
All the hitmen have qualities and, in McNulty at least, pedigree at this level from his exploits at Hibs in recent seasons.
Clark is the Tangerines’ top league scorer with eight, Scotland star Shankland, on five, is slowly catching up after his goal at Ross County on Saturday and was United’s talisman when they cantered to the Championship title.
While Appere, in his limited opportunities, has impressed after a stunning breakthrough campaign last time out.
They have all staked a valid claim for a starting jersey at times this season, with different games calling for different approaches, but, with only Clark really setting the heather alight, it’s been tough for Mellon to settle on a system that reaps the most rewards.
He’s tried three of the four at the one time and many different combinations of two of the attackers.
Boss Micky finds a winning formula against County after Motherwell half-time tweak
In Dingwall at the weekend, though, he may just have cracked it – surprisingly, without Clark.
With Shankland and McNulty leading the line and Clark and Appere riding the pine, United produced one of their best performances of the season, and most certainly their finest of the year.
The 2-0 success in the Highlands – centre-half Ryan Edwards headed home the second – was the Terrors’ first of 2021 and ended a horrid eight-game winless run.
United’s forwards got them up the pitch and gave the side a balanced shape, in stark contrast to how the team performed in the first half of the previous match against Motherwell.
In their 2-1 defeat last Wednesday night, the Tangerines didn’t show up in the first half, with Clark, McNulty and Shankland all shoehorned into the starting XI.
A half-time tactical tweak, with Peter Pawlett checking in for Clark to allow McNulty to join Shankland up top, elicited a good response as United won the second 45 and carried that display into the Staggies clash.
Although they gave up 57.6% possession to County, United dominated territory at the Global Energy Stadium, with the ball spending a third of its time in the home half as opposed to just a quarter in United’s.
Combining 12 times, Shankland and McNulty were the two United players that found each other most often, covering an awful lot of ground in the process.
Reading loanee McNulty is proving to be cool in possession for a striker, registering passing accuracies of 80% against the Steelmen and 77.8% at County.
That makes McNulty the perfect foil for Shankland, who is hardly shot-shy with the 25-year-old firing in five efforts in each game.
Shankland and McNulty can get United into the final third with Pawlett proving useful
They appear to work together nicely, far more smoothly than United’s attacking trio who barely threatened the final third in the first half against Motherwell, as seen in the heatmap below.
However, it was a different story altogether in the second period and up at Dingwall when Shankland and McNulty were paired up, linking to good effect and pushing United towards goal.
A special mention must go to Pawlett, too, with his return to the side giving Mellon’s men a different edge.
The midfielder made four key passes and assisted Edwards from the corner to power home his second header in as many games, following his late consolation strike at Fir Park.
Sacrificing a striker for that kind of creativity rather than overloading the pitch with natural No 9s looks to have benefited Dundee United.
Going forward, crucially, it may prove to have been the difference between the top six and a relegation battle for a United side still trying to get to grips with the top flight.