Seventeen points behind leaders Hearts, eight above bottom side Alloa Athletic – Dundee’s stop-start season leaves them in a fight for second place and a shot at the play-offs.
More than once this campaign, the Dark Blues have shot themselves in the foot and thrown away points that looked in the bag.
Games against rivals Dunfermline and Raith Rovers immediately spring to mind at Dens Park.
All four goals conceded in those two key clashes came directly from set-pieces.
So, is defending a dead ball the Achilles’ heel that’s killed off Dundee’s title charge this season?
Lately, it has been.
Six of the last seven goals – or 10 of the last 14 to go back further – conceded by James McPake’s men have come directly or indirectly from set-plays.
That includes Bonnyrigg’s two penalties in the Scottish Cup – it is eight of the last 12 in the league.
Taking advantage of chances from dead balls is a key tactic in the Championship, just like any league in the world.
And Dundee themselves have shown to be dangerous up the other end with the quality of delivery on show from Charlie Adam.
However, defensively it has not been good. Looking back over the whole season the Dark Blues have conceded 16 goals from corners, penalties and free-kicks, whether directly or indirectly, in 18 games.
That’s 16 out of the 31 they’ve let in over the course of the season in all competitions – more than 50%.
But it’s not just the amount that’s been the problem, it is in key moments of the season where failing to repel set-plays has proved so costly.
Dundee’s last outing saw them fall to defeat at Raith Rovers on January 30.
After taking an early lead through Osman Sow, the Dark Blues were found wanting in defending corners by the Kirkcaldy side.
Twice Dundee fell for the same short corner and twice the ball ended up in the back of their net.
The first one saw Raith work the ball into the box and find Kyle Benedictus free inside the six-yard box for a free header without any opposition from the defending team.
The second went in indirectly, with the ball knocked out of the box to Reghan Tumilty, who smashed in a fine effort from about 30 yards.
There were mitigating factors for the Dark Blues that day, with centre-backs Lee Ashcroft and Liam Fontaine unavailable on the day of the game. Youngsters Sam Fisher and Malachi Fagan-Walcott were drafted in at the last minute – and Rovers took advantage of their opponents’ uncertainty.
That came a week after non-existent marking from a corner had coughed up two vital points at Arbroath.
After passing up chances to be more than a goal ahead, injuries hit the Dark Blues and the Red Lichties snatched an equaliser from a set-play.
It’s unclear who was meant to be marking Ricky Little – it may have been one of the three who went off injured – but the defender was left free and clear to smash in a header from eight yards and earn his side a point.
Those two results were severe disappointments after the way 2021 began for Dundee – a fine 3-1 victory over leaders Hearts.
The Dark Blues were deserving winners of that contest on January 2 after taking a two-goal lead into half-time.
Once more, though, a set-piece undid the defence as Andrew Irving’s wide free-kick evaded everybody and found its way past Jack Hamilton and into the net.
The festive month was a positive one for McPake’s men – no defeats and plenty of goals going in at the right end.
However, the Dunfermline collapse still rankles pretty deeply at Dens Park.
Cruising at 3-0 up in their most accomplished performance of the campaign so far, Dundee looked certain winners with 15 minutes left on the clock.
Goals from Adam, Sow and Fontaine (the latter two from a free-kick and corner) looked good for a big three points, only for Declan McManus to spoil the party.
First, centre-back Paul Watson rose highest from a corner to make it 3-1 before a mixture of Ashcroft and Jordan Marshall gave away a spot-kick.
McManus fired that home, then became the Pars’ hero in stoppage time. Young Max Anderson had given away a free-kick 25 yards from goal and the striker swung a pearler of a shot beyond Hamilton for 3-3.
That was a week after Inverness had made it 1-1 from a corner kick, with Robbie Deas netting at the far post in a 2-2 draw in the Highlands.
October and November
Two disappointing draws at the start of the campaign saw more set-piece struggles.
First was that draw with Raith back in October. Leading 1-0 and seemingly in control, the Dundee defence was once more breached disappointingly from a corner by John McGlynn’s side.
The following week saw Alloa stretch into a 3-1 lead at Recreation Park before a late rally saw it end 3-3.
The first of those for Robert Thomson came after Dundee failed to deal effectively with a corner, the ball coming back in to the forward, who was free at the far post.
The second was a simple launched ball into the area from a free-kick, which eventually fell for Alan Trouten to knock beyond Calum Ferrie.
Throw in a direct free-kick, a penalty and a goal from a cleared corner in the forgettable 6-2 defeat at Hearts.
Clearly, conceding from set-pieces has dogged Dundee since the opening day.
Early-season problems with the goalkeeping position and central defenders seemed to have been ironed out with the arrival of experienced defender Liam Fontaine as well as the resurgence in form shown by goalie Jack Hamilton.
However, both featured in that Dunfermline collapse.
Defending set-pieces centres on organisation, somebody at the back taking charge and practice in training.
And the recent defeat at Raith highlighted those key components vividly.
Fagan-Walcott and Fisher are both talented young defenders but were teenagers making their debuts together. Fisher has been away on loan while Fagan-Walcott had only trained for one day after arriving on loan from Tottenham.
Experience is key in central defence and getting Fontaine and Ashcroft back together more often than not could prove vital for manager McPake.
Football is rarely this simple, but had Dundee held onto their leads in games where the final goal was an equaliser from a set-piece, they would be six points better off in the league.
Eleven points behind leaders Hearts with two games in hand sounds far better than where they find themselves now.
However, the route to promotion that’s left open for the Dark Blues is to plug the set piece gap through which they’ve regularly leaked goals and navigate their way through the play-offs.
Dees will hope an enforced break due to the winter weather will have given their side the chance to address the Achilles’ heel that has proved so costly.
Next up – weather permitting – is a home clash with Queen of the South, another side who haven’t had troubles to seek when trying to repel set-plays this campaign.
Recent performances, though, have shown their strength in the opposition box and Dundee will be tested once again by five-goal Ayo Obileye & Co..