Jack Ross’ maiden competitive match in charge of Dundee United resulted in a dramatic 1-1 draw against Kilmarnock.
Dylan Levitt, as Dylan Levitt does, fired home a sizzling strike from the edge of the box to give the visitors the lead at Rugby Park. He doesn’t do tap-ins.
However, a red card to Ian Harkes on the 70-minute mark changed the game and, despite a gutsy rearguard action, Ash Taylor finally levelled in injury-time.
Courier Sport was in Ayrshire to analyse the talking points from a breathless United curtain-raiser.
Craig Sibbald proves brains can trump brawn
Question marks persist regarding United’s lack of a midfield bruiser; a physical enforcer in the mould of Calum Butcher to be deployed when the going gets tough.
Over the course of the campaign, that may still be required.
However, Craig Sibbald answered the call on Saturday and proved that positioning and poise can trump power.
The former Livingston and Falkirk playmaker — now a far more combative figure than he was as a youngster — was superb against Killie, repeatedly turning over possession and starting attacks.
No player on the pitch at Rugby Park won more duels (seven); no player won more tackles (three) and, of the United team, only Mathew Cudjoe — who attempted far fewer passes — boasted a better passing accuracy than Sibbald’s 79%.
Sibbald may have been the summer arrival that prompted the least fanfare but, on this evidence, his signing could prove an understated masterstroke.
Steven Fletcher may not be prolific — but he will be pivotal
As Steven Fletcher noted himself following a fine showing against Kilmarnock, he may need to alter his game to suit those around him at United.
Indeed, it is becoming clear that Fletcher’s role will be a selfless one.
He may not bag 20 goals this season; he will not be the fox in the box. However, he will — through his experience, intelligence and technique — make things happen for United.
Ash Taylor struck in added time to earn Kilmarnock a point against Dundee United 🎯 pic.twitter.com/nYhUBghKkr
— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) July 30, 2022
Fletcher’s excellent hold-up play and sumptuous flick to tee up Levitt’s goal for the Tangerines was just one example of him gathering possession and bringing others into the game.
No United star made more passes in the final third (18) and he contested seven aerial duels; more than any other player.
Tony Watt, Ian Harkes, Glenn Middleton, Levitt and Cudjoe will all benefit from what Fletcher brings to the side, even if his name isn’t always on the scoresheet.
Ian Harkes will be key against Alkmaar — despite utterly daft dismissal
Ian Harkes does not need told that he made a major error against Kilmarnock. A couple, actually.
Attempting to prod the ball away from goalkeeper Sam Walker mid-clearance — whether a rush of blood to the head or a misunderstanding of the rules — resulted in a monumentally avoidable yellow card.
And, when carrying a booking, to slide in on Liam Donnelly 26 minutes later was crazy.
However, Harkes’ maddening mistake will not preclude him from being a key man when AZ Alkmaar visit on Thursday evening. The American was enjoying a tidy afternoon at Rugby Park prior to his dismissal and is already an important player for Ross.
He is the person the United head coach trusts to get close to — and beyond — Fletcher from midfield and, given his strikes against Celtic, Dundee and Aberdeen last term, we know he has a penchant for a goal on the big stage.
Cudjoe / Middleton conundrum
Jack Ross wanted options. Well, he now has an intriguing attacking conundrum ahead of Thursday evening.
Mathew Cudjoe; the effervescent, mercurial teenager who earned a Premiership start at Kilmarnock through his dazzling displays in pre-season.
Or Glenn Middleton; the experienced-beyond-his-years forwards who has already represented Rangers and St Johnstone in Europe and got some minutes in the legs at Rugby Park.
It would also be remiss to discount the prospect of Ross changing shape.
Could a 3-5-2 be on the cards against a club boasting the attacking talents of AZ, potentially leaving both men on the sidelines?
Much food for thought over the next few days.