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What went wrong for Dundee United in historic Euro humiliation?

Dejected Dundee United stars walk off the pitch with manager Jack Ross at full-time in Alkmaar.
Dejected Dundee United stars walk off the pitch with manager Jack Ross at full-time in Alkmaar.

Dundee United arrived in Alkmaar seeking to create a historic night.

They did exactly that.

Thursday night’s 7-0 defeat against AZ will go down as the worst single continental result ever endured by the Tangerines, equalling the Scottish record.

‘Embarrassing’ was the watchword from boss Jack Ross and skipper Ryan Edwards in the aftermath.

So what went wrong?

The temptation to answer ‘everything’ is powerful and probably true.

However, in the search for a little more specificity, Courier Sport picks the bones out of an evening that will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

Total mental collapse

Barcelona’s 7-0 demolition of Celtic in the Camp Nou was fairly explicable. The Catalan giants annihilated plenty of clubs in the Champions League group phase and Brendan Rodgers never was one for shutting up shop.

This was more akin to Hibs shipping seven at home to Malmo in 2013; a team descending into a spiral of panic, disorganisation and lethargy as it became apparent that their European dream was turning into a nightmare.

The fourth goal of the night — Tijjani Reijnders’ second — was perhaps the best example of United falling to pieces.

A ball is zipped into the box and, despite having seven defensive bodies in the box, runners aren’t been tracked, some are ball watching, others are throwing themselves to the ground, Aziz Behich wildly swings at fresh air as he attempts to clear.

Reijnders, meanwhile, calmly pops the ball into the net.

There were countless other examples, from Mark Birighitti flapping at crosses to the total disintegration of anything approaching a compact shape. The Terrors’ ragged, porous, zig-zagging midfield was routinely played through.

After falling 2-0 down, United needed calm heads and to revert to a solid 4-5-1; track your runners and make sure there are no easy balls. Nothing daft. The complete opposite happened.

Tactical torment

The nature of the contest almost belies analysis.

When a team, individually and collectively, ceases to do even the most basic aspects of their jobs, then discussing shape and system seems churlish.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of alarming patterns.

Dundee United started well in Alkmaar, but things went downhill soon after they conceded

United were destroyed down the wings.

AZ pushed their full-backs, Milos Kerkez and Pantelis Chatzidiakos, incredibly high and created constant overloads in wide areas. Runs were not tracked and the hosts had a field day.

Four of the seven goals came from the flanks and, even entering the final 20 minutes, AZ boss Pascal Jansen could be heard howling for his team to go wider — as merciless as United were hapless.

As the pitch got bigger, so did the spaces in central areas.

United’s pressing game, so effective seven days prior, was not existent after the second goal. Whether through fear or becoming dispirited, AZ had all the time in the world to pick passes and carve the Terrors open.

And Ross’ men could not get to grips with AZ’s movement and rotation. Evjen Hakon drifting inside; Dani de Wit roaming in the ‘No.10’ role; Reijnders’ unmarked surges forward. The Tangerines were left dazed and defeated.

The last line of defence

Birighitti’s last game as an NAC Breda player came at this very venue after AZ Alkmaar romped to a 5-0 victory back in August 2018.

He also failed to win a contract with AZ after arriving on trial as a 15-year old.

You could forgive the Australian keeper for never wishing to set foot inside the AFAS Stadion again.

It feels cruel to single out any player, given there wasn’t a single individual in United colours worthy of pass marks.

That, however, is the life of a goalkeeper.

His very good low save to deny Evjen with the scores still level at 0-0 will be a long-forgotten afterthought, with the subsequent howler to allow Vangelis Pavlidis to make it 3-0 a real shocker.

He also spilled a fairly routine catch moments earlier, waved an Evjen drive into the top corner and got a hand to Mayckel Lahdo’s effort to make it seven.

It was a ropey showing from Birighitti — and one that will have every opposition side in Scotland dropping cross balls on top of a keeper who, while not small at 6ft2ins, is far from imposing for someone in his position.

The benefit United have is that Birighitti has bags of experience and is a self-assured character.

He will back himself to respond at Tynecastle; all eyes will be on the Socceroo to see if he does.

Jack Ross’ responsibility

The head coach took the plaudits and praise following a stirring 1-0 victory over AZ at Tannadice.

That was a masterclass. Let’s not retcon that single result because of what happened seven days later. If anything, the performance of Jansen’s side on Thursday only emphasises what a mighty night on Tayside that was.

Jack Ross applauds the United fans who suffered through until full-time at the AFAS Stadion

However, this was a disasterclass from all involved.

And Ross will bear the slings and arrows of criticism.

He is the man who shaped up a team that was ripped apart down the flanks; selected a starting line-up with very little pace and no discernible out-ball to alleviate pressure; sought to motivate a team that completely capitulated.

What transpired at the AFAS Stadion was clearly not the strategy Ross intended but — regardless of players ceasing to do their job — the responsibility for the outcome falls on him.

The next 48 hours will not only be a test of the players’ personalities and resolve, but will be a reflection on Ross’ ability to lift a dressing room and prompt a response.

5 Dundee United talking points as dismal Tangerines suffer heaviest EVER European defeat – and equal Scottish record