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5 Dundee United talking points: The numbers behind a Steven Fletcher masterclass and Loick Ayina dominance

Loick Ayina, Aziz Behich and Steven Fletcher all shone in a pivotal win over Hibernian on Sunday

Fletcher and Ayina shone against Hibs. Image: SNS
Fletcher and Ayina shone against Hibs. Image: SNS

Dundee United claimed a first Premiership victory in 12 games — and their maiden win under Jim Goodwin — in the most dramatic fashion imaginable on Sunday.

A 90th-minute Jamie McGrath penalty kick was enough to secure a 2-1 triumph over Hibs after Mykola Kuharevich had cancelled out Steven Fletcher’s opener.

United are now two points behind Ross County and three adrift of Kilmarnock, albeit with a superior goal difference to the Ayrshire side.

Could a breathless afternoon at Tannadice prove to be a turning point in a tumultuous campaign?

Courier Sport was there to analyse the action.

Aggressive United and Behich brilliance

Goodwin conceded that he balanced “risk and reward” before picking his side to face Hibs.

And the reward of igniting United’s survival bid outweighed the risk of another defeat.

His selection reflected that. He opted for a back-four, with Aziz Behich deployed as a winger — in fact, by average position, he was United’s most advanced player. The Terrors played an aggressive, proactive style.

United racked up 161 pressures (defined by StatsBomb as the amount of times a player presses the opponent), which is their most in any match this season other than against Rangers.

That heralded 27 pressure regains (when the team wins the ball back within five seconds of the player pressuring an opponent). One must go back to the 4-0 win over Aberdeen in October for a higher total (33).

In short, United hurried, harried and hassled their opposition. This is no time for passivity.

In being bold and seeking to play on the front-foot, Goodwin unlocked a devastating performance from Behich.

As evidenced by the passing network map below (showing passes between two players that occurred a minimum of four times during the match), Behich was United’s focal point.

United’s passing network. Image: Statsbomb

He whipped in nine crosses during the game — Harry McKirdy (six) was the only player to even come close — and created FOUR decent opportunities, including his pin-point assist for Fletcher.

With Peter Pawlett and Glenn Middleton both absent through injury, Behich’s versatility is manna from heaven for United.

The sliding doors moment that could define a season

Elie Youan is slipped through on goal and, despite a desperate Loick Ayina challenge, the forward manages to get a shot away.

Tannadice holds its breath.

But the ball trickles wide of Mark Birighitti’s right-hand post and the score remains 1-1.

A disbelieving Youan after firing wide. Image: SNS

That incident occurred two minutes and 35 seconds before referee David Munro pointed to the penalty spot, allowing McGrath to coolly slot home United’s winning goal.

If Youan’s shot had found the bottom-corner, it would have been impossible to foresee anything other than Championship football for United next term.

The prospect of a five-point gap to safety — allied with the morale-sapping agony of losing another match in which they played well — would have felt insurmountable.

Instead, the nature of United’s triumph will be stirring for players, staff and supporters alike. A survival bid resurrected on Easter Sunday in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Should the Tangerines complete a great escape, they will reflect on this fixture as a defining one.

Steven Fletcher teaches youngsters a lesson

Will Fish and CJ Egan-Riley, on loan from Manchester United and Burnley respectively, are seeking a learning curve at Hibs as they pursue successful careers south of the border.

On Sunday, they were taught a lesson by an Easter Road alumnus.

Fletcher celebrates with Jamie McGrath. Image: SNS

Fletcher was outstanding against the club where he made his name, tormenting the young centre-back pairing with his physicality, deft touch and intelligent movement.

The way he tempted Fish into making an errant, ill-advised challenge to win the decisive penalty was pure nous.

Fletcher topped the rankings for duels won (16), aerial duels won (13) and shots in the box (three). In terms of United players, no-one bettered his 18 passes in the final third and only Jamie McGrath (52) had more touches of the ball.

That is before you even consider his towering, clinical header; an eighth goal of the season.

It wasn’t a perfect performance. He should have scored following another fine Behich cut-back in the second period.

Behich, left, and Fletcher were a deadly duo on Sunday. Image: SNS

Nevertheless, the former Scotland striker is evidently thriving under Goodwin. The football is more attacking, crosses are being zipped into him and there are far more bodies in support.

So often an isolated figure this season, Fletcher now looks a real threat in the final third.

Loick Ayina becoming a firm favourite

From arriving as an untested teenager on deadline day, Ayina now looks like one of the first names on the team-sheet.

The 19-year-old brings natural pace, aggression and no shortage of technical ability to the United defence, and Sunday was his finest performance to date.

Ayina made eight clearances (joint-highest with Charlie Mulgrew), four interceptions (highest) and won three aerial duels (only behind Mulgrew and Fletcher).

Ayina makes one of several fine interventions. Image: SNS

Speaking to Courier Sport last month, Ayina reflected on his recovery from a chastening debut red card against Kilmarnock, noting, “maybe that is the first thing to know: I will always be confident.”

There are rough edges.

He goes to ground a little too often and took an ill-advised extra touch in his own box during the first period against Hibs, creating a moment of danger.

But that’s all decision-making; to be ironed out by first-team football and valuable experience.

What is undeniable: the big Parisian looks to have everything needed for the modern centre-back.

Can we play you every week?

Hibs are the ONLY team in the Premiership not to have beaten United at least once this season, with the Tannadice outfit picking up two wins and a draw.

Remarkably, 28% of the Tangerines’ points this season have come from games against Lee Johnson’s side.