It is often said that the work of a painter reflects their personality. Dundee United’s performance on Saturday served as proof of that in a footballing context. Mixu had a reputation for his combative, no-nonsense and determined style as a player and slowly but surely, he is transferring this style to his canvas, in this case, it was McDiarmid Park on Saturday.
Dundee United won at McDiarmid Park for the first time in over four years. Indeed, the last time United won in Perth they were managed by Peter Houston. During Jackie McNamara’s tenure they managed only a single draw in Perth amongst a myriad of defeats. The almost inevitable defeat away to St Johnstone in September signalled the end of Jackie’s time in charge. It became an all too familiar pattern for Dundee United fans. Lose to a St Johnstone side that outfought and often outthought them, then endure McNamara’s complaints after the game about the St Johnstone style of play.
Paatelainen is not Jackie. Where Jackie might have complained and sought protection for his players, Mixu fires them up. The pictures of Mixu from the last derby cupping his ears and gesturing to the Dundee fans perhaps show a manager under stress, perhaps not fully in control of his actions some might argue. Whatever purpose they served, there is no doubt that these gestures are representative of a change down Tannadice way. The management are no longer willing to accept half-hearted attempts at tackles or meekly surrendering to a physical opponent. Mixu wants his team to get stuck in. To win every tackle, to challenge for headers and, when points are on the line, he demands that his players throw themselves in front of every ball.
Watching Mixu on the touchline screaming at his charges, demanding more from them and generally making his considerable presence felt is a sweet sight for Dundee United fans. Whilst the ‘Three Amigos’ of McNamara, Donnelly and Jackson would sit back passively, Mixu patrols his technical area ready to chastise, berate and encourage in equal measures. It is too easy for football fans to turn on a manager that doesn’t perform the theatrics on the touchline that many demand. However, when the passion on the pitch matches the passion on the touchline, the fans can’t help but appreciate it.
Players like Paton, Rankin and Dow embody this spirit. Ask any Dundee United fan. They are not exceptional players, yet they will chase down every ball. They will never be seen shirking a challenge. They will give everything they have every time they step on the pitch. On Saturday United showed genuine character. First of all, to win away at a ground they hadn’t won at for 4 years but to hold on for 30 minutes with ten men. This shows a determination and a steel.
“It was a wonderful effort. With 10 men, that spirit and character was there again” Mixu told the BBC, “I can’t praise the boys enough. They’ve got real mental toughness.”
For the best part of a year these attributes have been demanded by Dundee United fans. As they rolled over for all teams willing to put up a fight, the Tangerine faithful berated their lack of spirit, their lack of mental toughness. Yet, in one interview Mixu has summed up the change which has been clear for all to see. Mixu has turned this team into a fighting machine.
Mixu’s time in charge has been far from perfect. A stubbornness and a refusal to change tactics, with Saturday’s change to 442 warmly welcomed from the United fans, at long last they say. They point to a poor record of signings, however they perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt on that one as the over 30, mid-season free agent market was never likely to unearth the signing of the season. The erratic team selections with players going from frozen out, to in the team to frozen out again. Players disappearing for months only to turn up in the starting 11. This doesn’t appear to be the action of a manager that is confident in his team selections.
However, the one area in which United fans are in agreement is that Mixu has changed the mentality at Tannadice. He has taken a team with a losing habit and has instilled a mental toughness, a desire to win, to scrap for every point and for every goal. You will rarely see a Dundee United player shirking out of tackles or flinching away from a header. Every game now is being fought like a cup final.
Whether this late surge in form will be enough to see United avoid relegation or not remains to be seen. However, they at least, have a chance. Many predicted the season would end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Many predicted that Dundee United would be relegated by now. We can be sure, though, that as long as Mixu is in charge, no matter what formation he uses or which players he chooses to play, the season will simply not be allowed to finish with a whimper.