DEAN HENDERSON described Saturday’s five-goal thriller at Millwall as a “perfect day in London”. Another dominant display, a victory to maintain fourth position and advance Sheffield United to within one point from the top of the Championship table.
A great outcome, yes. But the Blades goalkeeper’s interpretation of ‘perfect’ is very different to the dictionary’s definition. Without flaws and as good as can be it wasn’t.
Ten matches into a schedule of 46 league fixtures is widely viewed by football professionals as the season’s first benchmark of how much progress has been made. In United’s case it makes excellent reading. The bar has been raised and to date is being reached.
Expectation is much higher in this their second season since being promoted back to the Championship and Chris Wilder’s men are not falling short in producing results and demonstrating character. Nevertheless, contrary to Henderson’s evaluation, more warning signs were flashing at The Den which, unless you wear red-and-white-tinted glasses or are a member of the unambitious ‘look where we came from brigade’, would be foolish to ignore.
United repeated the folly of a week earlier at home to Preston North End before securing the same 3-2 scoreline. Conceding two goals against another team at the wrong end of the table despite having been in total control to create a wholly avoidable scramble to restore order and victory. Striker David McGoldrick again supplying the finishing touch.
Prior to that United were unable to break down Birmingham City in a goalless encounter at the Lane. Another team in the doldrums who arrived without a win in five attempts and had Wilder admitting after a disjointed and out-of-soughts performance : “We can feel a little fortunate to escape with a draw late on.”
Four days’ earlier the Blades dominated for 80 minutes at Bristol City but lost 1-0 against a team that were resigned to chasing shadows. What does all this tell us? United have even greater depth of character than they did last season but flaws at both ends of the pitch still exist.
Not putting away chances to reflect patience, hard work and superiority, as was the case in south London on Saturday, whilst being caught out by sucker punches remains a familiar theme. One which in the final analysis was the difference between reaching the play-offs or finishing as also-rans last season. Two more wins instead of defeats and they would have finished level with sixth-placed Derby County. Crucially the Blades would have still needed another 15 goals to edge out the Rams on goal difference and claim the last spot.
At this point in 2017-18 United had accumulated 21 points, having just beaten eventual runaway champions Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 at Bramall Lane to move into second place two points behind Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City, also promoted automatically. Now they have 19 points and sit shoulder to shoulder with Leeds United and Middlesbrough behind leaders West Bromwich Albion.
That form was maintained in the last campaign for another seven weeks during which United twice topped the table before life became a great deal more difficult. Nevertheless they dug in and were still in contention until the penultimate week before finishing six points short of the play-offs.
A tremendous accomplishment for any newly promoted club. Especially so for one in which well documented and severe budget restrictions called into question, not least from Wilder, the ambition of co-owners Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe.
United’s battling character is a given under Wilder’s leadership. The question now for manager and fans alike is have United improved enough to go one better and this time emerge on the right side of the finishing line? Most of the pieces of the jigsaw are definitely there. Failure to attract at least one top striker in the summer transfer window is an obvious gap which could, and probably will be remedied in the New Year.
Skipper Billy Sharp who appeared to have lost his starting place for a good deal of last season, is again demonstrating the folly of that. The 30-goal top scorer in 2016-17, still managed to finish second with 14 behind Leon Clarke (19). His sublime guided header from Mark Duffy’s pinpoint through ball to give United the lead at Millwall has already brought Sharp’s tally this season to six. It would have been seven but for a missed penalty.
McGoldrick’s spot kick and match-winner took his total to three since joining in the summer but Connor Washington and more importantly Clarke have yet to get off the mark.
The fact remains, however, the Blades are not ruthless enough in front of goal, hence difficulties encountered when there really shouldn’t be any. A statement viewed from afar as hard to fathom when talking about a team that has scored four against Aston Villa and three apiece against Bolton, Preston and Millwall. A goal difference of plus five may go some way to explaining it.
Sometimes, if rarely as was the case against Birmingham, it’s because supply dries up. More often, with the exception of Sharp, it is a matter of quality. The very nature of an attacking style with three at the back which has served United so well, also offers opponents a door of opportunity which makes it so important to press home advantage when you have it with clinical striking.
Boss Wilder chose to emphasise the positives at The Den, saying: “What I’m so pleased about is that we kept playing the way we want to play, grinding them down and overloading and working the ball from side to side. When we went 2-1 down we still controlled the game and the tempo. We were just one pass away from finding that goal which we did when we found the winner.”
Blades fans know, however, that his overriding concern will be how they didn’t press home their first-half dominance and only have a 1-0 lead to show for it, coupled with a catastrophic start after the break which left them trailing 2-1 against a team which reflected their third from bottom-of-the-table plight. Lions manager Neil Harris said: “The defending for the first and third goal was abysmal. I’m being very careful not to swear. It is embarrassing.”
In 2017 Wilder left The Den smarting from a 2-1 defeat, his fourth match in charge, which left the Blades anchored at the foot of the League One table. Last season, in the Championship, Millwall beat United 3-1 to end a six-match unbeaten run. “This game wasn't won tactically, in my opinion,” said Wilder. “It was won because they got to more first and second balls from the off. When we got to grips with that we didn't punish them when we were on top.”
Much water has since flowed under the bridge since those two trips to The Den. United are in hugely better shape than the first and stronger still than the second. It was a rarity then and remains so that they are second best when it comes to competing. Few can match United for that.
But the manager’s latter point made last December still needs to be addressed and quickly if the Blades are to avoid risking becoming the nearly men again.