WHAT happened at Pride Park was disappointing but it should come as no surprise.
In isolation a 2-1 defeat is exactly that. The fact that Sheffield United can contrive to lose and yet remain joint top of the Championship tells you manager Chris Wilder’s squad is in a good place.
Staying there is another matter. The result which did not match performance provided further evidence of weaknesses which just like last season, threaten to undermine the main objective. Then, of course, it began as consolidation and grew into something far more ambitious thanks to a tremendous team effort inspired by the man in charge. But nonetheless, after such a promising start, it became a bridge too far.
If you are a Sheffield United supporter ready to dismiss constructive criticism on the grounds of ‘look how far we’ve come’, and ‘some people are never happy’ then look away now. It’s a waste of time to read on. If match day means a good day out, accepting the rough with the smooth and not much more, that’s fine. You're not alone.
For others, however, taking each match as it comes is purely a logistical fact of life which obscures the bigger picture. No one knows that better than the manager.
Wilder was a a study of pent-up frustration at Derby. These days he is managing to keep a lid on the seismic scale of public eruptions which occur on those few occasions when he feels personally let down.
The attack directed at his players after allowing Charlton Athletic to salvage a point at The Valley during the League One promotion campaign, was chilling and entirely unexpected. In fact, well over the top.
Last season, with the Blades two points outside the play-offs, he declared his squad wasn’t good enough to make a promotion challenge following a February defeat at Hull City. “I’ve been going on about trying to get into the top six but, looking at that, I must be off my head I must be away with the fairies.” When Wilder loses his cool, it isn't for effect or a motivational tool. Nothing so subtle. It’s because at the time he means it.
At Pride Park Kieron Freeman, John Egan and Jack O’Connell were called out for allowing Derby to manoeuvre into position and enable Yorkshire-born Jack Marriott, whose family members are Blades fans, to bring United’s four-match unbeaten run an end.
“I can say that to the players. I can say that because I'm the manager of the football club and they are employees of the football club. And, on top of that they earn a damn good wage,” he said.
Adding: "I won't dress it up, psychologically or anything, because we've lost. I'm not bothered about psychological stuff. They've won and we've lost. End of. It makes me laugh when people dress things up.
“People were telling me afterwards 'what a great game' and 'you must be proud to be taking part in it at the top end.' I hate all this 'isn't it great be be involved at the top end of the league' and all that rubbish. I hate it. It's a nonsense because football is only great if you win.”
If you are one of those whose idea of real progress is to raise the bar rather than keeping it at a comfortable height, the warning signs have been flashing for some time. As contradictory as it appears, signs that are easily overlooked when results are good. It’s still only October but a blueprint for what might await is already being laid. Last season went outstandingly well until mid November after which life was never quite the same.
Pep Guardiola couldn't have legislated for the calamitous start United made at Pride Park. A goal down after 19 seconds, having not touched the ball. Effectively admiring Derby’s slick but unchallenged nine-pass move from kick-off which Craig Bryson buried past helpless goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
But what happened after that demonstrated United’s undoubted strength and one of their biggest failings. Passing, movement and patience, overlaps stretching the opposition in a relentless drive forward to dominate the rest of the first half.
To make that really count, however, they should have had more to show than Chris Basham’s 41st-minute equaliser. The reason they didn’t? Delivery into the box was poor, a familiar tale, leaving top-scoring striker Billy Sharp a frustrated figure. When United get that right they are a force to be reckoned with.
A reluctance to try and beat a man in favour of looking for a pass doesn’t help either. It was no coincidence that United’s goal was the result of John Fleck, at his brilliant best, taking on and beating his opponent to drive into the box. He then had the awareness and composure to supply a deft touch to the waiting Basham who was left with the simplest of tasks to score. Fleck demonstrating that quality triumphs over quantity.
United are an attacking, footballing side but when prevented from finding their stride they remain vulnerable. The defensive side to their game is hit and miss. Quite why remains a mystery.
Whatever Derby’s fledgling boss Frank Lampard said in the dressing room at half time worked a treat. An immediate role reversal. The Blades were a shadow of their former selves as Derby, who despite that early lead had struggled to cope in the first 45 minutes, moved into the ascendancy. Not by enough, however, for United to concede outright lead of the Championship.
As time wore on it became apparent the Blades hopes of moving three points clear and building on that with two home matches to follow had slipped. But the coaching manual says if you can’t win it don’t lose, hence Wilder’s frustration at the manner in which the Rams scored their winner.
The introduction of strikers Leon Clarke and Connor Washington had zero effect. To be fair to them they had scant opportunity. Paul Coutts continued his return after almost a year out with injury, but United lost even more impetus after Mark Duffy, although not at his best, was sacrificed.
International breaks are not kind to United. They went into the previous one on a high after whipping Aston Villa 4-1 at Bramall Lane and returned with a 1-0 defeat at Bristol City, another match they dominated for long periods. Followed by a goalless and lacklustre draw at home to Birmingham City
Now, having sat unassailed at the top of the mountain for two weeks to accommodate the Nations League after four successive wins , they have to regain momentum once again.
Stoke City, newly relegated from the Premier League have still to come to terms with life in the second tier and currently lie 17th in the table. Ideal opponents, maybe, for United to put the show back on the road tonight at the Lane.
The Potters arrive on the back of a home defeat to Birmingham, falling to the only goal scored by former Blades Che Adams. Despite that, however, the form guide over the last six matches still places them eighth having accumulated 10 points during that period.
Manager Gary Rowett, sent off and escorted down the tunnel last Saturday after reacting to referee Roger East’s refusal to award a penalty, is certainly promising to make it a much tougher contest than some might expect.
“They [United] have a unique style with three centre backs who make unpredictable runs but I am sure they will be aware we have good players and can hurt them,” said Rowett who has been charged by the FA for alleged misconduct. “We’ve got to perform in a way that makes them worry about us rather than the other way round.”
Words which could have well been used by Lampard at Pride Park during his half time team talk. We all know Wilder is up for the challenge. Tonight there can be no ifs and buts – his players need to deliver.