SO much to admire about Sheffield United’s performance at the Lane in midweek.
Manager Chris Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill really have created something to be proud of.
Playing three at the. back with overlapping wingbacks sounds simple enough. It was in the beginning two years ago. A quick, inspired but engineered response to smoothing a bumpy start to Wilder’s reign in 2016 which turned out to be a winning formula.
A strategy employed to this day, but honed and polished par excellence. If you were amongst almost 25,000 at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night for the visit of Stoke City, then you witnessed a masterclass. The system has evolved into a sophisticated web and all but second nature.
Players constantly swapping positions, covering seamlessly for others pressing forward. A rhythm of mix and match; a clockwork movement which goes almost unnoticed.
At one point, for example, midfielder Oliver Norwood dropped effortlessly into the middle of the back three with centre-back John Egan moving over to cover the left flank and wing-back Kieron Freeman retreating to the opposite side. All to accommodate defender Chris Basham’s dash down the right wing in anticipation as United launched an attack in which centre-back Jack O’Connell was charging across the halfway line on the opposite flank.
Designed to stretch and overwhelm the opposition it works beautifully. Unfortunately there is a flaw which is becoming all too apparent when operating in the rarified stratosphere at the top of the Championship. Quality. The lack of which can only be addressed in the transfer market.
Individuals, such as John Fleck, Norwood and Mark Duffy possess it in abundance. Vision, the ability to make a killer pass, not afraid to beat a man. A cool head. Others are not so gifted and no amount of work ethic can disguise it.
This is not a slight on the current squad, just a reality if United want to take the next step. It is largely this group which has elevated United from League One to a Championship play-off near miss last season and is still punching well above its weight. But constantly extending beyond expectation, is part of the problem. It’s so hard to maintain.
Take Wilder’s well-drilled method, executed at pace and complimented by a clinical strike force, and United would be a match for anyone, home or away, across the piece in the Championship.
As it stands, the Blades are tough opponents, very tough, but not quite tough or quick enough to make the all important difference on a sustainable basis.
Twice in the space of four days they have been the much better side in first halves against powerful opposition. Twice they have been unable to reap their just reward.
At Derby they finished with nothing to show for it. Against Stoke unable to defend a hard-worked one goal lead courtesy of Leon Clarke who finally scored his first of the campaign with 20 minutes of normal time remaining. Jacob, sitting next to me in the John Street remarked that Joe Allen was going to place his free kick, low to goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s near post. Five second later he did just that, grabbing a sucker-punch 88th-minute equaliser. One point out of six and two opportunities missed to take an outright advantage at the top of the table.
A draw at Pride Park and victory at the Lane, United would now be three points clear after the midweek programme with another home fixture, against Wigan Athletic, to come.
In reality they have lost a one point advantage and dropped to third but remain joint top with Leeds and Middlesbrough, divided only by goal difference.
Hardly a disaster but fine margins all the same. In what is widely regarded as the most competitive league in Europe those margins are key. With just under a third of the season completed only six points divides the joint leaders from Wigan in 13th position. Stoke, lying 17th, are nine points behind, and seven from a play-off position.
Wilder was frustrated and infuriated by the 2-1 defeat at Pride Park. After watching a 1-1 draw against Stoke, the manager was more philosophical. “Stoke City will tell you they’ve dodged a bullet out there,” he said.
Stoke, just relegated from the Premier League and struggling to adjust to their new surroundings, arrived with a starting eleven costing about £65million. Silly money from a United perspective but looking at the performances of the two sides it wasn't apparent.
It’s natural to make comparisons. Taking solace from it, however, is defeatist if United really do want to play with the big boys come next August. Which is why on the eve of Wigan’s arrival at the Lane, Wilder took the opportunity to point out what an ambitious approach can achieve. The Latics had eight seasons in the Premier League before being relegated in 2013, the same year they won the FA Cup and secured Europa League football at the DW Stadium.
“It just shows what can happen with a bit of backing and ambition,” said the Blades boss. Another not so subtle message to his warring bosses Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud if ever there was one.