POPULAR opinion seems to suggest that two of the most talented and creative members of Sheffield United’s squad cannot play together.
But have the Blades missed a trick? Rarely are both mentioned in the same sentence during discussions about optimum starting line-ups. David Brooks and Mark Duffy, so the argument goes, operate in a similar midfield role. It’s either one or the other. If both are to be accommodated it means Brooks playing out of position as a makeshift striker.
The latter is by far the greatest talent in the Blades squad, but Duffy, for me United’s player of the season with wing-back George Baldock coming a close second, is arguably missed more when he or Brooks are unavailable. Only twice in the Championship campaign have they started together. Three times in total this season.
Yet, a line-up including both from kick-off may help solve a serious problem which has become increasingly apparent, to the frustration of manager Chris Wilder and fans alike. Getting the best out of an inconsistent strikeforce.
It has been well documented over recent weeks that had half the chances which have come their way been converted United would now be jockeying for which play-off position they will occupy, not scrapping to grab the sixth and final spot.
Top scorer Leon Clarke has finally rebooted his season having hit the net only twice since the beginning of December before Easter Monday’s 1-1 draw at home to Cardiff City. Allbeit thanks to a fortunate deflection against Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds and a scrappy finish in a hugely disappointing 3-2 defeat at Barnsley. But however they go in they all count.
While Wilder keeps faith with Clarke, who plays alongside him has remained a moveable feast. Skipper Billy Sharp, sidelined at the turn of the year, then recalled but often sacrificed when a change is made from the bench. Recently he has dropped down the pecking order again, with Brooks starting up front at Oakwell and against Boro. Sharp came off the bench at Barnsley but remained on it for the latter.
Sandwiched in between is Clayton Donaldson, almost limited to cameo appearances. Loanee James Wilson’s fitness issues since joining from Manchester United in January have reduced him to regularly making up numbers on the bench.
Then there is Ched Evans. Another striker with fitness problems. Given a lengthy time out for an ankle operation, it was suggested in the Blades camp that he was finally up and running. But since starting and then being substituted at Ipswich last month, Evans has disappeared completely from the radar.
All of the aforementioned are well capable of scoring goals. Clarke (17) and Sharp (13) have 30 between them. But what every striker appreciates is the opportunity to run at defenders with the ball at their feet. Donaldson (5) in particular would be a prime beneficiary. He has the highest percentage of shots on target of all the frontmen.
To do that, of course, they need supply from midfield. How more effective would Clarke and Sharp be, for example, if they weren’t often seen drifting out wide in a support role.
Duffy is a provider which is why he is such a big miss when unavailable. Brooks takes on and beats players for fun coupled with great vision; Duffy’s method is more about energy and a singular determination.
So what is so wrong about Duffy starting in his usual wide position and Brooks occupying an attacking central midfield role? It also has the benefit of allowing the use of two orthodox strikers? Brooks has many strings to his elegant bow but goalscoring is still something to be worked on. It tells its own story, however, that his three strikes this season are enough to be ranked joint fourth top scorer alongside John Lundstrum.
United’s strikers, so often forced into doing a lot of the ground work for themselves and creating opportunities for others, would suddenly have two guaranteed creative avenues of supply. Add to that balls coming in from the flanks via wing-backs Baldock and Enda Stevens and the hitmen could concentrate solely on doing what they are paid to do.
Wilder prides himself on United’s front foot approach. Whilst that philosophy has always been adhered to, the intensity which saw them take the Championship by storm and twice top the table, latterly in mid November, has dropped a notch or two. Going forward with pace and energy the Blades are a handful. High octane football which is hard for others to cope with, thrilling to watch and, most importantly, gets results.
We saw a return to just that in the first half against Middlesborough this week and what a difference it made. But allow the opposition to play more at their own pace as has happened too often in recent months, and United are half the side they can be.
The first of two hurdles was cleared against sixth-placed Boro in midweek in what are not only must-win fixtures but also rehearsals for what can be expected should United make the play-offs. Next up are Millwall who replaced the Teessiders in the last play-off position after winning 2-0 at Bolton. A form team last beaten on New Year’a day and undefeated in 16 league matches since.
With only three fixtures remaining after Millwall’s visit, two of them away, this really is must win. Familiar talk of good performances but missed chances just won’t do on this occasion. United have to take them to maintain hope of Premier League football being played at the Lane next season.
There may be a good reason why Wilder hasn’t been tempted. But looking on from the stands, the law of averages says more opportunities provide a greater chance of succeeding. A Brooks-Duffy midfield combination coupled with what amounts to an extra orthodox striker, would almost certainly enable just that.