ANY remaining doubt about Sheffield United’s Premier League credentials have been quashed. Rarely has defeat at Bramall Lane offered so much encouragement. Even Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp agreed, saying: “I expect to be coming here next season.”
Apart from a poor first half at home to Leicester City (1-2) and again at Chelsea (2-2), the Blades have performed consistently well since returning to the top flight. Unbeaten on their travels and bottom club Watford up next, that their just reward hasn’t been reaped at home is due almost entirely to avoidable shortcomings.
One win and three consecutive league defeats at the Lane, just three points from a possible 12, should paint a depressing picture. It doesn’t. Anyone who has witnessed those contests knows United were value for money.
Never more so, quite literally, against the European champions who headed back to Merseyside on Saturday evening feeling a tad fortunate to have extended their unbeaten calendar league run to 16 matches. Only an inexplicable handling error from United goalkeeper Dean Henderson stood between Liverpool failing to secure three points since a goalless draw at neighbours Everton on March 3.
Don’t forget, either, that Blades boss Chris Wilder is equally in new and challenging territory. For all his experience honed, until now, in football’s lower echelons, many outside of Sheffield still view him as an ‘up-and-at-‘em’, ‘just-have-a-go’ manager in the mould of a Neil Warnock or Dave Bassett.
With respect to those two, whom like Wilder also guided United into the top flight, the current incumbent is light years ahead. He embraces the modern game’s cutting edge as practised by the likes of Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, masked by a blunt turn of phrase, and at the same time attaches as much credence to basic old school values.
It’s a winning combination, only tempered by what is available for him to work with, which has lifted United from the wilderness of League One to the Premier League within three seasons. That also won the League Two title at troubled Northampton during a season in which at one point they couldn’t pay the wages. And returned Oxford United to the Football League.
So standing nonchalantly just a few yards from Klopp in front of the South Stand in the glare of worldwide media, was the biggest public examination of Wilder’s tactical know-how in his 18 years of management.
Would United crumble in the face of arguably the slickest forward line on the planet? Be boxed in by a creative midfield which customarily enjoys an iron grip? And how would the Blades ‘Championship strikeforce’ even start to penetrate a stellar defence marshalled by Virgil Van Dijk, voted only days earlier as the second best player in the world behind Barcelona’s Lionel Messi at the FIFA awards in Milan?
Wilder passed his personal test on all counts with honours. Enhancing a growing reputation that won’t have gone unnoticed in the boardrooms of leading clubs who would have previously disregarded him. His players, meanwhile, largely executed the plan, keeping their shape to build a platform to first thwart and then challenge the illustrious visitors. Only falling agonisingly short when it mattered most which perhaps reflects summer budget considerations.
Henderson undermined it all with a goalkeeping gaffe, letting Georginio Wijnaldum’s routine-looking drive slip through outstretched hands in the 70th minute, Liverpool’s first shot on target. Even Klopp’s game-plan would not have been able to accommodate that. At the other end of the pitch, Ollie McBurnie, early into the match, John Fleck, Callum Robinson and in particular, substitute Leon Clarke making his Premier League debut at the age of 34, failed to make the most of chances in front of goal. Clarke was presented with a golden opportunity to salvage a draw, but sent the ball high over Adrian’s bar and into the Kop.
A prophetic comment was written by Wilder in his programme notes. “One of the main disappointments this season is that the goals we’ve conceded have been avoidable mistakes. We expect to be pushed back by quality teams and players, but we’ve not had to soak up loads and loads of pressure so far, we’ve not been sliced open, and that may say something about how we have defended.”
For the first time of Wilder’s reign, now into a fourth season, he acknowledged the strength of the opposition, who started with the same line-up which won the European Cup minus goalkeeper Alisson, by radically altering his approach.
There was no sighting of trademark overlapping centre-backs or, apart from the odd foray by George Baldock, of flying wingbacks. They had their hands full patrolling strikers Sadio Mane, Firminho and Mo Salah along with attacking fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, all of whom are world class.
No, for much of the match United doggedly kept the shape of a five-three-two, frustrating the visitors and eventually wearing them down. To such an extent that despite the huge gap in quality, for much of the second half it was hard to detect.
Whilst caution was the watchword, United presented plenty of threat in a wave of counter-attacks. As irony would have it, the top of the pitch was where they were most exposed. If United possessed anywhere near a Mane or a Salah, they would have had a great chance to halt the league leader’s progress and may have even stopped them in their tracks.
Wilder was frustrated that his team had failed to take advantage of what he claimed was a below par Liverpool who had had an off day. A description Klopp disagreed with. “It was never a clicking day, it was an average day,” he said. They may not have been firing on all cylinders but any frustration was influenced more by United doggedly adhering to their manager’s strategy.
Having said that, it would be foolish to airbrush Liverpool’s dominance. Those not at the Lane who watched edited highlights on BBC’s Match of the Day, would have been unaware that the Reds enjoyed 70 per cent possession, if so much of it did not trouble the Blades unduly.
Even the most deadly strikeforce in the land can sometimes misfire. Mane could so easily have given Liverpool a two-goal lead before half time but instead skied his shot with keeper Henderson at his mercy and later was denied by a post.
Salah too should have scored when one-on-one he gave Henderson the chance to save with an outstretched foot at the near post when diverting across the goalmouth was the better option.
"We were deserved winners,” added Klopp. “If it's 0-0 we cannot moan and would not. But if there's one winner it should be us. We worked had for it. Winning in days like this is extremely worthy. We scored a lucky goal, we know that. But the boys worked so hard for it.”
No sentiment was involved as United headed for the tunnel to a standing ovation. They fully deserved it. But losing at home can’t continue, no matter how pleasing the performance, if all their effort is to really count.
On the evidence presented there is little reason to believe that it will. Suddenly the prospect of a disjointed Arsenal visiting after the next international break doesn’t look quite so menacing.