A CLASSIC case of ‘were you at the same match as me?’ following Sheffield United’s first defeat since returning to the Premier League.
If you had switched on BBC Radio Sheffield and heard callers slam the performance against visiting Leicester City, the immediate reaction would be oh right, the usual suspects.
Brian the Blade, perhaps, with claims that United deserved nothing from the game, the back three reluctant to go forward as they are expected to, wing-backs who didn’t want to engage with the opposition and the ball being given away so often “it was frightening”. To a man, apparently, during the first half of a 2-1 defeat, the club’s first reverse since returning to the Premier League.
Right radio station but, surprisingly, all these comments and more came from the voice of Blades boss Chris Wilder who offered a precised version to BBC’s Match of The Day which host Gary Lineker described as “the hairdryer treatment”.
Wilder’s lively reaction to a local radio interviewer’s observation that most fans left Bramall Lane happy with the performance if not the result, led to a ruthless and unexpected dissection of his team. A post-mortem which must have chilled the blood of players who had minutes earlier received a standing ovation in recognition of their efforts from supporters. Applause for what Wilder attributed to as “just running about”.
“Im not here to appease fans,” he said. “Since I walked through the door three-and-a-half years ago I’ve said it as it is. From our point of view, our standards, regardless of who you are playing, regardless of who’s in that changing room ten yards away, I don’t really care, I don’t give a monkey’s.”
The manager revealed he had told his players at half time, when they trailed by Sheffield Wednesday fan Jamie Vardy’s clinical strike in front of the Kop, that he had a dinner table booked for 8.30pm but if they carried on as they had been doing he might as well bring it forward to 4.15.
I, along with many others, didn’t leave the Lane thinking United deserved nothing from the match. Not a win, certainly. They were worth a point, though, and most likely would have secured one but for an unstoppable volley from Leicester substitute Harvey Barnes.
Indeed, during the closing stages, visiting boss Brendan Rodgers brought on experienced defender Wes Morgan as United threw all but the kitchen sink at Leicester in an effort to find a second equaliser.
Without question, the Blades need to up their game to ensure what most regarded as a solid performance like this bears fruit. In the final analysis a point gained instead of finishing empty-handed could prove crucial to remaining in the top flight.
But were United really as bad as the picture painted by Wilder? Absolutely not. Yes, there were mistakes. They also more than held their own against a formidable team widely tipped to have more than a good chance of finishing in the top six. But not if you listened to the manager whose judgment is usually unquestionable and who seemed to have changed his tune 36 hours later.
On this occasion, however, maybe it was a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. A man frustrated by coaching mole hills that for him turned into a mountain. Nuances of methods which absorb staff at the club’s Shirecliffe training base. On the flip side it is the very same which have enabled United to rise from League One to the Premier League in 36 months, so it is wholly understandable that the manager becomes frustrated when they are not being implemented.
The difference in quality between the two sides was surely the decisive factor. Wilder admitted his team were up against better players. For the most part United, to their credit, gave as good as they got and the the gap between quality and top level experience wasn’t obvious. There is no getting away, however, from the lack of Premier League know-how in United’s ranks and in the heat of the moment not always being able to execute the game-plan is something Wilder is maybe going to have get used to.
“We just turned the ball way so cheaply it’s frightening. Some of the decisions we made, we made hard work of it,” he said. “From a defensive point of view my back three didn’t want to get up the pitch, the two wing-backs never wanted to engage their fullbacks and we couldn’t put any pressure on the ball higher up the pitch. So I was pretty disappointed in terms of performance, particularly in the first half.
“The second half we raised it. I thought the introduction of [strikers] Ollie [McBurnie] and Billy [Sharp] gave us a spark. I believe we deservedly got ourselves back in the game and I expected us to play with that control and with that momentum to push the opposition back and go looking for a winner and we didn’t.”
He added: “I’m not going to credit and reward the players because they run around. I’ve said this all along, whatever the supporters do afterwards is up to them but for me that’s just a normal, natural thing they have to do and if they don’t they won’t play.”
Wilder didn’t sound too impressed, either, with starting strikers Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick despite lamenting the fact that United weren’t getting the ball forward.
“I thought the front two were on the back foot in the first half. I’ve got to say I didn’t think there were many positive performances in the first half. They all to a man gave the ball away and they all didn’t play and step into opponents like we have to do in this division.”
Chris Basham, dispossessed as he made his way forward midway in his own half, for what was a gift-wrapped goal for Vardy, escaped public retribution on the grounds that United are expected to be brave and these things can happen.
The early second half introductions of record signing McBurnie and Sharp did indeed lift the contest. When the former glanced wing-back George Baldock’s cross wide of Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel in front of the Kop to get off the mark for his new club with just under half-an-hour remaining, a real possibility of victory was in the air.
Barnes’ perfectly struck screamer eight minutes later, however, effectively reduced expectation at the Lane to hopes of a draw. The speed and power of the shot flew past keeper Dean Henderson who hardly had time to move. A delivery which eight times out of ten would fly high over the bar or spin wide. Unfortunately this one hit the sweet spot.
It would have taken a super human effort to block and had Henderson done so in front of watching England manager Gareth Southgate, at Bramall Lane for the second time in six days, it would almost certainly have secured the 22-year-old’s longed-for call-up to the international first team squad.
Wilder was in a more conciliatory mood as he prepared for the Carabao Cup second round visit of Blackburn Rovers in midweek which United, fielding ten changes to the starting line-up, won 2-1. Having reflected over the performance against Leicester during Bank Holiday weekend, he said: “I thought from tee to green, from box to box, there was nothing in the game. They punished us and we didn't punish them. But it gives us good heart and confidence, against a team tipped to go well this year and be in the top six.”
Exactly. It took a while but we all got there in the end.