It was as a compact and clever counter-attacking team that Sheffield United sprang back to life under Nigel Clough last season. Sometimes we forget that. It wasn’t cavalier stuff.
This season, without the element of surprise and with expectation heaped upon them, the Blades have found it more difficult playing off the front foot instead of the back. In the league, that is. But they remain ideally equipped for more FA Cup exploits to run alongside a remarkable run to the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup.
Just when you think United have lost the element of surprise, they spring another one. Harry Redknapp’s Premier League Queens Park Rangers will know exactly the size of their challenge in Sunday’s third round tie.
Knock-out competitions can be one-offs and yet United’s recent success in this brand of football cannot be be put down to accident or coincidence. Remarkably, they have won 13 cup ties in the two main domestic competitions since Clough took charge.
Six of these have been achieved against higher ranked opponents. Which is why you won’t get long odds on the Blades toppling another at Loftus Road this weekend.
Much has been made of Clough’s preference for a 4-5-1 system. Often it has been a subject for criticism. But there is no denying that United have worked it to near perfection in some of their cup sorties, home and away. And the quality in their ranks is often more apparent when given more space to play by higher placed opponents.
This column’s belief that Clough’s assembled squad is above League One quality has been all too often mocked by results which haven’t quite reflected superiority in passing and possession. But then maybe that’s the problem. Possession comes from forewarned opponents sitting back.
Breaking down massed defences has presented United with a penetration problem at Bramall Lane.
Ties like QPR away bring with it a welcome relief and a huge opportunity that Clough’s record suggests they can take. Don’t just think of Southampton. Remember those victories over Aston Villa, Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Charlton last season en route to a memorable Wembley semi-final with Hull City and an eight-goal thriller entirely out of character with much of this campaign’s league fare.
Of course, it is on League One and the demand for promotion that the season will be judged. But Clough’s commitment to winning on all fronts if possible is commendable and refreshing. It’s in that spirit that I, for one, would expect them to run Redknapp’s team mighty close this weekend.
And let’s not overlook the springboard factor either. United thrived on the cup last season and can do again, especially with an injection of extra finance for the January window.
Even without it, though, Clough’s comments about recruiting proven ability for the promotion push seem to indicate that a relatively substantial amount is in place.