There’ve been a few scoffs and sniggers whenever I’ve suggested the Blades are a ‘cut above’ their current status. On Tuesday they more than proved it against Premier League opposition.
Now Sheffield United have to prove it in League One, where they are fifth and nine points adrift of a top two spot. But can they do it in the same way? As psychologically important as beating Southampton could be, maybe there was just as much significance in Nigel Clough’s team selection at Fleetwood four days earlier.
The result there was a 1-1 draw, a fairly typical outcome during this slog of a season in which United are struggling to impose their quality on smaller clubs. But quality they do have - witness a superb performance with less than a full strength side to see off Saints and reach a major cup semi-final for the second year running.
It is no accident. You can set up as the away side playing at home against higher division outfits and then, just as last season, United were able to go on the front foot against a team who were probably foolish enough to think they could play them off the park. But let’s focus on Saints’ sins, they were utterly outplayed as Clough’s team reached the last four in the Capital One Cup.
Fast forward to Saturday and Walsall’s visit brings an entirely different challenge. But there seemed to be a recognition in Clough’s line up at Fleetwood - 4-4-2 and Michael Higdon paired with Chris O’Grady (neither of whom was active on Tuesday) - that a plan B is needed.
Certainly, United require more strings to their bow at Bramall Lane after a series of frustrations against sides who have sat back and let them pass the ball into cul-de-sacs or cross into crowded penalty areas.
Which doesn’t mean Tuesday’s triumph can’t have the “galvanising effect” Clough admits he is seeking from it. There is a deserved reward to claim from his approach to winning on all fronts and the mood of the home crowd has changed markedly. Hopefully there will be a spill-over to Saturday when players, rather than fans, will have to create the atmosphere.
But it was equally telling that Clough felt recent home displays were “not so far off” the Southampton levels in terms of United’s possession and passing. I think he is right in that observation. The question is how to profit from it and whether the O’Grady-Higdon link is more of a battle plan than an experiment.
It must be a tough call after Tuesday when Clough’s favoured 4-5-1 worked to perfection in what could be termed favourable conditions. Are the two big men too similar to operate in tandem? Would the midfield fluidity be jeopardised by using that system?
The clue is that Clough surprised Fleetwood with his selection. He might feel he has to do the same with visitors to the Lane.
Above all, he has options either way - and that’s why I feel that in the second half of the campaign the Blades will indeed prove themselves to be a cut above.