James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Can Cloughie learn anything from the World Cup?

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Can Sheffield United learn anything from this summer’s World Cup?

The obvious answer, given that many players battling away in Brazil earn more money than the Prime Minister and nearly half of his cabinet combined, is very little.

Especially, financial considerations aside, when you consider League One rarely gyrates to a samba beat. Sepultura more like.

Peer beyond the bumper pay cheques though and there’s probably plenty. Admittedly, not so much in terms of fresh ideas or tactics. After all, it’s easy to ask a team to pass and move like Argentina until you realise you don’t have Lionel Messi or Angel Di Maria at your disposal.

But, in terms of general themes and principles, events in South America should reassure Nigel Clough and his staff that the course being plotted for United is correct.

Take England’s opening Group D fixture against Italy for example.

On sober reflection, rather than through the fug of red wine, Corona and amaretto which enhanced my viewing experience late on Saturday night, the 2-1 scoreline was a fair reflection of the game itself.

Pace, as Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge demonstrated, can disguise a multitude of sins elsewhere in a team. A quality which the arrival of Jamal Campbell-Ryce and, to a lesser extent, Marc McNulty, should ensure United possess plenty of next term.

But, when the going does get tough, watching Leighton Baines suffer in the Amazonian heat under the weight of Azzurri pressure illustrated the value of experience in key positions. Or, at the very least, making sure youngsters are protected by a blanket of wise old heads. (Okay, so Baines is 29. But, making his first World Cup finals appearance, you hopefully get the point).

Wayne Rooney might not have afforded the Everton man much protection. However, the fact that forwards are now expected to help bail-out their colleagues in such situations only serves to illustrate the flaws behind modern football’s obsession with attacking full-backs). First and foremost, they should be able to defend. A theory to which United clearly subscribe having elected to sign the likes of Andy Butler and Bob Harris.

Rooney’s mixed performance six days ago also underlines why players with extraordinary gifts should not be asked to play out of position. Dangerous through the middle, he struggled to impose himself after being deployed on the flank. If a colleague is a better fit, Daniel Sturridge for example, then tough and possibly unpopular choices must be made.

Last season, United built the side which won 15 of its last 23 matches in all competitions around the wingplay of Jamie Murphy and Ryan Flynn. Having bolstered his options in midfield by recruiting Chris Basham and James Wallace, Clough is right to indicate they must battle it out with Michael Doyle, Stefan Scougall, Ben Davies and possibly Jose Baxter for the right to provide the swashbuckling Scots with a platform to impress rather than devise a system to massage egos but not promote positive results.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule as an entertaining but revealing conversation between Clough and his cohorts confirmed towards the end of the previous campaign.

With a combination of injury and suspension threatening to disrupt a rearguard which has conceded an average of only one goal per league game since August, the prospect of entering the loan market was inevitably raised before a more prudent solution was put forward.

Why, Clough asked, could a full-back not cope with being shifted a couple of yards across the defensive line to cover at centre-half? Or an auxiliary winger not understand what it takes to operate a few steps deeper on the pitch?

Hence the sight of John Brayford deputising for Harry Maguire and Davies covering for Kieron Freeman.

Simplicity is the watchword of this United regime. Fuss the anathema.

Meanwhile, many readers have expressed frustration via social media that United have yet to unveil a proven and prolific striker since the transfer window officially reopened four weeks ago.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. McNulty, who hit the target 45 times in 88 starts for Livingston, should continue to develop while Chris Porter is also capable of making a significant contribution providing he achieves greater consistency.

More importantly, there is still 50 days to go before United begin their latest bid for promotion with a home game against Bristol City on August 9.

Better, surely, to let calibre dictate recruitment policy instead of public relations?

United can’t wait for ever to fill this particular vacancy and McNulty’s education will be accelerated if he is working with two battle-hardened professionals.

But as Clough’s recent comments to the region’s media confirm, there is plenty of work going on behind the scenes while fresh lines of enquiry could emerge depending upon events elsewhere.

*Twitter: @JamesShield1