Nigel Clough has admitted Sheffield United’s congested fixture programme will influence his tactics and team selections over the coming weeks, writes James Shield, despite warning the battle survival could “go right down to the wire.”
Tomorrow’s visit of League One leaders Brentford is the second of nine matches United must contest in the space of 29 days, with their schedule set to become even more gruelling if they win Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest.
Privately, officials at Bramall Lane have expressed concerns Clough’s players are effectively being punished for reaching the fifth round stage but, while the former England international has warned United must confront this logistical challenge head-on, he acknowledged the gameplan his coaching staff devised for last weekend’s meeting with Shrewsbury Town was, in part, a response to the gruelling physical demands being placed upon the South Yorkshire club’s squad.
“We had to start fast,” Clough, speaking after first-half goals from Ryan Flynn and Stefan Scougall secured a 2-0 victory over Michael Jackson’s side, told The Star. “Because we didn’t know how long the lads could keep up their intensity levels.
“But, even though there were some tired legs out there, they did a thoroughly professional job and deserved that result.
“Jamie (Murphy), Ryan and even John Brayford, who just keeps going and going, were tired at times. Which is why, to see them overlapping like they were, was so impressive.”
United climbed to 21st in the table after ending a run of four league outings without a win, four days after ending Fulham’s hopes of reaching their first FA Cup final since 1975 with a dramatic extra-time victory at Craven Cottage. Brentford, who recently appointed Clough’s predecessor David Weir as Mark Warburton’s assistant, will journey north having won eight and drawn two of their last 10 matches.
Elaborating on the methods United employed against Shrewsbury, which included deploying midfielder Jose Baxter in a central attacking role, Clough said: “Sometimes, you’ve got to grind things out rather than go for a third goal. We did that after going two up against Bradford City recently and ended up with a draw but the situation, because Shrewsbury are down towards the bottom as well, was just far too important for us to run that risk again.
“We were happy with the clean sheet. We didn’t sit back but we also made sure that we didn’t let them (Shrewsbury) create chances against us.”
“Jose is the best player we have for holding the ball up and then bringing others into play,” Clough continued. “We didn’t really have time to work on what we were going to do but you also need to adapt and be flexible. Especially if you’ve got some tired legs.”