Kevin Gage Sheffield United Column: Watching Blades has tired me out...just ask my wife
Another two games gone, another two wins, another six points, and at face value nothing to get too flustered about as we beat two teams we were widely expected to.
Except for the one thing that in all the ‘unbeaten-run-and-promotion-campaign-excitement’ we forgot we are Sheffield United and we don’t do things the easy way!
I was eagerly anticipating two games that should really have been two straightforward wins. They appeared to be two rather mundane ordinary matches at first glance. Two ‘banker’ home league victories against struggling teams, and yet both turned out to be nothing of the sort.
As I arrived home and slumped into my sofa on Tuesday night, my wife told me that I "looked tired”. Too bloody right! Saturday was hard going, but after Tuesday I was completely drained! The feeling when Ebanks-Landell slotted home that winner in the 93rd minute was a strange mixture of sheer ecstasy, combined with an degree of astonishment and then quickly followed by overwhelming relief.
After the frustration felt by us all on Saturday when we couldn’t score against the 9 men of Shrewsbury for over half the game, to then find ourselves in a similar position three days later and suffering similar problems was testing our patience a bit to say the least. Chris wilder had called for the team to be patient on Tuesday in his pre-match interview, and he also mentioned us fans might have to share that patience as well, though I doubt even he realistically thought we’d be waiting until the third minute of injury time to make a breakthrough. However, we were patient (we had no choice!), the team also were (to an extent) and we got a fully deserved victory and three vital points.
You’ll note I’ve said 'to an extent' regarding the team playing a patient game, as to be brutally honesty I wasn’t overly impressed with either of our performances against two poor teams playing with ether nine or 10 men for large parts of the game. The Shrewsbury one was particularly disappointing and frustrating as chance after chance was missed, albeit not helped by their goalkeeper having an outstanding day. I sincerely hope that goal difference doesn’t come into the final promotion reckonings or else we may look back on Saturday as an opportunity missed to score a hat full.
It’s often said that’s it’s ‘difficult’ to play against a team with a man sent off. Errr, it’s not. Really….It’s not. I’d take that scenario every week thanks! Teams make it look difficult because they sometimes don’t know the best way to play against it. A team a man down, (or two men down as it happened) will always look to be compact, and operate as a tight-knit unit of either a back four or five, closely strung across the width of the penalty area.
They are then usually screened by another two, three or even four midfielders, often leaving one man alone upfront. The absolute key to break down such a tightly packed defensive set-up is to utilize the spaces out wide. The opposition defenders will not want to get dragged out of position from the middle and their strength in numbers. The attacking team therefore need to move the ball quickly up and across the pitch and try to create ‘overloads’ i.e. 2 v 1 situations in the wide areas, preferably beyond the penalty area. You’ve probably heard it called good old-fashioned “getting round the back” of the defence. It also works when no-one's been sent off by the way, but it’s a lot easier to achieve when you’ve an extra man…or men! I don’t think we achieved it anywhere near enough in either game.
I thought that in both games we often played far too narrow and our wide players often didn’t stretch the opposition enough by simply keeping our width and our formation. On Tuesday especially, the movement upfront and in wide areas was counter-productive with wing-backs drifting inside, popping up in centre-forward positions forcing Sharp and Done to be often playing way too far apart and also too deep. There was more than one occasion when our two strikers were BOTH in wing-back positions at the same time, with Basham and Lafferty up front. There were also too many crosses being aimlessly lofted in from positions that were too deep, and therefore easier for opposition centre-backs to head and clear away. Patience was indeed the key, and in the 93rd minute Coutts could have just chipped the ball into the box. He didn’t. He worked a ‘give and go’, he got ‘round the back’, slid in a low cross, and…well, we know the rest. Patience…it’s a virtue!
Perhaps we will have to get used to teams now coming to the Lane and “parking the bus” in the way Orient, Shrewsbury and Bury have all done. Defensively, Orient weren’t anywhere near good enough to succeed. Shrewsbury and Bury very nearly were.
We have to make sure we play in a style to counteract such a negative set-up, and maybe play certain players who can unlock these defences. The likes of Chapman, Duffy and others with individual ability to create will become even more important, and I could also make a very good case for switching to a 4-2-4 formation at home, as at times our three centre-backs are often only marking one striker, leaving the two others redundant.
With no-one to mark, the two outer central defenders find themselves with lots of possession higher up the pitch and often joining in attacks as a make-shift wide player. Now, I’ll take Ebanks-Landell as a striker every day after his cool finish on Tuesday and his goal scoring exploits from earlier in the season. I’m drawing the line somewhere though, because as an attacking full-back trying to whip in crosses, he’ll be back at Wolves very soon.
So onwards we go...14 games unbeaten, seven wins on the trot at home, and with four home games out of the next six, may I be the first to wish all you Blades a potentially very Happy New Year! UTB