Match Analysis: Martin Cranie insistsÂ the art of winning or drawing ugly is one Chris Wilder's team can master
The search for solutions to a seemingly intractable problem ended withÂ Chris Wilder straying into other areas.
"I think I'd be dangerous with money," he said following Sheffield United's defeat by Nottingham Forest. "But maybe that's an issue for another day because, right at this moment, I'm more bothered about something else."
The cause of his frustration, after watching Lewis Grabban's header knock them off the top of the Championship, was football not finance. And, despite spending over an hour in the dressing room trying to fathom an answer, Wilder emerged no closer to understanding why, as he put it, United struggle to take points when they are "not at full tilt."
Martin Cranie suspects the answer might lie between the ears, although it must be remembered the two players who combined to fashion Forest's victory cost a total of Â£19m. The defender might have been making his debut for United after arriving on a free transfer. But spending five months under Tony Pulis at his previous club Middlesbrough saw the 32-year-old, who acquitted himself well, complete a crash course in one of the game's most invaluable arts.
"Yes, Tony was an absolute master at doing it," Cranie said. "That's something, I think it's fair to say, he's built his reputation on. We set up a little bit differently here, we don't go about things the same way as them, but that doesn't mean it's not something we can't do."
"The answer, perhaps, comes at the end of matches when we know we're not at our best," he added. "You strive to be on top form all the time although realistically, that's not always going to happen. So maybe, towards the end of one where it's not quite going our way, we've just got to dig in, stay compact and think 'We aren't going to lose this.' It's a balance because you wouldn't want to change our approach. The good thing is, there's enough experience in there to work things out."
The knowledge Cranie gleaned on Teesside could prove invaluable when United reconvene to debate the matter this week although, in truth, they were nowhere near as compliant as their manager's demeanor might suggest. Indeed, had substitute Ben Woodburn not missed a late chance in front of the Bridgford End, Wilder would have been talking in very different terms following a match settled by Grabban's 10th goal in 11 outings. But these are the minutiae upon which big fixtures swing and, given United's encouraging start to the season, every performance they deliver will be scrutinised in forensic detail.
On this occasion, after a forgettable first-half which saw neither team showcase the talent at its disposal, Wilder's squad was ultimately found wanting when JoÃ£o Carvalho, a Â£13m summer signing fron Benfica, delivered the cross which Grabban glanced into the back of Dean Henderson's net.
However, Wilder's suggestion that United are possibly only an "average side" masquerading as promotion contenders revealed more about his emotional attachment to the visitors, and dislike of defeat, than it did the ability within Bramall Lane's first team squad. After all, against Wigan Athletic seven days earlier, they had triumphed 4-2 despite also being far from their best.
Nevertheless, as events at the City Ground demonstrated, United must learn lapses in concentration can carry a heavy price when the opposition boasts forwards of Grabban and Carvalho's class.
"You learn, draw a line and move on," Cranie said. "The table tells you we're doing well but there's always room for improvement and that's something we'll try and do.Â
"I've not been here long but still long enough to know the ability the lads have got and what they're capable of. Nobody likes losing, least of all us, but we've got a great match coming up to put things right."
With Chris Basham set to return from suspension and Mark Duffy's injured hip thought to be healing well, United could have a more familiar look about them when they host arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday on Friday night. Certainly, their display against Forest highlighted how intergral the two absentees are to Wilder's Premier League hopes as, robbed of Basham's dynamism and his colleague's creativity, they appeared a little predictable and pedestrian as passes went astray.
Oliver Norwood lacked his usual accuracy after firing wide during the early exchanges and Paul Coutts, starting for the first time since recovering from long-term injury, saw a shot blocked before John Egan, who later headed wide when left unmarked, made the first of several interceptions to deny Grabban as Forest attempted to release their dangerman. Leon Clarke also went close but, when Kieron Freeman got himself into a tangle, Carvalho pounced and Grabban did the rest.
'We can do better,' Cranie acknowledged. 'And we will.''‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹