Sheffield United: How Chris Wilder's team are growing more accustomed to dealing with football's dark arts
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder has insisted his desire to introduce a more sophisticated style of play will not force him to abandon the attacking principles which have proven so popular at Bramall Lane.
As United mature into a team others expect to challenge for promotion, they enter Saturday's game against Bristol City third in the table after pushing for the play-offs last term, they 50-year-old is making a series of subtle adjustments to his game-plans for Championship fixtures.
Some, including tactics designed to suck the life out of matches when United are leading during the closing stages, appear in direct conflict with his footballing beliefs. But, as both Jack O'Connell and John Fleck have both acknowledged in recent weeks, they are necessary to ensure this season's top six push does not peter-out.
"I feel we're improving as a group," Wilder said, "With regards to our skills and experience. "I also feel, and this bit is important, that we're getting a little bit cuter. That was bound to happen to a degree, as everyone gets more time at this level under their belts and lads who already are come in. But the core ideas of what we do and how we go about things won't change.
"We'll always give it everything and go all out for wins."
Towards the end of last season, when United's play-offs hopes were ended by Preston North End on the penultimate weekend of the campaign, Wilder and his staff embarked upon an in-depth review of their previous 45 outings. Their analysis highlighted a tendency to concede late goals, especially when contests were all-square.
Much of United's work at the Steelphalt Academy over the past four months has focused on tackling this habit. Indeed, they travel to Ashton Gate having conceded only one second-half goal in the league since their opening day defeat by Swansea City. This represents a dramatic improvement, when you consider United's defence was breached six times after the break during the final five contests of the previous season. On three of those occasions, it cost them points.
But Wilder's decision to tweak his tactics, or the mindset of his squad to be more exact, also represents a response to how United are perceived. Being regarded as a genuine force, especially following the 4-1 demolition of Aston Villa, means they endure greater exposure to football's dark arts.
"People do it against us," O'Connell said, when asked for his thoughts on the matter recently. "So we've got to get used to that and wise to it. Of course, the best way of counter-acting it is to take charge of games."
Having seen seven players report for duty with their respective countries over the international break, United's knowledge of how to manage games should continue to improve. Oliver Norwood and Conor Washington, who could represent Northern Ireland against Israel tonight, will have learnt much from the time-wasting exploits of Bosnia-Herzegovina towards the end of last weekend's defeat in Belfast. The Republic of Ireland, including John Egan and Enda Stevens, were taught a different type of lesson by Ben Woodburn's Wales in Cardiff on Thursday. Martin O'Neill's men must be more proactive from the opening whistle against Poland this evening.
Meanwhile, England's Dean Henderson and Wales' Rhys Norrington-Davies will gain vital experience during Euro under-21 visits to Latvia and Portugal.
"You can learn from everything," Wilder said. "No matter what the situation, there's always an opportunity to do that. It's what intelligent players do."