Sheffield United Match Analysis: How one game against Bristol City exposed the best and the worst of Chris Wilder's Blades
Towards the end of the first-half, having just completed an unwanted hat-trick of missed opportunities,Â David McGoldrick arched his back, covered his face with his shirt and gazed skywards in sheer frustration.
It proved, from Sheffield United's perspective at least, to be the abiding image of a game which saw themÂ confirm they belong at the top end of the division but somehow conspired to lose. An hour after a goal from Marley Watkins' had tilted it in Bristol City's favour, Chris Wilder emerged fromÂ the visitors' dressing room to insist the scoreline did not tell the entire story of a contest that had ebbedÂ and flowed in different directions before its dramatic denouement.
Moments later, when John Lundstram made exactly the same point deep inside the bowels of Ashton Gate,Â one might easily have believed they were reciting the same pre-prepared script were it not for the fact bothÂ men's words oozed substance rather than spin. "We would have liked to win to prove we really are that top side but we can still take plenty from theÂ game," Lundstram said. "There's plenty of positive for us, especially given how we played, and evenÂ though there's disappointment we've got to remember that as well."
United, who controlled long periods of the contest after subduing City's threat, proved a point in theÂ south-west despite losing three. Lee Johnson's side, now third in the Championship after securing a fourthÂ straight win, started well before being pushed onto the back foot by a combination of industry, intelligenceÂ and intricate attacking play. The trouble was, as Wilder later acknowledged, United failed to land a decisive blow when it mattered most.Â Knowing they spurned not one but three clear-cut chances to do so only heightened their sense ofÂ exasperation but, in another sense, provided encouragement as well.
"To come away from home, to a very good team by the way, lose 1-0 and be so disappointed shows how farÂ we've come in a short space of time," Lundstram said. "It shows we're moving in the right direction. "Obviously the result is the most important thing. We'll never get away from that, it's why we'reÂ disappointed. But there was still plenty to take, in a wider sense, back home with us."
Telepathic but not clinical
McGoldrick's performance embodied the best and the worst of United during a tight but always intriguingÂ match. The former Ipswich Town attacker caused City all manner of problems with his movement, draggingÂ their rearguard in one direction and then the other whilst showcasing a delightfully delicate touch.Â However, although you suspect McGoldrick fathoms an opponent's next move before they even knowÂ themselves, his finishing isÂ notÂ clinical.Â
Having already dragged two shots wide of the far post as United's influence grew, the miss from OliverÂ Norwood's set-piece turned-out to be particularly significant when, with less than 10 minutes remaining,Â Watkins broke the deadlock. Although it would be a mistake to lay the blame for their defeat solely atÂ McGoldrick's door, Wilder claimed Norwood had been fouled before the decisive passage of play, hisÂ profligacy was costly. It was telling the manager's post-match analysis contained several references to theÂ importance, in the upper echelons of the Championship, of scoring first.
"We didn't quite get what we deserved," Lundstram continued. "What we have to do now is make sure,Â when we do deserve something, that's what happens. That we come away with something instead ofÂ nothing. But the good thing is we've got a game coming up on Wednesday where we can go out there andÂ put things right. I'm pleased about that. Buzzing in fact."
Whether or not McGoldrick and Lundstram start the meeting with Birmingham City could depend upon theÂ conditioning of Conor Washington and the injured John Fleck, whose absence with a groin problem sawÂ the Liverpudlian selected in midfield alongside Norwood and Mark Duffy. Despite impressing with his workÂ ethic and defensive diligence - one early clearance drew a round of applause from both Henderson and theÂ bench - Lundstram and Fleck are very different players and the latter's drive was missed. If, fitnessÂ permitting, he does return, it should not reflect badly on Lundstram's contribution here. "Anyone who comes in now, they're not weakening the side," said Lundstram. "Moving forward, thatÂ should stand us in really good stead. "We're all pushing and going in the right direction. We're a really tight knit group and there's no bad eggs."
The small print
Fifth in the table and within touching distance of the leaders, United, promoted from League One only 16Â months ago, have quickly matured into squad of genuine top six potential. But, for all their ability andÂ promise, room for improvement still remains. Not for the first time since climbing out of the third tier, United could trace their downfall to a lack ofÂ ruthlessness in the final third although Norwood was unfortunate to see a set-piece fly just off target afterÂ taking a deflection. City, confirming their own play-off credentials, regained the initiative during the closing stages andÂ appealedÂ frantically for a penalty when Enda Stevens, who had earlier been upended in the hosts' box,Â appeared to handle from Marlon Pack. But Johnson's anger turned to ecstacy when Watkins, whoseÂ introduction coincided with City's improvement, converted his fellow substitute Callum O'Dowda's centre. "There were different reactions in our dressing room," Lundstram said. "We know we played well and stifledÂ their threat. It just came down to details at the end."