Sheffield United: Why the derby against Leeds promises to be a battle of wits as well as wills

Thirteen months ago, moments before they faced Leeds inside a heaving Elland Road, Sheffield United's squad received some last minute encouragement which helped decide the outcome of the contest.

Friday, 30th November 2018, 2:01 pm
Updated Friday, 30th November 2018, 2:05 pm
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder is admired by Marcelo Bielsa

Manager Chris Wilder and his staff are not ones for big speeches. So it was short, sweet and straight to the point.

'These lads want to play on their own terms," United's players were told as they filed into the tunnel. "Do what you do best but get stuck in. Take them out of their comfort zone."

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It proved sage advice as, after Billy Sharp's opener, Wilder's team continued to pummel away at their opponents soft centre before David Brooks' late winner cancelled-out Kalvin Phillips' equaliser for Thomas Christiansen's side. More than one year on, with the Dane now gone and Marcelo Bielsa at the helm, Leeds are a much more formidable proposition. But as they prepare to renew their rivalry with the self-styled 'Champions of Europe', the message from Wilder and his lieutenants remains the same. Rather than tweak their style to combat Bielsa's tactics, United will look to impose their own will on the game.

The battle on the touchline, between the two of the division's most innovative coaches, promises to be every bit as compelling as the one on the pitch. Bielsa, described by Pep Guardiola as "the greatest" thinker in the game, also counts Mauricio Pochettino and Jorge Sampaoli among his high-profile disciples. So earlier this week, when the Argentine expressed his admiration for Wilder's own distinct approach, it was high-praise indeed.

Bielsa's kind words - "I saw things in Sheffield United that I wanted to develop and I couldn't do it" - will be gratefully accepted by the 51-year-old and his inner-circle; not least because, coming from humble footballing backgrounds, they are unjustly described as "old school" by some footballing snobs.

"Yeah, but we're English and we don't do stuff like that," Wilder replied on Thursday, when asked if he had revolutionised the role of the modern defender. "We don't have any imagination, do we. Joking aside, it's different ways, different pathways and different ideas. That's what makes it what is is."

Leeds United's Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most influential thinkers in the game: Bruce Rollinson

United's over-lapping centre-halves, a driving force behind their climb to fifth in the table, are not the only thing likely to have piqued Bielsa's interest. Accompanied by attacking wing-backs, the result should be chaos. But a revolving midfield, with Mark Duffy at its apex, allows this supposedly helter-skelter strategy to work. Duffy's transformation, from lower league winger into Championship fantasista is also worthy of study. Aged 33, his career was supposedly on a downward spiral when he arrived in South Yorkshire two-and-a-half seasons ago. Now United supporters have affectionately tagged him 'The Ginger Messi.'

Wilder's respect for Bielsa's achievements was evident when he sat down to preview tomorrow's match against Leeds with the broadcast and print media. After mischievously threatening to ban buckets from Bramall Lane's technical area - his opposite number likes to sit on one - he also insisted trying to outsmart Rotherham's Paul Warne and Frank Lampard at Derby County had been a pleasure too.

"You see our division and you can see why people watch it," he said. "I'm not going to get into the TV debate and all that, I'll leave that bit to the chief executives. But you can see why it's such a popular division and people watch it. "You go from an Argentine great to a lad who has been a physio at Rotherham to a lad who has won God knows how many Premier League titles. 

"But they're all bringing great things to the table. We don't take this division for granted. It's a fantastic division and this is one we are really looking forward to."

Pontus Jansson could return to action for the visitors

United, who also won the corresponding fixture last term 2-1, are expected to have a full-strength squad at their disposal, while Leeds travel to South Yorkshire with Pontus Jansson available for selection following injury. Wilder's biggest dilemma is likely to be whether or not to recall Duffy and Billy Sharp after both started Tuesday's win over Brentford on the bench. Sharp, who has scored three goals in his previous two outings against Leeds, is United's leading goalscorer this season but his replacement at Griffin Park, Northern Ireland international Conor Washington, impressed. George Baldock could also feature after recovering from illness.

"We want people pushing hard to get in," Wilder said. "It's important to have decisions like this."

Sheffield United defender George Baldock (right) has recovered from illness