Swindon Town, unashamed disciples of tiki-taka rather than the catenaccio school of thought, eventually prevented Nigel Adkins’ side from recording the victory which would have lifted them into the League One play-off positions when Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill cancelled out Billy Sharp’s early penalty.
But Paul Coutts, the United midfielder, was quick to refute the notion that a lack of ambition or attacking intent had ultimately cost Nigel Adkins’ side.
“We were disappointed not to get the three points,” he said. “It was a tough game and, to be fair, they are probably a better side than their league position suggests. I thought we looked pretty comfortable and they didn’t create many opportunities against us despite having a lot of the ball.”
United, as Coutts and his manager insisted, rarely looked like buckling under the weight of pressure Swindon exerted. Indeed, until Jonathan Obika’s pass was converted by Ormonde-Ottewill during the closing stages, the game-plan Adkins had devised appeared to be working with the visitors largely being kept at arms’ length.
But the contest did expose two major weaknesses in the armoury of a team which, after previously conceding goals at an alarming rate, has since adopted a much more pragmatic approach - a dearth of genuine pace and, as Coutts conceded, a failure to exploit the further opportunities which came their way.
“We’d worked on the tactics during the week,” Coutts, who spurned a fine chance to extend United’s advantage soon after the restart, acknowledged. “Swindon have a lot of the possession in most games, I presume, so we worked on keeping them in front of us.
“For the most part, we did that well, but obviously they got in behind once. I should have done better when I went through. I should have squared it to Billy. If we’d have got the second goal, we’d have seen it through.”
Adkins initially gambled on United’s frontline scoring enough goals to mask their defensive frailties.
The decision to perform a tactical U-turn represents another risk on his part. When it works, his strategy of attempting to smother opponents into submission is hailed as a calculated triumph. When it fails, as it did here, United leave themselves open to accusations they lack the conviction required to mount a serious challenge for promotion.
That, as Coutts explained, is probably unfair, but inevitable given the circumstances.
“Yes, I think it is,” he said. “We needed to tighten up because we always score but were conceding too many. You’ve got to do different things against different opposition. That’s the same at every level, isn’t it?”
“We always think we’ll score so the main thing is definitely keeping the other teams out,” he added. “We want to dominate the ball ourselves but it’s always going to be difficult against Swindon because they’s what they base their whole game around. Against others, though, we’ll definitely see much more.”
United, now eighth in the table despite having lost only twice in 10 outings, were below par and lacking the punch they have displayed of late.
But the hosts, who saw Sharp set a new career record after scoring for the seventh consecutive league match, could be forgiven for being cautious about the threat Swindon posed.
Luke Williams, a FA Skills coach, has transformed their style of play after becoming the fourth person to take charge at the County Ground this season, with Swindon making the journey north having scored four times in each of their previous two games.
United, though, seized control when Coutts and Sharp exchanged passes on the edge of the area before the latter was brought down by Jordan Turnbull as he burst into the box. Referee Trevor Kettle, who later awarded a second spot-kick in Swindon’s favour only to realise an offside flag had been raised, barely hesitated before making his decision but, according to Coutts, should have taken a further step.
“I thought it should have been a red card because it was an assault,” he said. “The lad caught me above the knee.”
United created three more openings at the start of the second period, with Sharp twice drawing saves from Lawrence Vigouroux and Coutts going close before Ormonde-Ottewill preserved Williams’ unbeaten record when the fixture reverted to type. But those misses were not the only pivotal moment, with the departure of Chris Basham, Dean Hammond and Coutts stripping United of the physical presence which had disrupted Swindon’s rhythm for most of the afternoon.
Sheffield United: Long 6, Brayford 6, Basham 7 (Flynn 58, 6), Coutts 7 (Reed 74), Sharp 7, Done 6, Collins 6, Woolford 6, McEveley 7, Edgar 6, Hammond 7 (Baxter 68, 6). Not used: Howard, Sammon, Campbell-Ryce, Adams.
Swindon Town: Vigouroux 7, Ormonde-Ottewill 6, Robert 6, Turnbull 6, Kasim 8, Ajose 6, Doughty 7 (Balmy 86), Obika 7, Rodgers 6 (Traore 61, 7), Barry 6 (Thompson 61, 7), Rossi-Branco 7. Not used: Smith, Brophy, Belford, Iandolo.
Referee: Trevor Kettle (Rutland).