After the slaying of Chelsea, it's time to change the narrative surrounding this Sheffield United squad
“If you were to pick a starting eleven from the players on both teams, I’m not sure if any Sheffield United players get in,” former Liverpool and Scotland midfielder Graeme Souness mused as he picked through the bones of this Premier League fixture from the comfort of his television studio.
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard might beg to differ, having witnessed the visitors barely lay a glove on their opponents during a defeat every bit as emphatic as the 3-0 scoreline suggests. So perhaps it is time, even though he was being complimentary, for Souness and his fellow pundits to change the prism through which United’s performances are viewed? Is this really a side punching above its weight? Or one which, despite being low on household names, is simply producing results reflecting its expertise and talent? The evidence of Saturday’s contest suggests it is actually the latter.
Long before David McGoldrick ended his wait for a first top-flight goal - producing another clinical finish towards the end of the second period after Oli McBurnie had also pounced - it had become apparent that Chelsea, whose squad is stuffed to the gills with highly decorated internationals, were in for a long evening. Confusing glamour and fame with ability and aptitude is a common mistake among those tasked with predicting the outcome of football matches. So too, given much of the narrative surrounding United’s rise into the upper reaches of the table, is the assumption their industry and application masks a shortage of genuine ability within Bramall Lane’s ranks.
Although their latest victory over one of the division’s genuine heavyweights - Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers have also been slain in South Yorkshire this term - Wilder has little interest in debating the merits of his squad or whether those within it deserve greater recognition and praise.
“I don’t give two somethings about that,” he responded, when the question was put to him afterwards. “It doesn’t interest me. Really it doesn’t. All I’m bothered about is what my lads give me, each other and the club.”
Perhaps that suits, allowing them to escape the pressure of the spotlight. But the tactical sophistication United displayed here, and the discipline of Wilder’s players as they implemented the strategy he and his coaching had devised, will make it increasingly difficult to continue portraying them as a group which exceeds expectations rather than one which belongs in the European conversation.
Chelsea dominated possession, as Wilder had suspected. But United, who returned a figure of only 24 per cent, were far more effective - creating more genuine opportunities and the same number of shots on target. Crucially, they also possessed a better attitude too - something Lampard, visibly furious at his team’s supine surrender and shambolic defending, alluded to afterwards when he complained of only hearing “United voices” throughout.
“They had more personality than us,” the former England midfielder said. “If you’re not going to compete at the right level, then tactics don’t come into it.”
Although Lampard can be excused for focusing on the failings of those under his command, United had clearly done their homework - producing an action plan which ruthlessly exposed Chelsea’s weaknesses and accentuated their own strengths.
Seizing control from the get-go when Jack O’Connell surged forward and saw a cross turned behind for a corner, the hosts’ high press meant Chelsea’s own centre-halves, whose habit of caressing passes rather than pinging them, constantly put their intended targets under pressure. McGoldrick, who opened the scoring when Kepa Arrizabalaga had saved McBurnie’s deflected effort, was even more effective off the ball than on it - suffocating Jorginho; recalled by Lampard to dictate Chelsea’s tempo and instigate attacks from deep.
“We’re talking top level football here and, I don’t care what anybody says, we’d be naive to think we could go toe to toe with them because we’d get murdered,” Wilder said. “We had to be aware of their threats and acknowledge that they could negate something we did with a moment of brilliance.
“Maybe we were a touch fortunate that didn’t happen. We had to be aggressive and compete because we had to bridge a gap. We can’t say ‘go on then, we’ll let you play.’ Because that just wouldn’t have worked.”
“I’m not going to get into the areas where we felt we could get at Chelsea,” Wilder continued, “I’m not getting tucked up like that. There’s a lot of analysis that goes on and they’ll have identified areas where they thought they could get at us. We had to defend properly, make blocks and we always knew they would dominate possession. But football doesn’t get decided on possession, even though we’d have liked a little bit more.”
Although United sweated blood, they allied industry with invention. Ben Osborn, who had also helped craft McGoldrick’s opener, was involved in a delightful exchange with Enda Stevens to create the opening for McBurnie’s header. Chelsea’s marking was every bit as woeful as Antonio Rudiger’s attempted clearance, which presented McGoldrick with his second following Lys Mousset’s centre. But United’s execution was superb. At the other end of the pitch, Dean Henderson, registering his 13th clean sheet of the league campaign, had little to do other than block an angled drive from Reece James.
“People say to me that none of your players would get into Chelsea’s team,” Wilder said. “But it’s not always about that.”