What’s a bit of time wasting when you’ve just knocked a Premier League team out of the Capital One Cup? Except that, as a largely unapproving Bramall Lane saw last weekend, it can be another way of winning football matches. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
It’s maybe something we shouldn’t be discussing in a season when Sheffield United, conquerors of West Ham on penalties, are widely reckoned to have the best squad in League One. But when you look at what’s to come, especially all the derbies, one thing they’ll have to keep doing is edge out tight results.
As they did against Crawley. Reaction to the tactic that secured it wasn’t so much about how and when it was done but the identity of the opposition. Eight minutes of scuffling to keep the ball in the corners. . . for a 1-0 win against Crawley for crying out loud!
Forget the name, they looked decent all over the pitch. Which isn’t to defend the lengths Nigel Clough’s players went to in defence of Jose Baxter’s brilliant goal. Coach Chris Morgan didn’t attempt to, either, in saying the keep-ball came “too early.”
But that’s the kind of thing you say when you’ve won. Clough and his management team were inwardly grinning because it was precisely the type of victory that gets you promotion.
They didn’t order those grind-out methods but had, in fact, set the tone by withdrawing both strikers and playing a winger alone up front. That screamed to the players: “Keep what you hold.”
And even if it didn’t, there was common sense at play and enough experience on the pitch to remember those times when a bold, stray pass in reaching for that second goal has led to the dreaded “late sickener.”
One who wouldn’t have such a memory was 17 year old substitute Louis Reed – but he got the message alright. Trying to play a clever pass as a late sub and giving the ball away, he copped a volley from his boss.
There was also an exchange I noticed between the two managers. United had the ball in one corner at the opposition end and yet John Gregory’s disposition towards Clough looked amiable. It was as if to say: “Yeah, we’d be doing the same.”
“Winning ugly,” as they call it, can be a necessary evil. If you were looking for concerns in that Crawley display, they’d be more about a lack of tempo and fluency, and an impact from some new players, notably Michael Higdon. A poor touch betrayed the big man as he struggled against a formidable opponent in Dean Leacock.
But we are just four league games into the season. United need the Murphys and the Flynns and the absent Scougalls to fizz again (as the former pair is starting to do). And Higdon’s record suggests there is more threat than we are seeing so far.