Chris Wilder had spent the week trying to identify why, only a month after reaching the top of the Championship, his team entered last night’s game six points off the automatic promotion pace.
But shape, attitude or selection policy were not the cause of Sheffield United’s frustration here.
On this occasion, their manager need look no further than a combination of bad fortune, bizarre refereeing and John Fleck’s red card in the search for answers as to why his team did not beat Bristol City.
United, who remain a place behind Lee Johnson’s side in fourth, hit the woodwork four times during a fixture they controlled before Fleck’s second-half dismissal changed the complexion of the game.
The fact it took the visitors until the 90th minute - when Aden Flint’s drive beat Simon Moore - to break United’s resolve spoke volumes about the character of Wilder’s men.
The performance was there and so was the purpose. The only thing missing was the points.
Wilder, who saw Leon Clarke cancel-out Jamie Paterson’s opener for City, could barely conceal his disappointment afterwards.
“It’s a cruel game at times,” he said. “We didn’t deserve the defeat and played brilliantly against excellent opponents.”
“He’s pulled out of it,” Wilder added, referring to Fleck’s tackle on Korey Smith which David Coote deemed worthy of a sending-off.
“If you can’t put tackles in, the game has gone.”
City are functional, physical and organised with the slippery Bobby Reid adding an unpredictable element.
But United, as the excellent Mark Duffy demonstrated time and time again, possess plenty of ingenuity too.
Indeed, it was only the breadth of the crossbar and width of the post which stopped them building a commanding first-half lead before Paterson pounced.
Duffy, whose movement and footwork caused City problems throughout, struck the woodwork with an excellent set-piece while captain Billy Sharp hit it twice in the space of a minute as United dominated proceedings.
So when Paterson edged City in front, albeit with a memorable long-range finish, the stunned silence which enveloped Bramall Lane was understandable.
Likewise the cacophony of noise which greeted Clarke’s 14th goal of the season and, remarkably, his 10th in six games.
It also was an important moment for John Lundstram, whose pass carved the opening for his colleague to score, given the scrutiny he has been under since Paul Coutts was ruled-out through injury.
With Fleck now banned for the meetings with Preston North End, Aston Villa and Sunderland, the confidence boost Lundstram will have received could not be more timely.
“We could have had a penalty,” Wilder said. “They could have had a red and we could have had plenty of fouls, even right at the death. When we play like that, we’re a match for anyone.”
The fact United are even being talked about as contenders, let along occupying a top six position, is testament to both the belief and ability within Wilder’s squad.
Nevertheless, following their recent hiccup, he used his programme notes to insist his players prove they are capable of “defending properly, creating chances and scoring goals.”
If that seemed somewhat harsh on a side which, only eight months after lifting the League One title now occupies a top six position, Wilder’s edict confirmed promotion, not consolidation, is now his objective this term.
“Things aren’t going for us,” he admitted.
“But, I’ve got to say, we’ll keep going and doing the right things. We’ll get back on track.”
Despite being evenly-matched in the table, United and City kicked-off in markedly different form.
The visitors, who have already claimed more points on the road this season than they did throughout the entirety of last term, travelled to South Yorkshire on the back of a statement result over Middlesbrough.
But Lee Johnson’s side, recording their third victory in a row, could count themselves fortunate to prevail against United who, with Moore, Billy Sharp and George Baldock all returning to the starting eleven, impressed despite the final outcome.
“I thought they, United, were outstanding,” Johnson admitted. “It’s a big result for us.”
With Wilder citing the lack of a specialist wing-back as the catalyst for their chequered results of late, Baldock’s inclusion was particularly significant given the balance and attacking threat his presence guarantees.
Indeed, it was a move which begun on the right flank that ended with Duffy being bundled over inside the penalty box during the early skirmishes.
The referee remained unmoved but the penetration and precision of the passing which troubled City’s defence confirmed United were in a positive mood.
Baldock’s inclusion also allowed Basham to return to his preferred position of centre-half and his services were called upon when, soon after Duffy’s unsuccessful appeal, he prevented Bobby Reid from testing Moore’s handling.
City, with Niclas Eliasson selected ahead of Hordur Magnusson, were content to break from deep during the opening exchanges and although that decision made perfect sense, it also had the effect of allowing United’s creative players to operate higher up the pitch.
Duffy looked to take advantage with a snap-shot at the near post Frank Fielding did well to save before he saw a free-kick bounce back off the other following a foul on Enda Stevens.
Sharp hit the crossbar twice in 60 seconds as United appeared to be in complete control although his second attempt, after Clarke’s superb piece of control had earlier seen him go close from the edge of the box, was in part thwarted by Fielding.
Paterson’s strike, in the 44th minute, was excellent but completely against the run of play.
So when Clarke levelled early in the second-half, it was the very least United deserved.
Fleck’s straight red card just before the hour changed the dynamic of the contest with Moore readjusting himself well to parry a deflected shot from Marlon Pack.
But he was powerless to stop Flint’s drive nestling in the back of the net following Reid’s pass.
Sheffield United: Moore, Baldock, Stevens, Basham (Carruthers 85), Stearman, O’Connell, Lundstram, Fleck, Duffy (Brooks 75), Sharp, Clarke. Not used: Blackman, Donaldson, Wright, Carter-Vickers, Lafferty.
Bristol City: Fielding, Bryan, Flint, Wright, Baker, Smith (Taylor 62), Brownhill, Reid, Eliasson (Djuric 46), Paterson, Pack (Leko 75). Not used: Taylor, Steele, Woodrow, Magnusson, Vyner.
Referee: David Coote (Notts).