Analysis: Was a painful defeat at West Ham the moment Sheffield United's dream of Premier League survival died?
Chris Wilder was in a good mood.
So good in fact that, as he previewed their latest assignment of the Premier League season, one could have been forgiven for thinking he was heading for a clandestine trip at the pub with his mates rather than a match Sheffield United probably had to win and could certainly not afford to lose.
But after waxing lyrical about everything from David Moyes’ CV to St Pancras Station where his side had arrived earlier in the day, Wilder cut a sullen, solemn figure following this defeat by West Ham.
United’s 19th of the season, it left them 14 points adrift of safety at the final whistle and almost certainly marked the moment their survival dream died.
“If we make the mistakes we did out there, there’s no chance for us being honest” Wilder said, after watching Declan Rice, Issa Diop and substitute Ryan Fredericks score without reply. “It is what it is, that’s the division.”
SELF INFLICTED DAMAGE ON AND OFF THE PITCH
Lacking genuine penetration and profligate when openings did present themselves, the visitors’ performance at the London Stadium revealed why they find themselves in such a hole. But it will be a source of great frustration that a player he had courted during last month’s transfer window was responsible for setting in motion the chain of events which led to United’s downfall.
Jesse Lingard, who was being lined up for a loan move from Manchester United until Wilder’s recruitment budget was withdrawn, drew the foul which saw West Ham edge in front from the penalty spot before Issa Diop sealed their win after the break. Together with Manuel Lanzini, Lingard oozed quality before also being withdrawn during the closing stages. Moyes, who stepped into the breach when United procrastinated, purred as he described his contribution afterwards.
Wilder must have been tempted to nod in agreement as he counted the cost of a match which also saw John Egan join Bramall Lane’s lengthy casualty list.
TEAM SHEETS TELL A STORY
Time is a great healer. Although it will take a little while longer for the frustration the board’s refusal to strengthen before this month’s deadline has caused in United’s boot room, the wounds they received following the Carlos Tevez Affair now appear to have disappeared. Whether it be the change of ownership both clubs have experienced since a prohibited third party agreement condemned the visitors to relegation a decade and a half ago, or an attempt by Wilder to soften up the opposition ahead of a hugely significant contest at both ends of the table, the 53-year-old chose to highlight their similarities rather than differences on the eve of this fixture. “Two working class fan bases,” was his assessment. “Two down to earth outlooks.”
Nevertheless, given the explosion in wealth the competition experienced while United were in exile, Wilder might have been tempted to change his stance when the team sheets were published ahead of kick-off. West Ham, who were initially fined £5.5m for breaking the rules, named seven internationals in their starting eleven. Moyes’ employers, facing three veterans of Wilder’s 2017 League One title winning squad, got the better of the deal.
LIMITATIONS LAID BARE
With John Fleck ruled-out through illness, it became apparent why Wilder feels United made a huge mistake when they failed to enter the market. Although Enda Stevens’ return from injury meant he could afford the luxury of naming a full strength bench, with Ben Osborn drafted in to replace the Scot Frankie Maguire was the only recognised midfielder among United’s substitutes. The teenager has impressed at youth level. But, yet to make his senior debut, could hardly be described as an ideal option for such an important fixture.
TWO TELLING INCIDENTS
Stevens is a much more knowledgeable performer but, making his return to action after recovering from a calf problem, the Irishman endured a difficult start here. Careless in possession, his timing in the tackle was also out and it required a VAR review, which revealed Tomas Soucek had strayed offside after Aaron Ramsdale had parried Declan Rice’s free-kick, to prevent him conceding a fifth minute penalty.
Although Craig Dawson went down easily, it was a clumsy challenge. Likewise when, at the other end of the pitch, Diop dangled a leg in front of John Lundstram as he burst into the West Ham box. The United midfielder, who is known to have interested Moyes earlier this term, could easily have taken a tumble. Instead, he elected to leap over Diop’s limb before losing possession. Lundstram’s honesty was admirable. But, Wilder probably reflected from his vantage point on the touchline, a shade naive given the circumstances.
CARELESS PLAY COSTLY
Moyes’ selections, with Jarrod Bowen seemingly leading the line on his own, helped condense the action and limit the number of clear cut openings. One did fall to David McGoldrick midway through the first-half following a lapse in concentration among West Ham’s defence but the United centre-forward lashed his effort high and wide.
Attention to detail is everything, however. Mistakes at the highest level get punished. And so it proved five minutes before the interval when a mistake by Oliver Norwood saw the hosts dart forward on the counter. With the ball at his feet and goal at his mercy, Lingard was preparing to shoot when Chris Basham upended him. United knew there was no chance of this decision being overturned and, after pulling rank on his team mate, Rice duly converted before Diop doubled West Ham’s advantage.
FAR TOO EASY FOR DIOP
Having reminded United about West Ham’s prowess from set-pieces beforehand, little wonder Wilder could be heard howling with frustration when the former Toulouse centre-half scored their second of the evening from an Aaron Cresswell corner. It was a simple finish. Far too simple in fact. Likewise when Fredericks completed the rout during the closing seconds, after Ramsdale had earlier done well to deny Vladimir Coufal.