The battle Sheffield United simply MUST win in order to retain their Premier League status
There have been times this season when it seems as if Sheffield United’s greatest enemy in their battle for Premier League survival isn’t the array of world class talent they face on a weekly basis but themselves.
After producing a series of otherwise satisfactory displays against the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening day of the season, Chris Wilder’s players head to Southampton this weekend still without a win since returning to action in September having developed a knack of committing costly errors at crucial moments of games.
Sunday’s defeat by Leicester City, which saw Jamie Vardy gifted a last minute winner by two terrible misjudgements, was the latest in a catalogue of incidents which have not only left United at the bottom of the table but also, studying their body language and demeanor following the final whistle, shattered the confidence of Wilder’s squad.
For all the good things the team has been doing - and yes, there have been plenty, during what has been a woeful run of results - United have now reached the stage where points, not the ‘positives’ beaten footballers are always encouraged to search for during the aftermath of a defeat, must be the only thing they take from games. But in order to do so, Wilder’s men must first vanquish the psychological demons responsible for turning a team capable of finishing ninth in the table only five months ago into tense, nervous wrecks.
Communication will be key. Particularly during the discussions Wilder and several of United’s senior professionals recently revealed are being arranged as they attempt to address that particular question.
Centre-forward David McGoldrick and captain Billy Sharp have emerged as key figures in these get-togethers, with Oliver Norwood also understood to be among the more vocal members of the dressing room.
United, purposeful and often irresistible before Great Britain first entered lockdown in March, have struggled ever since football returned in June. Yes, competing behind closed doors means matches are now pure tests of ability, which is an advantage for those sides with the biggest and most expensively assembled rosters. But in order to discover why United have been hit so hard - and to ascertain if anything else has contributed to what has been a dramatic downturn in form - meetings must be open forums with strict ‘no prejudice’ rules. Wilder should be free to tell those under his command exactly what he expects of them and, if this hasn’t already happened, extend the same privilege to those struggling on the pitch. It could prove to be an enlightening experience for all concerned.
Remarkably, despite losing 10 of their 11 outings so far this term, United’s situation is retrievable. Only six points separate them from 17th placed Fulham, ahead of their trip to St Mary’s. It is for precisely that reason, although there are also a variety of others, why those questioning whether Wilder and his coaching staff should remain in charge are guilty of making the type of knee jerk reaction which has sunk other clubs. But, clearly, something does have to change.
United no longer ‘press’ as high or with the same intensity as they did immediately after being promoted. The overlapping centre-halves, which became their motif during the first half of last season, have disappeared. But these are common symptoms of a group desperately low on confidence and, it must also be said, there are plenty of things United are doing well.
Until poor decisions from John Fleck and Chris Basham, previously United’s most consistent and reliable performer of late, presented Vardy with the chance to change the course of the game, Wilder’s charges were on course to secure what, in the grand scheme of things, would have been a creditable draw against one of the country’s most upwardly mobile sides. City, who lifted the title in 2016, have invested heavily - both to attract new talent and keep the likes of Vardy, James Maddison and Kasper Schmeichel at the King Power Stadium. Had the contest ended all square, as it should have done although United admittedly benefited from several slices of good fortune before the former England international pounced, United would have been able to take heart and self-belief from several encouraging developments during the game. They still can, although admittedly the damage Vardy’s strike inflicted to their already brittle confidence means that must be repaired first.
Oli McBurnie, whose header cancelled out Ayoze Perez’s opener for the visitors, not only scored for the first time since July but was, by Wilder’s admission, “exceptional” at both ends of the pitch - making a series of vital challenges when City applied pressure on a rearguard weakened by the loss of Jack O’Connell, Ethan Ampadu and Enda Stevens.
Ben Osborn, introduced at the start of the second-half after Max Lowe had been fortunate to escape his second caution of the afternoon, demonstrated he could be a more effective option at wing-back until the summer signing from Derby County acclimatises to life at top-flight level.
United showed bravery and courage too, recovering from the blow of seeing Perez fire home beyond Aaron Ramsdale within the space of 120 seconds. That was not the actions of a group lacking heart and fight. When Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and coach Matt Prestridge run through the footage of the fixture with the players ahead of the trip to St Mary’s, they will not be short of clips to counterbalance the ones of the errors which led to Vardy’s effort.