Ben Osborn gives Sheffield United a problem - and hope
It wasn’t what Ben Osborn did on his first Sheffield United start since the end of January that really caught the eye. It was what he didn’t.
Ostensibly signed as a midfielder but deployed in an unfamiliar wing-back role, it was no surprise to see him attack with conviction and alacrity. But, when Reading’s front line attempted to expose any lack of understanding, the 25-year-old never got caught out of position. Deputising for the injured Enda Stevens, who was nursing a calf problem, Osborn should be more than satisfied with his night’s work.
With the Republic of Ireland international scheduled to return against Norwich City, Osborn’s reward for helping United reach the FA Cup quarter-finals could be a place on the bench. However his performance at the Madejski Stadium bodes well for United’s future in the short, the medium and also the long-term.
Immediately after Tuesday’s victory, it was both noticeable and revealing that Wilder used large parts of his post-match media conference to preview Saturday’s Premier League fixture at Bramall Lane rather than reflect upon what had happened less than an hour earlier. The United manager’s answers to the assembled audiences’ questions were peppered with nearly as many references to Daniel Farke’s men as comments about the “inspired” performances of Mark Bowen’s side.
“The next game,” Wilder stated for the umpteenth time this season, “Is always the most important. And we’ve got a really important game, a really tough game, coming up.”
But events in Berkshire provided some clues as to how United, eighth in the table with 11 matches remaining, could fare against opponents who were also promoted last season and also beyond. Because not only do they reflect well on Osborn and to a lesser extent Luke Freeman, who was also making a rare appearance in Wilder’s first choice eleven since moving to South Yorkshire over the summer, but also the speed with which Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and coach Matt Prestridge are able to integrate new signings into a system many top-flight commentators warned would be a recipe for chaos without pausing to consider how it has been honed and choreographed over thousands of hours on the training pitches of the Steelphalt Academy. With five new faces arriving at the club during the recent transfer window, one of whom has yet to make his United debut, that could prove the difference between qualifying for Europe and, in the PL at least, falling agonisingly short.
“It’s been difficult because we’ve kept a very settled side,” Wilder said. “Oz, I thought, was brilliant in a position he’s not really used to and the same goes for Luke. He’s having to do things a little differently.”
“I’ve mentioned it in the past, about the lack of proper reserve team football,” he added. “I’m all for a proper reserve league where we can put senior players out there and then it’s up to the youngsters, rather than limiting the number of the older lads who can take part, to show they are good enough to get in.”
With the authorities placing restrictions on the number of established professionals who can be named on a Professional Development League team sheet, Wilder has been forced to employ a variety of different methods to ensure those who have remained on the periphery of his starting line-up since joining United quickly grasp the complexities of a strategy which revolves around the use of attacking wing-backs and overlapping centre-halves. Although it places huge physical demands on the likes of Stevens, George Baldock, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, Wilder’s approach also asks plenty in a mental sense too. One false step, one lapse in concentration against elite level talent, could bring the whole beautiful edifice crashing down.
The contributions of Osborne and Freeman - who have featured only sparingly following their moves to United from Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers respectively - demonstrated the effectiveness of the tactics Wilder utilises to guarantee, as much as humanly possible, that everyone at his disposal knows exactly when to run, when to stay and where to position themselves if they are thrust into action.
These gave him the confidence to hand Panos Retsos his first taste of English football during the closing stages of United extra-time victory over Reading. The Greece international joined on loan from Bayer Leverkusen earlier this year and his assured display, at such a crucial stage of the contest, was also testament to the skills of Wilder’s coaching department.
With the race for Champions League and Europa League qualification delicately poised, the performances of Osborn, Retsos, Freeman and Jack Robinson, who was also introduced during the closing stages of the fifth-round tie, bodes well for United’s prospects for the remainder of the campaign. If they or Richairo Zivkovic, without a match since arriving from Changchun Yatai on deadline day, are called upon between now and May, Wilder can still approach matches with confidence.
“These are all good players,” he said. “And to be a good player, at this level, you also need to be an intelligent player.
“We do a lot of video analysis work and other stuff, which breaks down what they do, and they’ve taken it on board.”