The BIG issue Sheffield United must address ahead of their visit to West Bromwich Albion, and it isn't who starts up front
At first glance, given that his team will enter their game against West Bromwich Albion searching for its first win of the season after scoring only four goals so far this term, deciding who spearheads Sheffield United’s attack appears to be the most important selection dilemma facing Chris Wilder ahead of this weekend’s visit to The Hawthorns.
But it is matters at the other end of the pitch which are dominating the United manager’s thoughts, as he prepares his squad for a fixture with the power to either kick-start their campaign or condemn those within it to a long and draining battle for Premier League survival.
Earlier this term, when Jack O’Connell finally succumbed to the knee injury which had been plaguing him for much of the past 12 months, Wilder privately acknowledged that replacing the centre-half would pose a huge challenge for both him and his coaching staff. Initially they thought the transfer market would provide a solution but, when deals for both Terence Kongolo and Ben Davies faltered, Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and Matt Prestridge were forced to turn their focus inwards; with first Jack Robinson and then Enda Stevens and Ethan Ampadu tasked with filling the void created by O’Connell’s absence.
The three have enjoyed varying degrees of success. Robinson brings defensive security, but lacks the attacking prowess which made O’Connell such an important cog in a 3-5-2 system which demands two of United’s three centre-halves charge forward on the overlap. A wing-back by trade, Stevens is capable of doing the latter but can be vulnerable in the air while Ampadu, on loan from Chelsea, arguably appears most suited to the role but has yet to learn the choreography, practiced and fine-tuned over the course of a four year period, which made United’s rearguard so effective last season.
“It’s brought a little bit of imbalance, Jack being out,” Wilder admitted earlier this week.
After conceding only 39 goals throughout the entire 2019/20 campaign, United’s defence travels to the Midlands having already been breached 15 times since returning to action in September. Despite finishing ninth last term, Wilder’s men were never prolific and so solving the conundrum O’Connell’s predicament poses is every bit as important as finding ways of improving United’s returns in the final third.
Stevens missed last weekend’s loss to West Ham, their eighth defeat in nine outings, after sustaining a knock on international duty with the Republic of Ireland while Ampadu failed to complete the meeting with David Moyes’ side because of a hip complaint.
“We’ll see how they are and go from there,” Wilder said. “Initially, it was too early to say how long Ethan might need but we’ll know more as time goes on.”
If Ampadu fails to receive the all-clear, Stevens is likely to step into the breach against West Brom providing he is passed fit. But after acknowledging that Max Lowe, acquired from Derby County last summer, is being forced to learn how to become a top-flight wing-back “on the job” rather than the training ground, Wilder could be tempted to restore Stevens to his natural position and name Robinson alongside John Egan and Chris Basham.
“We’ve been looking at everything, I believe in these lads,” he said. “We’ll pick who we believe give us the best chance of winning.”