Kevin Gage's Blades Column: It's simple - Sheffield United have to cut out the defensive errors to get promoted

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As wake-up calls go, I think it’s fair to say the defeat to Fleetwood on Tuesday night wasn’t just a normal alarm clock beeping at 7.30am

The call we got from Fleetwood was more akin to someone playing a trumpet, in your ear, at 3am, right in the middle of a promotion dream. It was a very rude awakening indeed and although I’d publicly stated to the guests in the TC10 lounge before the game that I was a bit apprehensive about the game, I really didn’t expect to see what unfolded. It wasn’t good. Not good at all.

I’m not here to do match reports so I won’t go over ground that been already covered by listing the obvious defensive mistakes in the past two (three actually) games, but these simply have to stop. Chris Wilder and Alan Knill, two defenders by trade, will know this and you can bet they will address it immediately, as to continue to ship sloppy goals is the one sure way to fritter away vital points and will also erode confidence not only on the pitch, but also off it in the stands.

After previous seasons of disappointment, we’re a nervous bunch down at the Lane and it really doesn’t take much to get us biting our fingernails again!

However, what I find totally amazing is how we can see two performances in two separate games only four days apart of such contrasts. Let’s rewind to Saturday at 3.45pm. As the half-time whistle blew, I had just witnessed possibly the best 45 minutes of football I had seen from a Blades side in my memory. We were quite simply superb, as we manoeuvred the ball quickly around the pitch, cutting Gillingham to ribbons with our passing, our movement and our technique. Some of our play was quite breath-taking.

We scored a brilliantly worked goal but could, and really should have had at least two more. No worries then as we started the second half, expecting to push on, hopefully score again and control the game. Except football has a nasty habit of kicking you in the you-know-wheres, and Gillingham duly obliged. Cue the defensive errors, two sloppy goals, and despite our numerous chances we could only scramble a point. So frustration tinged with disappointment but no cause for any panic buttons to be pushed yet... we didn’t have to wait long for that to happen, though.

In my opinion, and with the huge benefit of hindsight, I think this button was pressed at half-time on Tuesday night. Our success this season has been with the 3-5-2 formation, the midfield possession/dominance, the wing-backs marauding into the spaces out wide and the huge number of chances subsequently created. Fleetwood, admittedly, were in form, organized, strong, and quick on the break. They scored and could have had another.

We weren’t firing on all of our cylinders, and it wasn’t a vintage first-half display, but I’ve seen a lot worse. We still had loads of the ball, got into good crossing areas, but lacked our usual spark and any real quality in our attacking play. My question is this then: Was there any need to change the system to four at the back at half-time? Did the Fleetwood breakaways spook us somewhat? In the first half Basham was doing his usual accomplished job bringing the ball out from defence on the right hand side and joining in the play.

With O’Connell doing similar on the left, our play up to the final third was OK. It was simply in and around the penalty area we were found wanting. In my opinion the change of system left us with less options and less space to go forward. Freeman tried to push too far forward too quickly, again reducing space to run into. Ditto Lafferty. Freeman is at his best storming into the gaps, not filling them up. Duffy, usually our most creative player, looked a bit lost out on the left, and Scougall just never got in the game.

It just looked very disjointed and like the players hadn’t played this set-up ever before. The fact that we resorted to lumping it up to EEL as a temporary target man for the last 15 minutes said it all really. He was probably quite relieved to be up there to be honest.

The team now have a free week and valuable time to take stock, reflect and maybe learn from the past few games. Despite the results, it wasn’t all terrible, and last time I looked we are still top of the league. We’ve also signed some very good players, and rather than throwing the new boys in at the deep end, they now have 10 days to find their feet in the squad.

They will, and we’ll be a better stronger team for it. We’ll need to be, as it’s AFC Wimbledon up next, and they’ll fancy their chances. But we’re a good side, with good players and a good manager. I still fancy our chances more. UTB

Kevin Gage owns The Manor House: bar/hotel/cafe, High St, Dronfield, S18. @ManorHouse_S18. Follow him on twitter: @gageykev