Sheffield United: Blades defenders-turned-wingers thriving under Chris Wilder’s Lane ways

Jack O'Connell of Sheffield Utd gets goal side of Modou Barrow of Reading: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Jack O'Connell of Sheffield Utd gets goal side of Modou Barrow of Reading: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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It was lost amongst the noise and euphoria of a surprisingly-comfortable 3-0 Boxing Day win, but Sheffield United’s third goal against Sunderland - or, more specifically, the build-up to it - posed an interesting question.

When was the last time a centre-half took up a position close to the left corner flag, producing a peach of a cross for the right-back to climb highest and head home?

Not one that this correspondent can immediately answer, but what is almost as remarkable as the combination between Jack O’Connell and George Baldock against sorry Sunderland is the fact that, under Chris Wilder, it is no fluke and certainly no rarity.

Wilder has, certainly as far as many observers have seen, pioneered the use of overlapping centre-backs. O’Connell and his teammate at right centre-half, be it Cameron Carter-Vickers or Chris Basham, are defenders in name only and are encouraged - and often more, by Wilder and his staff - to bomb forward whenever they can.

Consistently, too; a recent pitch-map of United’s average positions during a game showed that of O’Connell - a defender - over the halfway line. It is testament not just to the players’ own fitness, stamina and ability on the ball, but also their tactical nous and courage and conviction of the coaching staff to persevere.

That’s easier, of course, when you’re winning games and despite a recent barren run, United are certainly doing that - even the centre of United’s defensive three, Richard Stearman, got in on the scoring act against Sunderland.

It’s a system that Kevin Gage, the former United defender and Star columnist, is familiar with, if the execution is markedly different. During his time at Aston Villa, they finished runners-up to Liverpool in the 1989-90 season and used 6ft 4in Kent Neilson, another former Blade Paul McGrath and Derek Mountfield as their three, rarely venturing out of their own third.

“But in 37 years of being in and around professional football, I have genuinely never seen the regular use of over-lapping centre-backs as a deliberate attacking ploy and one that works so damned effectively,” Gage said.

“Either by accident or design, United have developed a new style of play and my word, it works very very well. Long may it continue!”

United’s style could hardly be more different than that of Bolton, their next opponents at Bramall Lane this weekend as they go in search of a victory that would set a new club record for the number of points in a calendar year.

Wilder’s options for the game are boosted by the return of John Fleck from suspension, after his red card against Bristol City earlier this month, meaning a selection conundrum for the Blades boss, who must conceivably choose between Fleck, Basham and Cameron Carter-Vickers to fill two places in the side.

Clayton Donaldson, at 33 years of age and returning after injury, played two games in the space of three days over Christmas and will be assessed before the visit of Bolton, with skipper Billy Sharp in line for a recall.

“We’ve got two more games in quick succession,” said Wilder, whose side travel to Derby on New Year’s Day, “and so I’ve got to pick the right team. Clayton was outstanding again against Sunderland after his two goals at Villa, and we’ll have a look at everyone and see how they’re feeling. We play on the front foot with a high-energy game so if we have to freshen it up and change it around for the next two games, then we’ll do that.”