Breaking down Sheffield United's defeat to Man Utd: Blades are in a hole - but could a bit of perspective be helpful?
Sheffield United slipped further off the pace in the race for Europe with a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United last night.
The loss was United's second in a row, and meant that Chris Wilder's side have picked up one point from nine available since the Premier League restarted. But are things as bad as they seem? Our man Danny Hall offers his view...
Hurry back, Jack
That might sound like an obvious statement given he has played every minute of Premier League action before missing the Villa game, and is a defensive colossus. But it's also offensively that United miss their giant centre-half Jack O’Connell. That triumvirate down the left of O'Connell, Enda Stevens and John Fleck usually dominate games, but United seem to have noticeably switched their attacking attentions to the right flank and Stevens, usually one of United's most reliable performers, has looked out of sorts in the last three games without O'Connell alongside him.
There is a large section of Sheffield United fans who have never been the most reasoned bunch, as most football fans aren't, but the amount of toys chucked out of the pram after last night's result was quite something even by those standards. For context, United went to the home of the 20-times Premier League champions without two of their settled back three and their No.1 goalkeeper, and were left chasing the game from the seventh minute in 30-degree heat. One supporter on a forum said that he has never seen such lethargy from United and such a lack of drive and passion as he saw at Old Trafford. Four years ago, under Nigel Adkins, an incredibly lethargic and drive-devoid United were 11th in League One and the only fans who could be bothered to stay behind after the last game of the season, did so to boo and heckle the players. Fifty months later, United are eighth in the Premier League.
That's not making excuses
No-one, least of all me, is saying 'United are lucky to be here, let's just let other teams pat our heads and take what we're given'. The attitude of never settling comes from the manager, so it is natural that some of that should transfer to the fan base. But when it gets to the point that players are being openly slated on social media and some fans are even questioning the manager (which you'd hope was a joke, but doesn't seem to be), surely it is the time to sit back and take stock of what has happened.
What has happened?
Well, United are eighth top in what is widely seen as the best league in the world. Their budget was only higher than Norwich City's, while a number of players who were with United in League One have shown they can cope admirably with the Premier League. After being robbed of three points by dodgy technology at Aston Villa and then having a man sent off at Newcastle and capitulating badly, United were outclassed by a masterclass from £67m Bruno Fernandes and £58m Anthony Martial at Manchester United, who also welcomed back £89m midfielder and were captained by £80m Harry Maguire. A team, by the way, that United could have gone above in the table if they had won last night.
So there are no problems?
There absolutely are, and this is not an attempt to pretend otherwise. United are in a hole and with such a quick turnaround before Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal (oh yes, United are also one game away from Wembley!) there is little time for Chris Wilder and Co. to work on anything on the training ground. So it's a case of working with what he has. Maybe returning to the familiar surroundings of Bramall Lane will help United look more like their true selves on Sunday?
Why has this happened?
A combination of factors, for me. Injury to O'Connell has not helped, as discussed earlier, and missing Egan was a big blow as well for a game and a third in two 3-0 defeats. But there is no doubt that the coronavirus suspension has damaged United. They were never the best side in the Football League at picking up momentum - last season, in the four games immediately after an international break, United lost three and drew the other - but there is little flow to United's game at the minute and it seems like too many players are scratching around for some kind of form at the same time.
No excuses from Wilder either
He was offered the opportunity to make a few in his post-match Zoom press conference by one reporter, but declined. Yes, he acknowledged, United were robbed by the technology at Villa and felt hard done to by Egan's first yellow card of his two at Newcastle. But the message inside the club is not one of 'poor us'. It's instead along the lines of 'be better'.