Chris Wilder gives his verdict on Sheffield United's final pre-season friendly ahead of the new Premier League season

Supposedly, it was all about the result - Chris Wilder warning his players that wins, and only wins, breed confidence beforehand.

Friday, 4th September 2020, 4:56 pm
Updated Friday, 4th September 2020, 4:56 pm

Except, actually, it wasn’t. With only 10 days to go until Sheffield United’s return to Premier League action, their manager also spent the final game of what has been a challenging preseason programme obsessing about things like shape, tactical discipline and physical conditioning. Three qualities which, as United prepare to do battle with some of the most powerful names in world football, will go a long way towards deciding if the campaign proves to be a success.

Preston North End, fresh from challenging for a place in the Championship play-offs, were purposefully chosen to test United’s strategic thinking and ability to plot their way through a match.

Alex Neil’s men were neat, tidy and organised whenever they weren’t in possession but ambitious when they were, which made for an entertaining afternoon at Bramall Lane.

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“It was competitive, as we knew it would be, that’s why we wanted them,” Wilder, who spent much of it watching from high up in the main stand, said after watching Jayden Stockley equalise with the last kick of the game. “We just sat back at the end which was disappointing."

That included the sight of John Lundstram opening the scoring before Billy Sharp restored United’s lead following Daniel Johnson’s penalty.

“I don’t like not winning,” Wilder said. “I wanted to do that but there was still plenty that pleased me.”

In a sense, although this was the last time United will appear in public ahead of September 14th’s meeting with Wolverhampton Wanderers, the serious business starts now. Wilder will spend the weekend poring over footage of the fixture, identifying areas of his squad’s performance which need to be improved. The information he gleans will shape next week’s schedule at the Steelphalt Academy, where United are expected to begin fine-tuning their masterplan for the visit of Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. Expect much of their work to focus on ensuring possession translates into chances after they created enough to have triumphed by a greater margin. Ben Osborn, again hugely impressive in United’s midfield, glanced wide during the early skirmishes while Lys Mousset missed another opening before departing through injury.

Chris Wilder manager of Sheffield Utd (C) watches the match from the stands: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

With so many of his team away on international duty, what should have been a dress rehearsal for Wolves’ visit effectively became an audition for those on the periphery of Wilder’s first choice eleven instead. And so, given the transfer window does not close until the beginning of next month, it also served to highlight where reinforcements are required. Attack is obviously one of those, with Wilder acknowledging United must up their returns in the opposition’s final third to give themselves the best possible chance of building upon the progress they made last term. That ninth placed finish, only a year after being promoted, can largely be attributed to a miserly rearguard with United finding the back of the net on 39 occasions - two fewer than Aston Villa, who only escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth. Wilder’s defence and midfield, however, also need bolstering too amid concerns those at his disposal will become more susceptible to injury given the condensed nature of the new fixture calendar. ‘Project Restart’, when English football eventually emerged from the shadow of coronavirus last season, exposed United’s shortage of experienced professionals - a shortage which has become even more acute following the departure of Luke Freeman on loan and Lundstram’s continued refusal to sign a contract extension. The finish from the Liverpudlian, which saw United break the deadlock 10 minutes from the interval, was calm, clinical and perfectly placed. Little wonder Wilder, despite being frustrated by his intransigence, remains determined to retain Lundstram’s services.

“He put it all in,” Wilder acknowledged.

With Aaron Ramsdale, John Egan, Sander Berge and Enda Stevens among those unavailable for selection, United’s starting line-up against Preston bore little resemblance to the one expected to begin the clash with Wolves.

Entering the match on the back of wins over Hearts and Derby County - United were also beating Dundee United when their friendly at Tannadice was abandoned at half-time - Kean Bryan started while Lundstram returned, alongside Jack Robinson and Osborn. The most notable aspect of Wilder’s selection, however, was the sight of Oli McBurnie beginning the contest. After withdrawing from the Scotland squad due to injury, the centre-forward completed 45 minutes before being replaced by Mousset. The Frenchman should have made an immediate impact after fellow substitute Regan Slater intercepted a pass and fed Billy Sharp, but he dragged the ball wide of the upright. It turned out to be a costly miss when Preston were awarded a 53rd minute penalty. Jack Robinson appeared to win the ball cleanly from Tom Barkhuizen but referee John Moss awarded a spot-kick which Johnson duly converted. Four minutes later, United received one of their own following Ben Pearson handball. Sharp stepped up, sent Matthew Hudson the wrong way, and the hosts’ lead was restored.

John Lundstram was on target against Preston North End: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Preston, who had earlier seen Scott Sinclair and Barkuizen hit the woodwork in quick succession following a Chris Basham slip, saw substitute Jayden Stockley spurn an opportunity to level during the closing stages before turning home with the last kick.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Baldock, Basham, Lundstram, McBurnie (Mousset 46), (Hackford 72), Sharp, Jagielka, Norwood, J Robinson, Osborn, Bryan. Not used: Verrips, Gordon, Graham, Brunt, Broadbent.

Referee: Jon Moss (County Durham).

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John Lundstram celebrates his opener during the 2-2 draw with Preston North End: Andrew Yates/Sportimage