Despite some fierce and often unfair criticism Aaron Ramsdale isn't to blame for Sheffield United's woes
It revealed all there is to know, not only about the scrutiny he is under but also the motivations of some social media users, that Aaron Ramsdale was even held responsible for conceding the early frontrunner in the race for goal of the season.
Tanguy Ndombele’s finish, which sealed Tottenham Hotspur’s victory over Sheffield United on Sunday, stretched the laws of physics, geometry and what we previously thought was possible when it comes to manipulating a football.
But rather than paying homage to a piece of skill so outrageous even the late Diego Maradona would have been proud to call it his own, many professional commentators and armchair pundits instead turned their guns on Ramsdale. Bizarrely, according to one theory doing the rounds, Ndombele only found the back of the net because the youngster was “too far” off his line.
It is inevitable, as folk attempt to try and identify the reasons behind United’s alarming slump in form, that those members of the squad who joined over the summer are viewed as accountable. After all, 11 points adrift of safety and having won only twice all season, it surely stands to reason the players who arrived must be a downgrade on those who came agonisingly close to qualifying for Europe last term?
It is not a premise which sits comfortable with Wilder. Or senior members of his coaching staff. Indeed, as the 53-year-old began preparing for this weekend’s FA Cup tie against Plymouth Argyle, he chose to mount a passionate defence of Ramsdale and Rhian Brewster; the young centre-forward United recently signed from reigning champions Liverpool.
“These young boys, look at their backgrounds,” Wilder said, noting the on-loan Ethan Ampadu has also been blamed for United’s demise too. “One is an England under-21 international goalkeeper. Another is the England under-21 striker, who was also being coveted by many big names. Ethan, he’s a Wales international who has come from Chelsea and spent time with RB Leipzig. I don’t think we’ve signed mug players and I don’t suppose either their parent club or their national teams think they’re working with them either. I get there’s always an instant opinion made on people these days but these boys, as far as I and others can see, are going to be really good players.”
United’s loss to Spurs was the 16th time they have been beaten in 19 top-flight outings; a debilitating sequence of results which saw them reach the halfway stage of the campaign already staring relegation in the face. Ramsdale, a former Steelphalt Academy graduate bought back from AFC Bournemouth to replace the out-going Dean Henderson, has conceded 32 times during that miserable run. Yet, rather than being the source, some admittedly shaky performances of late are probably a symptom of United’s problems elsewhere on the pitch. They include a lack of firepower, which means every mistake is magnified, a midfield which struggles to impose its authority on opponents and a rearguard offered little protection by those in front of them. Ramsdale concedes more goals per game (1.75) than Henderson (0.9) did during his final 11 months in South Yorkshire. But he also faces significantly more shots (4.66/3.44) and is being required to make more saves (3.6/2.4) than his predecessor. Intriguingly, the number of times Henderson was beaten rose dramatically following the first national lockdown when, a few notable occasions apart, the cracks first began to appear in United’s armoury. As United’s confidence has drained away, so these have widened. Ramsdale’s own reserves are running low. But so are those his colleagues can draw upon too.
“It was always going to be a test for young players,” Wilder acknowledged, reminding how United’s financial position prohibits them from signing proven elite level talent. “It’s difficult enough for lads with 300 appearances under their belts, let alone ones at the beginning of their careers.”
Having started only six games since his record breaking move from Anfield, Brewster has been spared some of the more strident criticism Ramsdale has faced over the course of the past four months. Indeed, the goalkeeper now finds himself in the unenviable position of listening to folk claim Michael Verrips, whose experience in England consists of a 41 minute cameo against AFC Fylde one year ago, is clearly a better option between the posts. Verrips might well turn out to be a mighty fine goalkeeper but, with such a scant body of work to draw upon, it is impossible to judge. Clearly, with Wes Foderingham also being drafted in to provide cover and competition during the brief August recess, Wilder and his advisors feel the Dutchman isn’t ready to become a top-flight number one just yet.
Until either he or Foderingham is, and given how their third round victory over Bristol Rovers translated into a much more assertive and ultimately profitable display against Newcastle 72 hours later, it makes little sense to rest Ramsdale for Saturday’s visit of Argyle. Better, surely, to view the fixture as another opportunity to replenish the self-belief of those expected to face Manchester United next week?
Although Ramsdale’s errors should not be glossed over or excused, others are arguably more culpable for the position United now find themselves in right now. Nor would changing the goalkeeper cure the lack of thrust, authority and consistency being demonstrated by those in central positions. With injuries mounting up, Wilder has little room for manoeuvre when it comes to team selection. But sacrificing Ramsdale, effectively saying he is to blame for United’s woes, would be a cosmetic gesture designed to satisfy those critics more interested in chasing internet ‘likes’ and page views than addressing the real issues facing Wilder and his side right now. Unless, of course, the decision had already been taken before Spurs travelled north to utilise Foderingham or Verrips in the fourth round clash with Ryan Lowe’s men.
“I was delighted when we got that clean sheet (against Newcastle),” Wilder said. “Because Aaron deserved it.”