Chris Wilder was smiling when he posed the question to one of the Premier League’s media rights holders before his pre-match Zoom conference. But behind the grin, Sheffield United’s manager wanted to make a very important point. Neither his side nor the city it proudly calls home, had any intention of being cast in the supporting role when the latest episode of this compelling sporting, political and sociological drama was played out.
Unfortunately, United’s profligacy in attack once again cost them dear, with Patrick Bamford’s header two minutes from time proving enough to settle a match which had seen both Aaron Ramsdale and Illan Meslier make a series of impressive saves. Marcelo Bielsa acknowledged Leeds had been tested afterwards, praising United’s intensity and discipline. But the Argentine’s words will provide precious little comfort for Wilder, whose men remain without a point or a goal following their opening three outings of the season. The case for United to sign a new centre-forward is now absolutely irrefutable.
“I thought it was a really tight game, as you’d expect,” Wilder said. “Their opportunities, although they had good movement and build up, came from long range to begin with. I thought we had the better chances to begin with but, if you don’t take them in tight games, then you end up disappointed.”
THE WIDER CONTEXT
In a sense, although Wilder had downplayed the notion ahead of kick-off, the 81st meeting between these two teams was more than a football match. It was a part of a power struggle, the battle to become the standard bearer for Yorkshire, between two metropolises separated by less than 40 miles of motorway but with distinct characteristics and personalities.
Sheffield, once the beating heart of the industrial revolution with its steel foundries and birthplace of the modern game, versus its bolder, brasher neighbour which, after the decline of the wool trade, has chosen to reinvent itself as the financial and commercial hub of northern England.
“I don’t think there’s any Sheffield Wednesday fans going to be cheering us on,” Wilder had noted earlier in the week. “That’s not how it works here. They won’t be dancing around if David McGoldrick pops up and scores a last minute winner.”
Born and bred within its confines, having both supported and played for the club he now leads, the 53-year-old understands the psyche of the region as well as anyone. But not even Wilder could escape the fact that events during the build-up to what proved an intriguing contest reflected the broader tussle for supremacy in the county. Leeds, despite only being promoted last term after being pipped by United 15 months earlier, arrived on the back of an £80m spending spree which has seen two Spain internationals - Rodrigo and Diego Llorente - pitch up at Elland Road.
Although United have also invested - and heavily by their own standards - the sums placed at Bielsa’s disposal far outstrip those made available to Wilder this summer, with a move for Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster becoming bogged down by haggling over the size of the youngster’s fee. United’s attempt to establish themselves at the highest level is being driven by innovative thinking and creative manoeuvres in the transfer market. Leeds, underpinned by the wisdom of their Argentine coach, are relying on big, well-known brands.
“They are an exceptional side and they’re well coached,”Wilder said, acknowledging that “time is running out” in the battle to secure Brewster’s services. “But I thought we should have taken something from that, definitely. If Leeds had had our chances, and we had some really good ones, who knows?”
MORE DISRUPTION FOR THE HOSTS
Once the pleasantries were over - Wilder describing Bielsa as a world great and Bielsa revealing he can learn plenty from Wilder’s own methods - two squads who had swapped digs and barbs towards the end of the 2018/19 Championship season got down to business.
United, whose staff could be seen chatting amicably with visiting captain Liam Cooper ahead of kick-off, were forced to make three enforced changes with Ethan Ampadu replacing the suspended John Egan and Ben Osborn stepping in after John Fleck sustained a knock which meant he would be unable to complete 90 minutes. Perhaps the most disappointing omission however, given his importance to United’s system, came on the left hand side of defence where Jack O’Connell missed out due to a knee complaint which has required surgery.
“We were able to get him back but, long-term, he couldn’t carry on because of the discomfort,” Wilder said. “It wouldn’t have been fair or right for Jack to carry on like that.”
UNITED FOUND THEIR RHYTHM BUT NOT A GOAL
Predictably, given the disruption United had experienced, Leeds carved the first real chance of the game when Luke Ayling, edged into the space between Osborn and Robinson and drew a save from Aaron Ramsdale. At the other end of the pitch, United engineered several promising positions but struggled to execute the final pass until discovering their rhythm midway through the opening period.
Burke was at the heart of all United’s best moves, carrying the ball with power, pace and poise. Illan Meslier excelled himself by denying John Lundstram from close range, before George Baldock also saw an attempt parried away by the Frenchman. At the other end of the pitch, Aaron Ramsdale was also in exceptional form, thwarting Stuart Dallas and Helder Costa either side of the interval having been sent scrambling across his line by two headers from Bamford - searching out the space between United’s centre-halves before getting his reward during the closing stages.
“I disagreed with Marcelo’s take on things, that they deserved to win the game,” Wilder said. “I thought, like I say, that we created the better openings. In the end, Leeds found that bit of quality and we didn’t.”
MUCH TO ADMIRE BUT NOT CUTTING EDGE
The intensity of the pressing from both teams was simply exceptional. But there was plenty of invention on display too, with Burke and McGoldrick showing signs of developing a potential fruitful partnership and Jack Harrison constantly teasing for Leeds before delivering the centre for Bamford’s third of the campaign. Leeds were indebted to Meslier on several occasions, while Ramsdale smothered another effort from Bamford as the action became stretched - Wilder and Bielsa moving their players around like pieces on a chessboard as they barked orders from the technical area. But, try as they might, United were unable to engineer a breakthrough before Leeds made them pay.