The drinks are on Chris Wilder as Sander Berge and Sheffield United give Jose Mourinho's Tottenham a lesson
It was supposed to be a question about his choice of post-match tipple: Would Chris Wilder offer Jose Mourinho a Peroni or, in recognition of the Portuguese’s standing, serve Colheita accompanied by pasteis de nata instead?
The answer, delivered with a smile during Tuesday’s pre-match media conference, revealed everything about how Sheffield United planned to approach this game.
“They’ll have to drink what we’ve got,” Wilder replied, only partly in jest. “I’m not going out and buying stuff for anybody.”
Respect, but not deference, was the order of the evening against opponents capable of shoe-horning 11 internationals into their starting eleven and managed by a two-time Champions League winner.
With only a point between them in the table at the beginning of the contest, United certainly had no cause to feel inferior. The Covid-19 pandemic might have stripped them of their momentum. But thanks to some impressive results before competition was suspended, Wilder’s squad entered this match as Premier League equals. They finished it as superiors, climbing above the visitors in the rankings courtesy of strikes from Sander Berge, Lys Mousset and Oli McBurnie. Harry Kane’s 29th of the season proved to be nothing more than a consolation for the Londoners, as United recorded perhaps their most impressive result of the season so far - nevermind ‘Project Restart’.
“It had to be a proper performance, in terms of the circumstances, with the players we are missing and the run we are on,” Wilder said. “I’ve seen signs that we were getting more like ourselves, more aggressive and assertive. When you come up against teams like Spurs, you have to be at your best.”
Mourinho, whose impressive CV includes two Champions League trophies and stints with the likes of Internazionale and Real Madrid, will have appreciated Wilder’s sentiment prior to kick-off inside an empty Bramall Lane.
After all this was the man who, before beginning his first spell in charge of Chelsea 16 years ago, ordered the players to form a circle before their first training session together and asked why - with a world class talent either side of them - the club had not won the title since 1955? Ten months later, it was mission accomplished. One suspects the latest assignment of his career, however, will prove nowhere near as profitable.
“We have to be better,” Mourinho conceded. “Sheffield United deserved it, and so congratulations to them.”
United, successfully averting a third straight league reverse, will begin their preparations for Sunday’s trip to Burnley in seventh. Having conceded more goals in the four-and-a-half hours of football leading up to last night’s game than they did in nearly 17 before lockdown, United should take great heart from the fact they were able to frustrate one of the division’s most fearsome forward lines until the closing stages of the campaign.
The fixture could become a pivotal moment in Berge’s career too. Previously low on confidence as he adapts to the demands of English football, the Norwegian produced his most effective display since completing his January move from Genk.
“Dear me, he’s a young boy who comes to this country with a price tag that might not be a big number by Premier League standards but is big for us,” Wilder said, describing the £22m purchase as “exceptional”.
“He’s come into a foreign country and it’s never going to be as straight-forward as some people expect. But his attitude has been superb all the way through and you saw from the reaction of the boys, when he tucked his goal away, what they think of him. He’s a real part of the group.”
Unbeaten in six when English football was placed into hibernation in March, United have struggled to rediscover both their rhythm and results since returning to action just over a fortnight ago. Last weekend’s FA Cup defeat by Arsenal followed losses to Newcastle and Manchester United, having been held to a goalless draw by Aston Villa on the first day of Project Restart.
Wilder has searched far and wide for answers to his team’s disappointing form of late, consulting fellow coaches, ex-professionals and a sports psychologist. The reason, one suspects, can be found in the stands where 30,000 screaming United’ites would usually be sat. But now, with social distancing measures in sport yet to be relaxed, are populated only by a smattering of substitutes, essential staff and journalists. It means games are being decided by skill and experience alone. Not the combination of ability, passion and attitude which had previously served United so well following last term’s promotion.
Whatever the motivations or the reasons behind it, Wilder’s decision to name a short-handed bench appeared to galvanise his players - with John Egan and Chris Basham both flinging themselves at the ball to prevent Spurs from scoring either side of Berge’s first effort in United colours.
When the visitors did plot a course through United’s rearguard - Kane sweeping a low finish beyond Dean Henderson as he attempted to narrow the angle - this time it was VAR’s time to intervene, with Lucas Moura adjudged to have handled the ball during the build-up. Both Mourinho and Kane, clearly unaware of a recent law change, went apoplectic as they argued the indiscretion was accidental. Wilder, hands thrust deep into his pockets, simply smiled.
“We have to do better and be mentally stronger to cope with what happened during the game,” Mourinho said. “We can not mentally die after the VAR decision. It was tough to take, you celebrate the goal and you feel the goal. It is a kick in the teeth. But there was 50 minutes to go and so we have to be stronger.”
“The man on the pitch now is just the assistant referee,” Mourinho added. “The assistants are now the assistants of the assistants. I think the referee should always be the man on the pitch and the people in the office should just support.”
When Mousset doubled United’s advantage soon after being introduced - Ben Osborn, impressing on a rare start, helping to create the opening following delightful interchange with Enda Stevens - Spurs’ appetite, which had already been on the wane, disappeared altogether. McBurnie took full advantage, converting Berge’s cross soon after coming on, before Kane denied United the clean sheet Wilder felt they deserved.
“I would have loved to have kept one but there were some brilliant combinations there,” Wilder said. “So I’m not going to complain about that.”