Ethan Ampadu's form highlights the biggest issue facing Sheffield United right now
Paul Tisdale likes to tell a story about the time, during the autumn of his reign at Exeter City, when he stumbled across teenage footballer so full of potential it seemed strange, ridiculous even, that no one else had spotted just how good this kid was.
“He could read the game, make decisions in an instant and looked just like a professional,” Tisdale remembers. “Even though I discovered he’d only just turned 14. He was the best I’d ever seen at that age. Easily the best. He didn’t do anything flash or sexy. But what he did, he always did right.”
The player’s name, Tisdale discovered after quizzing those responsible for overseeing the League Two club’s youth team, was Ethan Ampadu. Immediately fast-tracked through the system, he made his senior debut aged 15 before being signed by Chelsea. Tisdale’s hunch, it seemed, was correct.
Tomorrow, when Sheffield United meet Bristol Rovers in a tricky FA Cup third round tie, Ampadu will again come face to face with the man who plucked him from obscurity. Tisdale, appointed by the League One club in November, is proud of his protege’s achievements since leaving St James Park four years ago. But the former Southampton, Yeovil Town and Panionios midfielder believes Ampadu’s chequered fortunes in west London and South Yorkshire, after joining United on loan at the beginning of the campaign, suggest he remains one of the most misunderstood players in the English game.
Like Chris Wilder’s squad as a whole, which will arrive in the south-west at the bottom of the Premier League table and searching for its first win of the campaign, Ampadu has struggled to live-up to the expectations surrounding him in pre-season. In part, that can be attributed to the inevitable decline in confidence caused by a miserable sequence of results, with United losing 15 and drawing three of their last 18 matches in all competitions. But the Wales international, whose CV also includes a spell with RB Leipzig, is yet to truly grasp the complexities of Wilder’s 3-5-2 system - despite being tried in a number of different roles across the defence and midfield.
Listening to Tisdale recall why England rejected the chance to bring him under the Three Lions banner before the FAW stepped into the breach could provide some clues about how to get the best out of Ampadu’s talents. The issue might not be the player himself but rather how he is being forced to play.
“I did phone England when Ethan was 14,” Tisdale told journalists soon after Ampadu’s move to Stamford Bridge. “I told them I’ve just seen this chap play for our under-18’s, on a dreadful pitch in awful conditions and he’s played centre-forward, sweeper and in central midfield all in one game. I was told they had better, I was told they had 12 players better, they were aware of Ethan. I told them this chap thinks correctly, acts correctly and makes good decisions. I was told he takes too few touches - they wanted players who took more touches - but that’s actually Ethan’s strength. He does things in one or two touches, because he sees things early.”
Now positioned just in front of their rearguard, which Tisdale and others believe is where he can best utilise his skills, Ampadu’s indifferent form provides yet more evidence to support the theory that United’s troubles since September’s return to action can be attributed, not to a profligate attack or faltering defence, but a midfield which has struggled to impose its authority - either physically or technically - on top-flight opposition. John Fleck and Oliver Norwood, who both bristled with tenacity as United finished ninth in the division last term, have looked shadows of their former selves in recent months. Sander Berge, even before a severed hamstring ruled him out of action, showed flashes of the prowess which persuaded United to pay £22m for his services. But, for the most part, the Norwegian also failed to dominate a single fixture. Spending so long on the back foot means, when Ampadu assesses his options a split second or so before receiving possession, there are few promising ones available. Clearly, the 20-year-old must shoulder some responsibility for this. But there is a school of thought that United’s lack of movement in this key area, something Wilder himself has touched upon in recent weeks, is also suffocating his talent. It is a problem United will hope to address against a Rovers side which, despite beginning to find its feet following Tisdale’s arrival, is still languishing in the lower reaches of the third tier.
“I know in the past we’ve had to prioritise promotion or consolidating in the Premier League,” Wilder said earlier today, reflecting upon United’s progress under his stewardship. “But one thing I’m not looking for is a performance that isn’t committed. If I am being honest about it, I have to weigh that up with the psychological situation we are in, with the lack of a win. If we get one, hopefully we can get another one.”
In normal circumstances, Ampadu, Fleck and Norwood could expect to be rested at the Memorial Stadium, as United prioritised Tuesday’s home game against Newcastle over piecing together a run in the tournament. But with his men 12 points adrift of safety, Wilder is considering fielding a full-strength side to try and deliver what would, regardless of Rovers’ lower league status, be a morale boosting victory.
Tisdale, however, hopes his players can take advantage of the visitors’ brittle confidence following losses over the festive period to Everton, Burnley and Crystal Palace.
“They’re a very technical side,” Wilder said. “I should imagine a lot of people will expect an upset. I’ve told the players, Rovers will view this as a great draw and they’ll be rubbing their hands together. We have to show we are a Premier League club with Premier League players.”