FOUR points and the big issue to emerge from Sheffield United's defeat by Crystal Palace
Restoring some pride rather than preserving their Premier League status might be Sheffield United’s most realistic ambition right now, after starting the New Year with yet another defeat and finishing the weekend in even deeper trouble at the bottom of the table.
But as he reflects upon the latest dispiriting chapter in the story of his side’s battle to overcome both their own personal demons and the footballing odds, Chris Wilder will take some comfort from the fact this visit to Crystal Palace served a very important purpose.
Although the sight of Antwoine Hackford becoming the youngest player to represent the club in the competition provided him with an opportunity to briefly change the narrative surrounding what is threatening to become a record breaking season for all the wrong reasons, the sight of the teenager sat on a shorthanded bench revealed why, despite warnings they would simply be throwing good money after bad, United’s board must fulfil Wilder’s request for reinforcements to be drafted-in during this month’s transfer window.
“Having so many out would hurt us at any level,”Wilder said afterwards, confirming nine members of his squad had been unable to make the trip because of injury, illness or suspension. “Even four years ago, when we were still in League One, that would have been the case - let alone right now in a division like this.
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Of course bringing in better players would make a difference. If we get people here, and ones who are better than what we’ve got, everyone would benefit. We’re trying. We’re working, and it’s always difficult. But it would definitely help us, yes,”
LACK OF DEPTH EXPOSED
Strikes from Jeffrey Schlupp and his replacement Eberechi Eze, who had attracted United’s interest as they attempted to build on last term’s ninth placed finish, settled Saturday’s contest and, with Brighton and Hove Albion later snatching a draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers, left Wilder’s men 12 points adrift of safety with 21 matches remaining. But the team sheets published an hour before kick-off made even more worrying reading than the table itself.
Roy Hodgson, the Palace manager, was able to name a full complement of replacements boasting a combined total of 195 international caps. Wilder fell three short of the nine he is permitted, with his game-changing options including untried and untested goalkeeper Michael Verrips, former Oldham Athletic loanee Kean Bryan and of course the 16-year-old Hackford; summoned from the ranks of the Steelphalt Academy when Oliver Burke and Jack Robinson joined United’s casualty list. It meant the first goal was going to be even more crucial than usual.
It was scored by Palace, hardly a heavyweight name themselves, after only four minutes when Schlupp’s deflected shot spiralled past Aaron Ramsdale. From that moment on United, now the first top-flight side which has failed to win any of its opening 17 outings since Bolton Wanderers in 1902/03, were in trouble.
“Thanks for reminding me about the worst start,” Wilder said, admitting he was left “scratching his head” trying to fathom how United could alter the dynamic of the fixture following Schlupp’s effort. “I’ve not taken much interest in that statistic, as I’m sure you can imagine, but we’re obviously not happy to hear it. It’s a harsh league when you are off the pace, as we have been. There’s no hiding place for me or the players.”
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Hackford’s introduction during the closing stages provided Wilder with a chance to discuss something other than the lack of cutting edge, lapses in concentration and low confidence levels which have become United’s hallmarks in recent months.
Although the centre-forward from Arbourthorne does not represent the solution to their problems in the final third - Rhian’s Brewster’s performances since completing a high-profile transfer from Liverpool underline the danger of placing too much responsibility on inexperienced talent - Hackford did enough to suggest he will feature again in the coming weeks. Particularly as Lys Mousset, parachuted back into the starting eleven ahead of schedule following foot surgery, is still clearly short of fitness and conditioning.
“He’s a centre-forward, which we needed, and he’s got raw pace,” Wilder said, explaining the thinking behind Hackford’s inclusion. “He’s been involved in first team training and came away with us in pre-season. Knowing which part of the city he’s from, I knew he wouldn’t be short of self-belief or that bit of swagger either. Antwoine can be proud of his achievement and now he’s got to kick-on.”
EZE DOES IT
Hackford came close to reducing the deficit when he saw an attempt blocked following a neat interchange involving Chris Basham. But earlier, after Schlupp’s opener, Eze had put Palace in control with a superb solo effort.
Previously of Queens Park Rangers, the former England under-21 attacker is exactly the type of player United’s recruitment policy should be based around after excelling in the Championship.
Wilder, who tracked him for around 12 months before Palace made their move, acknowledged his men should have done more to stop Eze running from deep inside Palace territory to just outside their box before picking his spot perfectly. He was right, with Oliver Norwood appearing to give up the chase and Ethan Ampadu making only a half hearted attempt to half Eze’s progress.
But the ease with which he sliced through United’s ranks was still, from Hodgson’s perspective, a joy to behold.
AND THE REST
Schlupp benefited from a slice of good fortune, after Andros Townsend had instigated a foot race between Wilfried Zaha and John Egan, when an unfortunate touch from Norwood diverted Christian Benteke’s pass into his path. Jayden Bogle, selected ahead of George Baldock, saw a low drive smothered at the near post before Eze pounced.
McGoldrick saw an attempt comfortably gathered by Vicente Guaita at the death but United, who have scored only eight times this term, again lacked penetration.
“It was both boxes, not for the first time, that cost us,” Wilder lamented.