Goalkeepers, Norwood, weak refs and the need for fresh blood: Talking points from Sheffield United's defeat to Huddersfield Town

Sheffield United’s disappointing start to the new Championship season continued this afternoon as they were beaten by Huddersfield Town, thanks to an injury-time winner.

Sunday, 22nd August 2021, 12:00 pm
Billy Sharp of Sheffield United celebrates scoring his 250th career goal: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

United thought they had earned a point when Billy Sharp came off the bench to level in the 92nd minute, in front of the Kop. But Town nicked it even later, when sub Harry Toffolo squared the ball for Levi Colwill to tap home from a few yards out.

The defeat extended Slavisa Jokanović’s wait for a first league victory to four games, and United’s hangover from their relegation last season shows no immediate signs of subsiding.

Here, we take a look at some key talking points from the game…

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Wes gets his chance

With Aaron Ramsdale finally sealing his dream move to Arsenal on Friday evening, Jokanović had already signalled his intention to play the former Rangers man Wes Foderingham between the posts against Huddersfield.

It was a move most could have predicted anyway, given Michael Verrips’ disastrous debut at West Brom, but the plan had already been formulated. With Jokanović planning to give Verrips and Foderingham two games each to show who is most capable of replacing Ramsdale, the Serb is clearly planning for life without a replacement despite insisting recently that United must sign a new goalkeeper with the £24m they have received from Ramsdale.

It was Foderingham’s turn today and for the most part, it was as uneventful a debut as he could have hoped for. There were some hairy moments, including when he came miles off his line in the first half and just about did enough to clear the danger, flattening Naby Sarr in the process. And in the second, when he let the ball bounce from a cross before flattening another Town player and getting away without conceding a foul.

But despite some attempts to the contrary amongst United’s fanbase, Foderingham could not be blamed for either of Town’s goals. In fact, for the first he made a decent save with his legs to keep out Josh Koroma’s effort and was a little unfortunate that the rebound fell straight at the forward’s feet.

But it would also be wrong to say that either goalkeeper have so far stuck their hand up and made it clear that a Ramsdale replacement is not required. United simply have to reinvest that cash in quality additions if they are to have even a chance of promotion this season, and that starts with a new man between the sticks.

Wood for the trees

Cards on the table time; Ollie Norwood, for me, had a decent game today. His passing, both short and long, was crisp in the first half; he was defensively solid, too. He finished the game after winning seven of his nine ground duels, according to stats from SofaScore, and both his aerial duels.

With the ball, over 90 per cent of his passes were accurate as were three quarters of his long passes. He won seven tackles and wasn’t dribbled past once.

But at full time, much of the frustration and anger at the result was once again directed in the former Northern Ireland international’s direction. Yes, it didn’t help that he gave the ball away once in a dangerous position, forcing Rhys Norrington-Davies to bail him out, and clipped a free-kick out of play.

But as much as football is a game played with the feet and seen with the eyes, the statistics don’t lie. Seven tackles in a game for a midfielder is, in the eyes of those with an eye for stats, very impressive, while misplacing one in every 10 passes does not really stand out as a reason for losing to a last-minute goal.

Norwood is not alone in struggling to recapture his post-lockdown form for United since the pandemic hit, but many fans also seem to have made their minds up about him before a ball is even kicked in a game and no matter what he does right, the mistakes – no matter how few and far between – will be highlighted.

The man in the middle

What follows here is not, no matter how some will predictably try and paint it, sour grapes at the result or United’s performance levels this afternoon. It is, though, frustration at the performance of Michael Salisbury, the referee who “took charge” of this game.

I use brackets because what level of command he had is open to some debate. He warned Lee Nicholls, the Huddersfield goalkeeper, about timewasting from goalkicks after 18 MINUTES of the game. Only when the clock ticked towards 90 did Nicholls receive a booking, after eating up valuable seconds, minutes and what seemed like hours in between.

In a way, I don’t blame the players as much for such antics. They had a job to do, to nullify United and win the game, and they were allowed to do it by dubious means by the man in the middle.

Even when Huddersfield’s players weren’t wasting time, Salisbury did it for them. Countless times, after straightforward fouls, he stopped the game for reasons only he would fathom, while even the players looked around confused as to why play hadn’t restarted yet.

There were some dubious decisions which could have gone either way – I thought at the time Ben Davies was fouled in the build-up to Town’s winner, but on replay it didn’t seem as clear-cut as it did in real-time – but in terms of managing the game, it was the weakest refereeing performance I can remember.

It would be fascinating to find out how long the play was actually in play for all afternoon, with him constantly stopping it. It was frustrating enough for someone lucky enough not to have to pay £30-odd and whichever team those at Bramall Lane today came to support, they certainly hadn’t forked out that money to watch Salisbury.

Signings

When he agreed to become Sheffield United’s new manager, Slavisa Jokanović targeted five new signings to inject some fresh blood into a squad still high enough on quality, but so low on confidence and belief after a season of struggle and strife in the Premier League.

With 10 days to go until the summer transfer window slams shut, he has one in Ben Davies and even that one is a player who could cost United more to loan this summer than he was available to buy back in January.

The Ronaldo Vieira saga was handed shambolically by all involved before it collapsed earlier this week and United have probably left it too late to get the number of players over the line needed to try and turn things around at Bramall Lane.

The Vieira deal had been set up before he finally arrived in England recently, after being held up over a dispute over who would settle the tax bill incurred from his potential signing. Then it was discovered Vieira had an injury and another health issue. Why was it allowed to get so far and run so close to the deadline before calling it off?

Any deals they may now try and push through before the deadline may have since increased in price, since the whole football world now knows the Blades have £24m in their pockets from the Ramsdale sale.

The alternative is loans, which is just kicking the can down the road. Any players that come in on loan will surely not be up to speed, as they’re unlikely to have played much football or feature in their parent club’s plans. If they had, or did, why would they be allowed out on loan?

It's a conundrum that United’s hierarchy must solve – and quickly, because time is rapidly running out.