Hangdog expressions, thousand yard stares and a race that looks run - The Story of Sheffield United's defeat by Southampton
It was difficult to work out who looked more disappointed: Chris Wilder, after admitting Sheffield United are now effectively consigned to relegation or Ralph Hasenhuttl, who knew Southampton had missed the chance to condemn them to the type of ridiculously one-sided defeat his own team suffers at least once a season.
Weighing up the evidence, factoring in the significance of the occasion, Wilder probably shaded victory in the hangdog expression stakes. Which, on reflection, really shouldn’t have come as a surprise given he had spent the best part of 45 minutes rehearsing and perfecting the thousand yard stare he would later wear throughout the post match Zoom interviews thanks to United's abject second-half performance.
“It was difficult to watch, the better side won, I don’t have any complaints about the result,” he sighed, gazing into the distance at some imaginary object located far beyond the laptop which had been plonked in front of him. “They showed those bits of quality we haven’t shown enough of lately, but I thought the lads looked tired in body and mind.”
THEIR RACE LOOKS RUN
Che Adams’ majestic strike, after a James Ward-Prowse penalty had edged them in front, proved enough to seal the visitors’ first victory in 10 Premier League outings. There was still plenty of time remaining for United to mount a comeback when Adams smashed home a beauty against his former club. But were it not for the heroics of the fast improving Aaron Ramsdale and some horrendously profligate finishing from the opposition - which, given how the rest of the contest unfolded, you actually began to wonder might have been born out of sympathy - Southampton could easily have doubled their margin of victory. Maybe even trebled, with the otherwise excellent Nathan Tella, Takumi Minamino and Kyle Walker-Peters all guilty of missing gilt-edged chances.
United’s insipid and fractious display after the interval appeared to come as a surprise to Wilder, whose players had entered the fixture 12 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the rankings but on the back of a courageous win over Aston Villa. However, listening to him pick his way through the wreckage of another morale-sapping result afterwards, one suspected he had seen it coming well before kick-off.
Knowing that another victory would lift them off the foot of the table, for 24 hours at least, the United manager hoped his squad would come bursting out of the blocks. The opening exchanges were competitive enough, with Southampton also visibly low on confidence following their own disappointing run. But when Adams netted for the fourth time in as many outings against his former club, United coughed and wheezed their way through the rest of the afternoon like a 40 a day smoker attempting the Ladybower Trail Marathon. The pressure of a season which has already broken them physically finally appears to have beaten United psychologically too.
“We talked to the players about what a great opportunity this was,” said Wilder, whose own position at the club has come under scrutiny in recent weeks. “The quality from us, second-half, was really poor.
“It looked like a game too far for us. I’m looking at it now, thinking I could have made changes. But the fact is, with so many injuries and people out, I can’t because it just isn’t possible. There are tired bodies and tired minds out there.”
With a catalogue of senior professionals unavailable for selection, including all three of his first choice senior centre-halves, Wilder had spent the build-up to the game trying to fathom how to construct something resembling a top-flight defence out of the inexperienced options at his disposal. The solution he came up with was to deploy George Baldock, United’s most effective wing-back, alongside Kean Bryan and Ethan Ampadu in a back three - a manoeuver made possible by Jayden Bogle’s miraculous recovery from the fitness issue which, only a day earlier, had supposedly put him out of action for at least another week.
Baldock did his best, making a fine interception to prevent Adams scoring another after rifling the ball beyond the despairing Ramsdale. But the reshuffle, and United’s refusal to abandon the 3-5-2 formation which propelled them to ninth last term, ended-up weakening Wilder’s starting eleven in two areas rather than one. Southampton looked to target Baldock from the get-go, and had Danny Ings not strained a muscle before barely breaking sweat, the damage they inflicted might have been a whole lot worse.
“The intensity of the division, the fact we had to put so much in against Villa and Liverpool before that, it has an effect,” Wilder acknowledged. “Then you hear Ralph, an established manager at this level, talking about strengthening even with lads coming back. That just tells you how tough it is.”
AN UNAPPEALING PICK AND MIX
With Wilder bellowing instructions at Baldock as he attempted to coax him through the match, United did create some openings at the beginning before unravelling after the break. David McGoldrick chose the wrong pass when Rhian Brewster, still searching for his first goal since arriving from Liverpool, made a run towards Fraser Forster before Ethan Ampadu’s foul on Tella presented Ward-Prowse with his spot kick. But their lack of telepathy is understandable, given United’s constant personnel changes in attack. What wasn’t, however, was the usually sure-footed McGoldrick’s decision to try and chip Forster after being put through by Brewster on the strike of half time. More than two metres tall, the former Celtic goalkeeper is one of the tallest players in the competition.
Adams found the back of the net when United passed up umpteen opportunities to clear their lines following a good block by Ramsdale and things got worse from there on in, with Tella and Redmond both being thwarted by the England under-21 international.
“We were chasing and started to leave ourselves wide open,” Wilder said. “Aaron, to be fair, kept us in it.”