Has the time come for Sheffield United to start practising football's dark arts in the battle for Premier League survival?
When Sheffield United begin finalising their preparations for Sunday’s visit to Southampton, a process which will include picking apart last weekend’s meeting with Leicester City, Chris Wilder might be tempted to instruct his team to begin practising some of football’s darker arts as well as maintaining the hard-work, discipline and commitment he believes can still save their season.
At the beginning of last month, following a 4-1 defeat at Chelsea, Wilder confessed honesty might not always be the best policy in Premier League football after bemoaning, despite being careful to insist he was not referring to Frank Lampard’s side, the failure of match officials to reward players who stay on their feet rather than accentuating fouls by flinging themselves to the ground.
United’s refusal to stretch the spirit of the laws was again in evidence during the second-half of their game against City. And, not for the first time this term, it cost them dear, with midfielder Sander Berge resisting the urge to take a tumble when an opposition defender rashly slid-in as he ghosted across the edge of the penalty area. Had Berge initiated contact, and gone down, referee Stuart Attwell could have been forced to award a spot-kick and the course of a contest, later settled by Jamie Vardy’s 90th minute goal, could have been changed.
United’s sportsmanship is admirable, with Wilder warning that adopting a different approach would see them join a race to the bottom and see his club surrender the moral high-ground when discussing the issue.
“It’s not something I want to do, because it doesn’t sit comfortably,” he said. “You do wonder, though, if you get any benefit from not doing it.”
But, particularly in professional sport, where the margins between success and failure can be wafer thin, the line between integrity and naivety can become blurred. With United in trouble at the bottom of the table - the loss to City was the 10th time in 11 outings they have been beaten this term - a more “streetwise” attitude could be required.
The same goes during the closing stages of games, when United are on course to take at least a point.
Twice Wilder’s men have conceded goals after the 80 minute mark, and on both occasions it has cost them a draw with Patrick Bamford heading Leeds to victory 120 seconds from the end of September’s Yorkshire derby at Bramall Lane.
Berge was fouled when the visitors’ seized possession during the build-up to Bamford’s effort, but again he refused to go down. Likewise Oliver Burke, when Arsenal’s David Luiz grabbed his shirt at the beginning of United’s visit to the Emirates Stadium two months ago. Although Keith Hackett, one of the world’s most respected former officials, later told The Star why the Brazilian had not been shown a red card, he did acknowledge Burke should have been awarded a free-kick in what would have been a dangerous area of the pitch. Luiz also escaped an early caution, which could have altered his approach to a fixture Arsenal went on to win 2-1.
“The referee has got to show courage,” Wilder complained at the time. “There are five officials now, and I see it, all our staff see it and all our substitutes see it but five other people don’t.”
“He (Luiz) has pulled his shirt,” Wilder continued. “Oli’s shirt has clearly moved and, fair play to the lad, he’s tried to keep on going because he was through on goal.
“I’m not clutching at straws, because what happened happened. All the stuff about bringing in VAR, it was supposed to be about making the right decisions. But was that the right decision?”
Wilder, however, is concerned that some of the choices United are making themselves have contributed to their disappointing start to the campaign.
Towards the end of their clash with City, despite confessing victories not draws are required to start climbing the rankings, he suggested his men should have taken a moment to consider the bigger picture and realised that taking something from a game against opponents regarded as being a good outside bet to secure a place in next term’s Champions League was better than gambling with nothing.
“We have to make the correct decisions, especially during those big moments of matches,” Wilder said. “We’re going for wins but, if we can’t get one of those, then we also have to have that mindset where we think ‘We’re not going to get beat.’ It’s all about the accumulation, and keeping the board ticking over.”
Doing that would help restore the self-belief United have inevitably lost during that has been a dispiriting run, although it must be acknowledged that the “poor decisions” Wilder felt “gift-wrapped” Vardy’s winner are a symptom of a squad low on confidence.
“If people are going to take something off us, then we have to make sure it’s earned,” he said. “If you get done by a bit of brilliance, then so be it, you can take that. But if you don’t get done by that, well it’s those situations that are so hard to take. You’re not going to be able to take those or come to terms with them easily are you.
"There’s times you can take it, especially in this division where people are capable of producing real magic. Everybody is in that situation. But we don’t want to give things away we feel we can do something about, clearly.”