How a defeat by Everton exposed Sheffield United's greatest weakness in the battle for Premier League survival
When Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson wheeled away in celebration after scoring the only goal of the game television cameras captured Ben Osborn, the Sheffield United midfielder, punching the pitch in sheer frustration as it dawned on him another Premier League fixture was slipping away.
Nearly three quarters of an hour later, the pain was still etched across his face. Osborn’s demeanour, the thousand yard stare and his voice cracking with emotion, provided an insight into the torture United’s players are being forced to endure as they search for ways to salvage something from a campaign which has seen them beaten 13 times in 15 outings. The fact that 10 of those defeats have come via the slimmest of margins only serves, Osborn conceded as he reflected upon their latest narrow defeat, to increase the sense of frustration and upset behind the scenes at Bramall Lane.
“It’s embarrassing at the moment,” the 26-year-old admitted, “It’s so, so tough because everyone has got their pride. Even though we’re at the bottom of the table I was buzzing to come in and get a chance to try and affect things. But everyone here is going to fight and we’re going to keep on fighting. That’s all we can do and that’s what we will do. We’re going to keep on doing that until we get the break we need.”
SHORTCOMINGS LAID BARE
In a sense, this was United’s season in microcosm. Chris Wilder’s side did not lack for effort or indeed commitment as they confronted opponents chasing Champions League football, Storm Bella and their own inner demons following a dispiriting sequence of results which saw them finish the night 10 points adrift of safety.
But when it came to quality - those pieces of ingenuity and individual brilliance which settle top-flight matches - they were lacking. Time and time again United threatened to get themselves into good positions before either choosing the wrong pass or failing to execute the right one properly. For long periods, Everton were guilty of doing exactly the same thing until, with around 10 minutes remaining, Sigurdsson threaded an angled drive past Aaron Ramsdale after being granted too much time and space for someone of his calibre inside the penalty box. The sight of the ball nestling in the back of United’s net was yet another excruciating reminder about how small details, and the ability to grasp those “big moments” Wilder later acknowledged he is “sick and tired” of discussing, can influence the outcome of top-flight contests.
SMALL DETAILS, BIG DIFFERENCE
“I remember thinking ‘the minimum we should get is a draw,” Osborn said. “Even if we weren’t doing that well on the ball, I thought ‘just keep the clean sheet and take something.’
“Then, I’ve turned and seen him (Sigurdsson) with that much time, I couldn’t believe it. We never seem to get that, and it’s not good enough.”
“It’s been the same so many times, when I’m thinking the very least we’re going to get is a share of things,” he continued. “Then, to get it taken away is sickening. Everything is right in training, the setup is good, we’re doing the right things in the week.”
TIGHT YET AGAIN
Ancelotti, whose career has taken him from the municipal pitches of his native Emilio-Romagna to Goodison Park via Rome, Milan, Turin, west London and Madrid, is unlikely to remember this game with any great fondness despite the result. Snuggled beneath the hood of his designer puffer jacket, the five time European champion and former Serie A coach of the year spent most of a squally South Yorkshire night gesticulating with the animation only an Italian can muster as he grew increasingly angry at the visitors’ carelessness. There were flashes of quality - such as Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s use of his chest to turn Michael Keane’s pass around Jack Robinson before volleying wide. But for the most part Everton, missing James Rodriguez, Richarlison and Lucas Digne because of injury, struggled to pick apart a United side without several of its own key performers. Although that could partly be attributed to the conditions, Wilder’s decision to change shape to cope with the absence of Sander Berge and John Lundstram also troubled Ancelotti’s men. Positioning David McGoldrick just behind Rhian Brewster and Oliver Burke, who went close before being withdrawn because of a back spasm, brought extra authority to United’s midfield where Osborn, recalled to the starting eleven, buzzed around tirelessly. The only problem was, as he confessed afterwards, they lacked the confidence required to knit everything together. The end result was a fractious affair high on industry and yet again unfilled promise.
“It just accumulates,” Osborn said, as United prepare to enter Tuesday’s trip to Burnley still searching for their first win of the season. “They had a couple out and we really fancied ourselves. They weren’t creating much and then comes the sucker punch. I’ve been in these situations before, when you can’t see a win coming, and then you nick something.”
United had opportunities to take the lead themselves before Sigurdsson pounced during the closing stages; Bernard and Abdoulaye Doucoure recycling the ball after Chris Basham had headed clear Seamus Coleman’s cross. McGoldrick lost his balance as he tried to convert an opening created by Brewster’s delightful pass, allowing Ben Godfrey to clear off the line, while Burke fired across goal from an acute angle moments before the break. In between Godfrey saw an effort blocked by John Egan when Ramsdale lost control of a Sigurdsson set-piece and Calvert-Lewin, who moved to Everton from United, flashed just wide after turning Robinson. Oli McBurnie, who replaced Burke at half-time, was inches away from connecting with an Osborn corner as United went in search of an equaliser following Sigurdsson’s third of the campaign.
“We’re fighting for ourselves and for every Sheffield United fan,” Osborn said. “We’re the ones in a privileged position because we can put things right.”