How Sheffield United are embarrassing the money men
The biggest names in Premier League competition, the clubs who regard European qualification as a right rather than something to be earned over the course of a 38 match campaign, spend millions hiring supposedly the sharpest brains and building advanced statistical programmes in order to give themselves a head start in the race to unearth new talent.
Perhaps, on reflection, they would be better served by simply trusting their instincts and giving previously unheralded players a chance to shine at the highest level. Or, to put it another way, take a leaf out of Sheffield United’s handbook.
Although the final result proved something of a frustration - Brighton and Hove Albion thwarting their hopes of climbing to fifth in the table following a gutsy display at Bramall Lane - the story of United’s draw with Graham Potter’s side dealt another embarrassing blow to the recruitment models employed by the likes of Arsenal, West Ham, Everton and others below them in the rankings. It is something Chris Wilder’s team have been doing ever since securing promotion from the Championship towards the end of last term.
Three years ago Enda Stevens, who appeared to have set United on course for their 11th win of the season, was plying his trade in League Two with Portsmouth having arrived at Fratton Park aged 24. John Fleck, together with Albion’s Ezequiel Schelotto the most effective player on the pitch, also moved to South Yorkshire on a free transfer from Coventry City before 2017’s League One title triumph. The Scot reportedly attracted interest from Mikel Arteta and David Moyes before putting pen to paper on an improved and extended contract ahead of kick-off. One suspects, were professionals judged on skill alone rather than the exoticness of their surnames, then both he and Stevens, like their colleagues Jack O’Connell, John Egan and George Baldock, would have enjoyed a chance to prove themselves in the top-flight long ago.
The refusal of some managers’ to scout England’s lower divisions has been United’s gain.
“If he was playing for another club, in a more glamorous shirt, then people would be talking about that goal for some time,” Wilder said, reflecting upon Stevens’ memorable finish into the roof of Albion’s net. “They’d be going over it, again and again and again on Match of the Day saying how brilliant it was.”
United have spent the first seven months of the season rewriting the sacred laws of how newly promoted teams should go about their business and making fools of those who claimed they were too predictable, too basic and simply too naive to trouble the country’s footballing sophisticats.
Forced to settle for a share of the spoils when Neal Maupay headed home from close range soon after Stevens’ opener, they nonetheless reached the 40 point mark which is regarded as a guarantee of survival with 11 matches to spare. There was no celebration, though, because United’s targets, even though neither Wilder nor his cohorts will publicly admit it, have changed. Europe, not survival, is now the objective.
Despite fighting for their lives at the other end of the rankings, United’s manager always suspected Albion would prove awkward and so it proved. Partly by accident and partly through design, the visitors were able to limit Wilder’s men to fewer chances than a team which returned a 66 possession percentage might otherwise expect to enjoy.
United’s marriage of overlapping centre-halves and enterprising wing-backs is designed to deliver a steady stream of crosses into the opposition box. In Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, however, Albion possess two of the most physically imposing defenders in the PL. Potter’s decision to forgo their usual policy of trying to dominate the ball turned out to be the right one. But he can also count himself fortunate that Dunk and Duffy, who had made their considerable presences felt moments before Maupay pounced, were tailor-made to deal with one of United’s greatest strengths.
“I would have stayed behind at the end, because it was an excellent performance,” Wilder, who saw Oli McBurnie and Fleck go close during the closing stages, said. “Those boys gave everything for me and for the football club. I told them that in the dressing room afterwards, that I was proud of them and what they’d put in.
“Managers try and win games in different ways and we’ve done that in the past. I said before, this wasn’t going to be easy. And it wasn’t.”
“I’ve huge respect for Graham, who I’m getting to know now. He’s tactically very astute. All the stats say how well we’ve done. I told the players I was delighted with what I saw from them out there.”
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Stevens (Osborn 46), Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Berge (Lundstram 81), Sharp (McGoldrick 74), McBurnie. Not used: Verrips, Jagielka, McGoldrick, Mousset, Retsos.
Brighton and Hove Albion: Ryan, Duffy, Dunk, Bissouma, Webster, Mooy, Schelotto (Trossard 74), Propper, Burn, Maupay (Bernardo 90), Murray (Connolly 74). Not used: Button, Gross, Jahanbakhsh, March.
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).