How Sheffield United do pre-season, and the objectives Chris Wilder wants his players to achieve
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The purpose, with the season set to run until the end of July and next term planned to begin sometime in September, was to revise their preparation for the 2020/21 campaign. Sheffield United’s manager likes to follow a tried and tested formula in order to steel his players for battle. But thanks to the spread of a disease which had temporarily forced sport into lockdown, he knew things had to change this time around.
Not totally, of course. The objectives remain the same. But the manner in which Wilder and his staff would work - and the emphasis placed on things like fine-turning tactics as opposed to enhancing United’s reputation as one of the fittest teams in the top-flight - was going to be subtlety different.
“We’ve moved things around a bit and obviously, I think it goes without saying, that we won’t be going about it in quite the same way,” Wilder admitted last month, when asked to describe how United would get ready for their return to competition. “What’s important to remember, though, is that we still want to get the same things out of it. The target, the place we want to be in when the first match comes around, that’s the same as it always is.”
On Monday, when United’s players reported back for duty at the Steelphalt Academy, they will have recognised the drill. Fitness and conditioning staff put them through their paces, monitored things like body fat levels and heart rates, and then punched the numbers into their club issue laptops so they could be scrutinised more closely over lunch in the canteen. The pattern is expected to continue until the weekend when, subject to passing the now obligatory coronavirus tests, Wilder hopes to whisk everyone under his command to a training camp outside of South Yorkshire.
It is there, at a secluded location away from prying eyes, where the landscape is likely to change. Both in a literal and a scheduling sense. Less than a month after signing off what was a hugely successful return to the PL with a visit to Southampton, there should be no need for beastings or gruelling triple sessions, ‘Terror Tuesday’ a feature of similar camps since Wilder’s appointment four years ago, will probably no longer be necessary. If the work-out, which revolves around running, circuits and then a lot more running, does feature on the agenda, it is unlikely to be quite as demanding as those undertaken in La Manga, Marbella or the well-heeled Portuguse resort of Vale de Lobo; where United have travelled for the past two summers.
“The days of footballers being able to go away, do what they like, eat what they like and drink what they like have long gone,” Wilder insisted. “Times have changed. Things have moved on. Now they’ve got to be professional athletes, who look after themselves properly, as well as professional footballers.”
Bearing that in mind, the programme Wilder and his two colleagues drafted in the offices overlooking the first team training pitches at United’s regular base - which is undergoing phase one of a refurbishment designed to drag it into the 21st century - is likely to contain only a few tweaks to the one which has been followed religiously over the past four summers. The timeframe focusing on physical preparation has been squeezed - given the quick turnaround - with a greater accent on strategy and psychology. Those who know Wilder best expect him to tinker, albeit ever so slightly, with the 3-5-2 system which has helped United win two promotions under his stewardship.
“We always like to do a lot of work on shape, because it’s vital everyone knows their jobs,” Wilder, who hopes at least two new faces will be on board when United’s coach leaves the complex in Shirecliffe. “Obviously there’s lads here who already know them inside out, while some would benefit from a little more work because they’ve not been here as long. But there’s always things you can do better.”
“It was really hectic (at the end of the season),” he added. “So we also wanted the lads to take some time off, mentally speaking. It’s hard work, at this level, and the focus you need is incredibly because you can’t ever switch off. That’s demanding and, as you can guess, some of us can’t switch off quite as much because management is a 24/7 job really. But if you can. It’s good to get away and clear your mind a bit. I think you need that.”
Wilder likes to factor a social angle into his pre-season preparations too. On The Algarve, United’s squad were encouraged to enjoy rounds of golf together whenever the opportunity allowed while members of their backroom team hired bicycles and often pedalled, en masse, into the mountains. It is during these excursions, Wilder believes, that the team spirit United pride themselves on is created and cemented.
“It’s good to spend time together, especially for the boys who are new, because that’s when they really get to know everyone,” Wilder, who after signing former Rangers goalkeeper Wes Foderingham is now chasing AFC Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale, said. “Not just as players, but also as people. And I think that’s actually really important.”