How Sheffield United failed the test of concentration and patience with Manchester City

It reveals all you need to know about the way Pep Guardiola views football that, rather than leaf through coaching manuals or obsess over footage of future opponents, the Manchester City manager prefers to spend his rare moments of downtime studying books about an ancient board game requiring tactics, strategy and extreme intellect.

Saturday, 31st October 2020, 7:34 pm

“How Life Imitates Chess”, written by Garry Kasparov, is the Catalan’s title of choice. The well-thumbed edition he keeps on a bookshelf at home contains a passage which, had their players chosen to purchase one beforehand, provided Sheffield United with an insight into how the visitors would approach this match.

“Your opening moves are more than the trivial mobilization of your troops,” the Azaerbaijani grandmaster and Guardiola’s close friend wrote. “They establish what kind of battle it’s going to be and are your best opportunity to take the game in the direction you want it to go.”

The early skirmishes confirmed City were intent on dominating possession and suffocating United’s enthusiasm, with Guardiola dictating the rhythm of his team’s passing from the touchline. But in the end it was a long range shot from Kyle Walker which proved to be the contest’s defining moment - the defender refusing to celebrate the finish against his former club.

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Sheffield United's Chris Wilder and Pep Guardiola, of Manchester City, during today's Premier League match at Bramall Lane. Photo: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

Although Wilder acknowledged its quality, he identified a number of other pivotal factors afterwards - tracing United’s demise to some poor decision making early on. Revealing he “really fancied us to get something beforehand”, he made numerous references to the choices they made either side of the England international’s strike.

“You’ve got to play to the top of your ability to get something against City,” Wilder said. “When you keep turning over the ball in the manner we did, particularly at the beginning, unbelievable players attack and they’ve got unbelievable players. People can talk about shape, selections and tactics all they want. But when you make poor decisions, which we did at times, then you just don’t get the ball back”

A TEST OF CONCENTRATION AND PATIENCE

Guardiola has been credited with changing the face of English football since his arrival in Manchester four years ago, transforming it from a sport about brute strength and force into an intellectual pursuit. In their own small way, United have also contributed to this transformation, with their take on the 3-5-2 system devised by Argentine legend Carlos Bilardo capturing the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich’s chief’s imagination before last term’s meetings between the two sides.

The United City encountered at Bramall Lane on Saturday lunchtime, however, are a very different beast to the one they faced in double-quick succession nine months ago. Back then, Wilder’s team was still high on the adrenaline of a promotion winning season and en route to a ninth placed finish. Now, nearly one year on, they faced the four time Premier League champions without a win in six and having scored only once in open play since competition resumed. Ahead of Saturday’s game at Chelsea, Wilder’s men received more plaudits for their resilience after Walker had scored the first away league goal of his career. But with John Lundstram firing over the crossbar after being introduced during the closing stages, they desperately need to start collecting some points too.

“Against Sheffield, it is always very difficult because they don’t allow you to get any rhythm,” Guardiola said. “They are very strong, you have to understand that.”

A GAME OF INTELLECT AS WELL AS INDUSTRY

Quizzed about Guardiola’s methods and outlook beforehand, Wilder acknowledged meetings with his City side are tests of brain power and concentration given the intricate choreography of their play.

“There’s probably going to be plenty of times when I want to bang that clock and take a break,” he said, choosing to run with the chess theme. “It’s a moving game, isn’t it. It’s one move after another, the ball can be anywhere at any given time, so it’s how you react and if you’re out there on the pitch, you have to suss things out as well.”

“They’ve got outstanding players and an incredible manager,” Wilder added. “You don’t have to go to university to be ‘football intelligent.’ Every player at this level is what I’d call ‘football clever’.”

With City pinging passes from all sorts of unusual angles, there were periods when United could have been forgiven for wondering if they were sitting a geometry rather than sporting test. But it was the visitors’ positioning, not their ability to move the ball quickly across the pitch, which caused United the biggest headache. Ferran Torres was a centre-forward in name only, Riyad Mahrez popped up in all sorts of unexpected places and Kevin de Bruyne did what Kevin de Bruyne does. The end result was that, for long periods, United’s defenders weren’t quite sure who to pick up although they did display a greater sense of purpose after the interval, when Sander Berge began punching a hole through City’s lines with some driving runs to the byline. It was one such charge which carved the chance for Lundstram, but United were unable to take full advantage.

“You have to take your opportunities when they come, because you’re not going to control the game against City,” Wilder said. “My disappointment wasn’t really that miss, it was that we didn’t do enough with the ball to affect the result. It was how, when we had the chance to create something, we gave it away cheaply.”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE

Despite being low on points during the build-up to this contest, Wilder had insisted United’s tally did not reflect the calibre of their performances. A combative and creative display at Liverpool seven days earlier appeared to support that argument, with United also showing the durability to overcome a difficult first hour here, before growing in stature during the closing stages. Still, as Wilder lamented, the Premier League is a ruthless environment. Not least when United are in the middle of a fixture sequence which, with Chelsea next on the agenda, pits them against three clubs who shared the title between themselves for the past four seasons.

“I don’t want plaudits, I want points on the board,” Wilder admitted. “Every game now it’s ‘Press Play’ because I’m saying the same things. We’ve been in every game but being ‘in the game’ isn’t enough to get points. Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply be an aggressive, enthusiastic side that has a ‘go’. You’ve got to show quality as well in this division.”

THE MATCH ITSELF

Selecting largely the same starting eleven which impressed on Merseyside - Max Lowe returning from concussion and Lundstram, whose failure to agree a new contract has been a source of frustration for Wilder, missing out - United found nullifying City’s threats a much more challenging task than combating those posed by their North-West neighbours. Ramsdale was predictably busy, parrying an early header from Torres, a long-range shot from Bernando Silva and then smothering de Bruyne’s free-kick, after Walker had broken the deadlock with a precise, low effort.

Openings for United were few and far between during the first-half, although Chris Basham could have equalised when he met Berge’s corner but glanced his attempt wide. Berge’s influence grew as City began to labour, which had as much to do with United’s renewed sense of purpose as it did the absence of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus on City’s part. Mahrez also tested Ransdale’s handling but, from that moment on, United also posed some questions of their own. Berge’s power removed City from their comfort zone and brought a different dynamic to the hosts’ game. Had Lundstram’s first time shot, from the Nowegian’s cut-back, been a few inches lower, they might well have completed the type of swindle which would have delighted even Kasparov.

“If people think you can open up against City, they know nothing about football because they’ll pick you off,” Wilder said. “There’s different ways to win, so we went down the road we wanted too. But when we are on the ball, we have to show so much more quality than we did.”