How Sheffield United stunned Man Utd and reignited their push for survival

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played the game beforehand, insisting “there is no margin for error in any Premier League game” midway through his programme notes.

Thursday, 28th January 2021, 7:58 am

Few people probably believed him after surveying the table. But Sheffield United, bottom of the rankings and supposedly destined for relegation, arrived determined to prove the Norwegian had a point.

And they did, in the most spectacular fashion possible, as goals from Kean Bryan and Oliver Burke saw them cause the biggest upset of the season so far and prevent Manchester United from reclaiming top spot.

It was only United’s second victory in the competition since September and their first inside this stadium since 1973.

Oliver Burke of Sheffield Utd celebrates with Chris Basham and Oliver Norwood during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: 27th January 2021. Picture credit should read: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“The lads are jumping about in the dressing room, and we’ll bring them quickly back down the earth,” Wilder, whose side are now 10 points adrift of safety, said. “They deserve it though, because it’s been a tough old season. We’ve talked about taking big moments so many times and they’ve just taken them out there.”

Bryan, previously of Manchester City, laid the foundations for a result which ensures his former employers will enter this weekend’s meeting with Wilder’s men in pole position; glancing home from a corner before Harry Maguire restored parity after the break.

Burke, who had been summoned from the bench only four minutes earlier, claimed the decisive effort of the night. But United owed their triumph to a display so tactically disciplined, even Solskjaer felt compelled to pay tribute afterwards.

Oliver Burke of Sheffield Utd celebrates scoring his sides second goal during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: 27th January 2021. Picture credit should read: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“We are disappointed, of course,” he said. “And there’s things we should have done better. But you also have to say ‘well done’ to the opposition. I knew they were capable of making things difficult.”

ENERGY, ENDEAVOUR AND DISCIPLINE BRIDGED THE DIVIDE

Old Trafford is a temple, not only to the teams which have delivered nearly 90 major trophies to this corner of the North-West but also the financial might and commercial reach of England’s footballing behemoths.

Every aspect of the club’s operations are sponsored by a ‘global partner’, right down to the disposable coffee cups inside the press lounge. It is precisely that type of muscle which enabled Solkskjaer, whose employers are now chasing their 21st title, to select a starting eleven boasting more than £421m worth of talent.

Kean Bryan of Sheffield Utd celebrates scoring his sides opening goal during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: 27th January 2021. Picture credit should read: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

While he enjoyed the luxury of leaving Edison Cavani, the proud owner of 118 Uruguay caps, on the bench, United were once again unable to name their full complement of substitutes. But what they lacked in profile and numbers, Wilder charges more than made up for with passion.

While he spent the majority of the contest cajoling and encouraging them from the edge of the technical area, Solskjaer looked troubled - a little perplexed even - as his men dominated possession but struggled to make an impression until Maguire pounced.

WORLDS APART BUT EQUALS ON THE PITCH

Only 32 miles separate Manchester and Sheffield. But in sporting terms, they are worlds apart. The players the hosts summoned into action are paid a combined total of around £2.5m a week.

United have invested heavily by their own standards in recent years. However, viewed through the eyes of a top-flight manager approaching the end of the transfer window, United’s picks were a plea for help.

Phil Jagielka, vastly experienced but approaching his 39th birthday, replaced the suspended John Egan at centre-half. Bryan, who finished last season on loan at Bolton Wanderers, also featured among the four changes Wilder made to the visitors’ line-up.

He had already made quite an impression, troubling Aaron Wan-Bissaka with his energy and sheer enthusiasm, before converting John Fleck’s set-piece midway through the opening period.

JAGIELKA AND WILDER SHOW THEIR KNOWLEDGE

After ruthlessly exploiting Jagielka’s lack of pace during their victory at Bramall Lane last month, it was no surprise to see Manchester United attempt to target the centre-half again; their midfielders searching out either Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford whenever they seized possession. But Jagielka - and United’s coaching staff - had clearly learnt from experience.

The 38-year-old refused to be dragged out of position, sitting behind a protective screen built by John Lundstram and Fleck. With Ethan Ampadu covering plenty of ground alongside him, Jagielka was able to use his head to navigate safe passage through the fixture rather than his ageing legs.

“The shape was excellent, I thought,” Wilder reflected. “But the lads were brave when they had the ball. They showed an identity.”

BRYAN AND BURKE DO THE BUSINESS

The chance Bryan converted, out-jumping Axel Tuanzebe and then beating David de Gea to the punch, wasn’t the only one United fashioned during the first-half. Indeed, after being sent darting through and then holding off his marker, Billy Sharp will have been disappointed not to open the scoring after seeing his shot ricochet back off de Gea’s legs.

Rashford had gone close for Manchester United during the early skirmishes. But it was not until five minutes after the interval that they carved another opening of note; Mason Greenwood dragging a low shot wide as he raced into the six yard box.

Predictably, as the contest wore on, United began to tire. When Bruno Fernandes saw a free-kick deflected behind for a corner, Maguire restored parity after being granted too much time and space from the resulting corner.

As Wilder retreated towards the dug-out for a discussion with his assistant Alan Knill, Amapdu signalled United were not content with a point by making a lung-busting run forward.

Although he was eventually crowded out, Burke made no mistake when Manchester United failed to apply enough pressure to either him or John Lundstram during an exchange inside the box. It was the Scotland international’s second goal for United and first in the Premier League.

“We knew it would take a special performance to get something,” Wilder said. “They’re a fabulous team with a fabulous manager. But that’s our reward, I think, for sticking at it. We were good, and we were brave.”

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