How Sheffield United's hidden strength could prove decisive in their renewed charge for European football
Among all the elements that make up the beautiful game, the thrill of the set-piece in particular has been sorely missed during the three-month absence of Premier League football.
The fervent buzz around the ground as the free-kick master stands purposefully over a dead-ball situation just made for the left-footer. The torment in the eyes of opposition fans dreading what seems to be an inevitability.
That sudden release of pressure and the triumphant roar of thousands of supporters rejoicing as a 25-yard screamer thunders in off the crossbar, or the exhaled, appreciative "Oooft" that can only be conjured by an acrobatic goalkeeper, at full-stretch, tipping a goal-bound effort wide of the target.
Set-pieces look like they could be of particular importance when the Premier League resumes, as the return of the Bundesliga in Germany has seen a remarkable spike in goals scored from dead-ball situations.
This finding is nothing new; it's a phenomenon that has been observed at major summer tournaments for some time now. It can be attributed to the lack of time available for rigorous practice of defending corners and free-kicks, with the limited training opportunities being dominated by fitness preparations.
Throughout the 2019/20 campaign, Sheffield United have continued to dole out generous slabs of humble pie to their pre-season critics, as they've surged up the league table and refused to be budged by more established top tier sides.
Team spirit, managerial ingenuity and defensive resilience have all, quite rightly, been cited as key factors behind the success. Indeed, on the latter point, the Blades have conceded the second-fewest number of goals in the division this season, with only runaway leaders Liverpool boasting a more impressive record.
Dig a little deeper into the statistics, and the Blades' record from defending set-pieces is particularly eye-catching, in that they've conceded just four goals from them this season - only Sean Dyche's regimented Burnley have let in fewer.
This is a strength which has been developed diligently by Chris Wilder, as United have continued their meteoric rise under his tenure. In the 2017/18 season, the Blades conceded a rather concerning 17 goals, which put to rest any hopes of back-to-back promotions.
The following season, aided by the addition of the omnipresent John Egan in the back-line, United improved considerably, conceding 12 - one of the best records in the division that year - in the course of their triumphant journey back to the top table of English football.
While the Blades' defensive stronghold looks more than capable of repelling the advances of their opponents, it is worth noting that their own attacking efforts could do with improving.
Last season, Wilder's side netted a mighty 18 goals from dead-ball situations, but their return to the Premier League has, quite surprisingly, has returned only a mere four thus far.
In their remaining handful of fixtures, United take on some of the most shambolic set-piece defenders in the division. As it happens, the game set to historically mark the Premier League's restart, a clash against Aston Villa, will see the Blades take on a side who've shipped 14 goals from corners or free-kicks this season.
Towering presences such as Egan and Jack O'Connell have, while excelling in their defensive duties, offered little in terms of an attacking threat this season, and should be looking to contribute more in this area.
With games against the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Newcastle United – sides notorious for conceding in such situations this season – on the horizon, there is a huge opportunity for Wilder's side to do some real damage from their set-plays, and consolidate their push to qualify for European football next season.