Wolverhampton Wanderers were once again expected to challenge for a place in Europe after qualifying last season. Sheffield United, however, well that’s a different story.
Because only 15 months ago, after being promoted from the Championship, the pundits were tripping over themselves to predict this supposedly rag bag bunch of over-achievers and journeymen would be down by Christmas. Not entering a fixture at the business end of the campaign with designs, even though their manager gets irritated whenever the prospect is mentioned, on a top six finish.
Wilder’s powers of evasion and obfuscation face arguably their biggest test yet following John Egan’s 93rd minute winner at Bramall Lane. The centre-half’s second goal in as many matches, after his manager had called on United’s defenders to contribute more in the final third, lifted his team to seventh in the table ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Chelsea and delivered a deserved victory over Nuno Espirito Santo’s side.
“That was a really big performance against really talented opposition,” Wilder said. “It was tight, because this is top ten football in the top division. To get the breakthrough, when we did, was a real reward for what the boys put in.”
The 34th assignment of the Premier League season exposed United to the networks which now control modern day football. On paper, this was Wilder’s men versus Wolves - a team which also blazed a trail out of the second tier only recently.
In practice, it was United against one of the most minted and well-connected clubs in England. Opponents who, depending on what source you read, were either purchased by a Chinese conglomerate because of their rich sporting heritage or to enable their new owners to reap some of the benefits of the HS2 rail project.
Fosun International, whose portfolio also includes stakes in Club Med, the Tsingtao brewery and Cirque de Soleil, have done more than even the enigmatic Santo to revive the visitors’ fortunes.
Bankrolling moves for some of the brightest talents in Portugal, they also recruited one of the world’s most powerful super agents to help grease the wheels.
Speaking before Egan converted from Oliver Norwood’s corner, Wilder had paid tribute to his opposite number’s expertise and tactical acumen.
“You’ve still got to produce results,” he insisted. “You’ve still got to be able to go out there and deliver proper performances.”
But there is no escaping the fact that, had Molineux not captured the imagination of these high-rollers from Shanghai, Santo would probably have required a little more than three years to work his magic. And it was Wilder’s adjustments, unleashing the pace of Lys Mousset and Richairo Zivkovic during the closing stages, which ultimately made the difference here.
With Jack O’Connell completing his first fixture since Project Restart was implemented, it was also noticeable how United’s strategy of throwing defenders forward on the overlap also worked much more effectively, with Enda Stevens enjoying more freedom because of the security the Liverpudlian brings.
“He probably could have done with another week,” Wilder acknowledged, referring to O’Connell. “But he stuck his hand up and I thought it was important we got him out there.”
Wolves, who remain sixth, found it tougher to navigate a way through United’s ranks than the worlds of geo-politics, soft-power and global finance which now exert influence over areas of the English game.
Adama Traore, built like a rugby league prop forward but tasked with patrolling the visitors’ right flank, used his considerable pace and power to punch a hole through United’s rearguard a quarter-of-an-hour into the game.
But, for the most part, it was Wilder’s men who probed and posed questions with greater purpose. Indeed, had Oli McBurnie’s header been an inch to either the left or the right, they would surely have taken the lead midway through the opening period after O’Connell, reminding why he had been selected ahead of Jack Robinson, charged forward on the overlap and whipped an accurate curling cross towards the centre-forward.
As the interval approached, however, so Wolves’ influence grew. Only the width of the crossbar prevented Ruben Neves from edging them in front with a well-taken free-kick after O’Connell had brought down Diogo Jota.
It was the only time Dean Henderson found himself in trouble throughout the entire evening, as United took charge after the interval.
“I was delighted we scored when we did,” Wilder said. “For obvious reasons. But also because they (Wolves) are a really, really strong group.”
United had prepared for the contest threatening wholesale changes after seeing a combination of injuries and the demands of the revised fixture schedule begin to take their toll on Wilder’s squad. In the event they made only two, with captain Billy Sharp joining O’Connell in the starting eleven as David McGoldrick began a course of treatment on his injured foot.
Wolves also had selection issues, although nowhere near as challenging as their hosts. Pedro Neto missed out after taking a heavy blow during their defeat by Arsenal but Daniel Podence, viewed by many as a replacement in waiting for Raul Jiminez, made the trip to South Yorkshire after leaving quarantine and testing negative for Covid-19.
“We’re stretched and we’re really having to dig in, because we don’t have the same squad size as other teams around us,” Wilder said. “But the boys can play too. You don’t get a result otherwise.”
Jiminez, who valued at around £90m is reportedly attracting interest from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, spent most of the evening on the periphery of a contest which ebbed one way and then the other. The same could be said of Traore, who had been one of the central characters in the story of Decemer’s 1-1 draw in the Black Country.
Instead it was Stevens who emerged as one of the most creative players on the pitch, charging upfield at every opportunity and producing a delightful centre just after the break which only just slid past both Sharp and substitute Mousset.
Zivkovic was the next to show, teeing up Baldock as United’s grip on proceedings tightened. But the wing-back miscalculated his angles, despite making good contact with his header.
No matter as, after Ben Osborn had seen an attempt scrambled behind for a corner, Egan climbed highest to beat Patricio - who stood rooted to the spot as the ball nestled in the back of Wolves’ net.
Chris Basham’s circling run as Norwood prepared to deliver the set-piece helped drag the Irishman’s marker out of position.
“I’ve got to say, second-half, we’ve nicked a tight win through sheer determination and desire, to go out there and do exactly that,” Wilder said. “I think this is right up there in terms of performance and result.”
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Baldock, Stevens, Norwood, Osborn, Berge, Sharp (Zivkovic 71), McBurnie (Mousset 49), Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Jagielka, K Freeman, Robinson, Rodwell.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Patricio, Doherty, Neves, Jiminez, Boly, Coady, Jota, Jonny, Saiss, Moutinho, Traore (Dendoncker 79). Not used: Ruddy, Podence, Gibbs-White, Vinagre, Campana, Kilman, Buur.
Referee: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).