James Shield: The issues Sheffield United must address, and problems they will be required to overcome, in order to prosper this season
On Monday, Sheffield United play their first match of the new Premier League season - when Wolverhampton Wanderers make the journey to Bramall Lane.
Can Chris Wilder’s side improve on last term’s results, when they finished ninth in the table despite being tipped for relegation? Or does, with a new look squad set to be unveiled against Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, eight months of struggle await? The Star’s United writer James Shield analyses some of the major issues surrounding United ahead of next week’s return to competitive action and tries to plot a course through some of the noise surrounding the build-up to what promises to be another eventful campaign.
Are The Blades better, worse off or - in about the same shape as when they completed the 2019/20 fixture programme? At the beginning of the summer, Wilder promised the options at his disposal would be stronger than the ones he selected from ahead of United’s trip to AFC Bournemouth 13 months ago; their first top-flight match since 2007. Although the loss of Dean Henderson is a blow - he has rejoined Manchester United following two seasons on loan in South Yorkshire - Aaron Ramsdale appears to be an excellent replacement, while Wes Foderingham’s arrival after leaving Rangers means the goalkeeping department looks to have more depth than before. Signing Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe and Ethan Ampadu gives United more room for manoeuvre at the back, while capturing Oliver Burke could turn out to be an inspired piece of business. Although United would still benefit from more firepower and pace up front - assuming Lys Mousset continues to struggle with his fitness - Wilder has certainly kept his word.
Is the dreaded - second season syndrome going to be an issue? If United do struggle, then it won’t be because of some mythical condition which supposedly afflicts clubs who survive after returning to the top-flight. It will be because they either aren’t performing well enough, have suffered a glut of injuries to key players or are unable to rediscover the rhythm which carried them onto the cusp of the European places last term. Some observers are peddling the idea that United’s take on the 3-5-2 system, which involves enterprising wing-backs and overlapping centre-halves, will not carry the same element of surprise. It didn’t carry one last term, because every manager will have pored over footage of their games en route to promotion from the Championship.
But there must be - some dangers, right? There are, as United’s results when Jack O’Connell was forced to miss the beginning of ‘Project Restart’ revealed. Despite being a team in the true sense of the word, some players are clearly more important than others. And O’Connell is one of those. Jack Robinson proved to be a solid deputy but United did not possess the same attacking threat, or the same fluency, when O’Connell was out. No English player is better in a back three than the Liverpudlian - end of.
Which begs the question - why he hasn’t been selected for England? Particularly as, after watching Gareth Southgate’s men toil against Denmark earlier this week after setting up in the same shape, the television pundits spent an age bemoaning the fact there are no left footed centre-halves eligible and equipped to represent the Three Lions. Err, there are.
So what are - the other challenges? Well, United must score more goals for a start. Their march up the table last season was built on a rock solid defence but, in order to take the next step, they must become more clinical. And perhaps creative too, with United taking the fewest number of shots in the division after climbing out of the second tier. However, it must be noted that Wilder and his coaching staff prefer to create quality chances rather than simply chances. Although another centre-forward is likely to arrive, there is also a responsibility on Oli McBurnie, Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick to make even bigger contributions too. Hopefully Mousset also. The kid has got everything other than conditioning.
There are plenty of reasons to be - confident, of course. New signings always create the most excitement and column inches at this time of year. But longer serving members of the squad should also benefit from 12 months’ worth of top-flight experience. They will be wiser, more accustomed to the requirements of Premier League football and so, hopefully, even more effective. The same goes for those working off the pitch too.
Fingers crossed The Blades - can make a good start. Staying up is still United’s most important target next season and the solid foundations they laid at the start of last term proved to be crucial. Especially with regards to confidence and giving players the belief to express themselves. The longer United can stay in the Premier League, the more they can develop the team, the training ground, their academy, their scouting networks and, as unromantic as it sounds, their bank account.
And that - the authorities can find a way to get fans back safely back inside stadiums as quickly as possible, because football in the Covid-19 era is a pretty sterile experience. The People's Game needs to be watched by people in the flesh. Not on television. It's a crying shame United's fans are unable to enjoy the whole PL experience after staying loyal during the bad times. They are a powerful weapon in the whole club’s armoury too.
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