James Shield's Sheffield United Column: In my eyes, this is what's wrong with the Blades
It’s not a criticism. How, when you consider the season as a whole, is it possible to be anything but impressed with Sheffield United this term?
Rather it’s an observation. A conclusion, admittedly based on what my eyes rather than scientific analysis tells me, about what Sheffield United - as they prepare for Sunday’s FA Cup tie against Arsenal at Bramall Lane - are: Physically and mentally shattered.
Wednesday evening’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester United, their second by the same margin in the space of 96 hours, was the third game of what has proven to be a disappointing return to Premier League action for manager Chris Wilder and his players.
After controversially being held to a draw at Aston Villa last week - their first outing since competition was suspended because of coronavirus in March - United viewed the visit to Newcastle four days later as a chance to get that now infamous Hawkeye and VAR cluster-whatsit out of their systems. But a disappointing sequence of second-half events, starting with John Egan’s sending-off, saw them succumb in strangely meek fashion.
The same can be said of their trip to Old Trafford where, after showing brief flashes of their old selves during the opening six and a bit minutes, they fell behind when Anthony Martial set himself on course for a maiden career hat-trick.
In a sense, even though they have returned only a point, United’s most recent three outings have been the most revealing of the campaign so far. Why? Because they demonstrate just how much of their mind, bodies and souls Wilder’s squad has invested in the displays which saw them climb to seventh in the table before the country entered lockdown. I suspect, with the 2019/20 fixture programme now entering its 10th month, that Herculean effort is now beginning to show.
Although effort and courage are two hallmarks of this group, much of the coverage surrounding their rise through the divisions overlooks the fact they have lashings of talent too. But at this stage of their top-flight development, it is inevitable United are required to work even harder - or in different and more stressful ways to be exact - than, say, those at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's disposal. The sames goes for the players Mikel Arteta will deploy this weekend too.
Another feature of ‘Project Restart’ - and arguably the most disappointing - has probably compounded this problem. With matches taking place behind closed doors, there is no sense of occasion surrounding top-flight contests. And when fatigue sets in, as every professional sportsperson will admit, the roar of the crowd - whether it’s for or against - can help you discover reserves of energy you didn’t even know you had.
Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that the loss of several key squad members has not contributed to United’s difficulties of late. This is a team in the true sense of the word - a well-oiled machine, fine-tuned during hours and hours on the training pitches of the Steelphalt Academy. When several of its parts are missing, and replaced with pieces yet to be greased with the same knowledge and nous only competitive action can provide, it is bound to falter slightly.
But it was fascinating to watch how the best player on the pitch at Old Trafford - Manchester United’s Paul Pogba - looked every inch a £90m footballer two days ago rather than a very expensive mistake. The Frenchman has come back fully refreshed because, thanks to an injury and some off-the-pitch issues, he has enjoyed a long break. The same can be said for Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, who is likely to start when Jose Mourinho’s men make the journey to South Yorkshire early next month.
It is also a damn sight less tiring to play with the ball than spending the best part of 90 minutes chasing it around. Wilder bemoaned the frequency with which United turned over possession against Solskjaer’s side. Is this a symptom of fatigue?
With preparation time limited ahead of the meeting with Arsenal - something Wilder referenced during his latest post-match media conference - perhaps the best thing United can do to try and rediscover their trademark flamboyance and zest is clip the locks back on the training grounds doors, put their feet up and have a rest. It might just do them the power of good. That and, even though they can't be inside the ground with them, a gesture of solidarity from a support base which has been such a huge and loyal part of what United have achieved over the past four years. There have been times in the past when the fans have been sold badly short by those tasked with representing their club. This isn't one of them.
Much of the reaction to events at St James' Park wasn't 'over the top', fickle or any of the other words and phrases used by some to take a sly dig at those responsible. Published on social media immediately after the game, it was simply an outpouring of disappointment from folk who enjoy a deep and personal emotional bond with their football club.
Who usually gets it in the neck when you've got the hump? Those closest to you. The ones you actually care about the most, and then always put an arm around their shoulder afterwards.