James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The tactic that can lead Chris Wilder's side towards Premier League survival

It was a step forward. Only a small one, admittedly. But a step forward nonetheless.

Friday, 9th October 2020, 6:00 am

The goal David McGoldrick scored against Arsenal last weekend was Sheffield United’s first of the new Premier League season. But after being beaten at the Emirates Stadium, and losing to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Leeds en route to London, Chris Wilder’s side are preparing for next Saturday’s meeting with Fulham still without a point since returning to action.

You can dress it up how you want - and yes, it is still far too early to start pressing any panic buttons - but only a fool would argue that United are in a great place right now. Because clearly they’re not. Either in terms of form, confidence or their position in the table. Only goal difference separates them from Scott Parker’s men, who are propping up the rest of the division after beginning the 2020/21 fixture programme in equally uninspiring fashion.

United, of course, have been in similarly dire straits before. After being appointed in May 2016, Wilder failed to win any of his opening five matches at the helm. Social media has been awash with reminders about what happened next - a 2-1 victory over his former employers Oxford sparking an amazing upturn in fortunes which saw United win League One at a canter and reach 100 points. But that was the third tier. They are now competing at elite level where, given the sheer quality of the opposition, making up lost ground will be much more difficult.

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"I’ve played in all the divisions, including the Conference, and I can honestly say the jump from the Championship to the Prem is the biggest of all,” Oli McBurnie, the United and Scotland centre-forward said during a recent training camp in Edinburgh, after helping Wilder’s team finish ninth last term. “Seriously, it’s so big in fact that peopke wouldn’ believe it. The difference is something else because one mistake, one lapse in concentration, well, it’s fatal at this level. Lower down, you can probably get away with a few of them but now, no way.”

Although retelling the story of how four years ago, after suffering a particularly gut-wrenching defeat at Millwall, United’s players stopped off at an off licence in Bermondsey, loaded up on booze and thrashed out their problems during the drive home, stirs some fond memories, they do little to solve the issues facing them right now. Speaking after his most recent visit to London, Wilder challenged the notion United had lost seven in a row because four of those came at the end of last term.

“This is a new season,” he said. “New people, new challenges, new campaign.” Wilder is right. But those who agree with him, and then try to argue that events 50 months ago will have any bearing now, are simply trying to have it both ways.

"We’re starting from scratch,” McBurnie acknowledged in August. “What we did back then doesn’t count for anything now. We’ve got to go out there and do it all over again, work even harder and try to keep on improving because football doesn’t stand still. The thing is, though, that we know we can do it because we’ve already shown we can do it. Still, it’s all about looking to the future not harking back to the past.”

Referee Lee Mason refused to award a foul and send David Luiz off despite this 'challenge' on Oliver Burke at the start of Sheffield United's game against Arsenal: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

What that alcohol fuelled journey back up to Yorkshire does, however, is provide an insight into United’s character. As such, it also reveals a tool United can use to try and haul themselves out of trouble and retain their top-flight status.

Wilder is a manager who enjoys being written-off and then proving the doubters wrong. So much so - and this is an observation, not a criticism - he’s been known to deliberately pick a fight, or take offence at something that’s been written when he knows none was meant - in order to provoke a response from those under his command. Given the remarkable success United have enjoyed under his stewardship, it has proved to be an effective tactic.

"We were told we were down before we’d even kicked all ball last time around,” Wilder said before boarding the coach to the capital. “We were told that we didn’t stand a chance and were out of our depth. But the boys did great, as everybody knows and everybody knows there’s no reason why they can't do it again.

"Yes, there are little bits you use from time to time. Some of it you might want to stick up and let everyone know about. There’s also some of it, you just ignore and concentrate with getting on with your job. Not all of it, though. Because it wouldn’t be right to say that’s what always happens. It doesn’t. You use what you can and search out those little ‘wins’ where you can find them. That’s what we have to do because of where we’re at with regards to ouyr development at this level but, to be fair, I think everyone probably is the same.”

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield identifies what makes Chris Wilder's team tick

After finding themselves on the wrong end of some terrible officiating decisions of late, including John Egan’s sending-off at Villa and then David Luiz’s tug on Oliver Burke’s shirt that wasn’t at the beginning of their contest with The Gunners - United might want to convince themselves the powers-that-be want them to drop. Wilder’s men usually produce their best when they believe the world is against them.

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John Egan was sent-off against Aston Villa, although Chris Wilder was later told he should have remained on the pitch: Simon Bellis/Sportimage