James Shield's Sheffield United Column: They won't want to do it, any switch can be subtle, but The Blades might have to consider making this change soon
First things first, I want to make it clear that those folk tasked with playing football for Sheffield United and the ones whose job it is to make sure they are properly prepared have probably forgotten more about the game than I’ll ever know.
I also feel compelled to state that I’ve never - and to reassure supporters of a nervous disposition, probably never will - been asked to coach or manage a Premier League team. Not even one in the Blades Super Draw League for that matter. Fear not, dear reader, your favourite side is safe.
Still, as United brace themselves for Saturday’s crucial match against fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion, I can’t help wondering if something has to change. Other than results of course, with United making the trip to The Hawthorns at the bottom of the table, hoping to win at the 10th time of asking and with only a point to their name so far this term.
Chris Wilder, who has been responsible for transforming the club’s fortunes since taking charge four years ago, is understandably loath to radically overhaul his squad’s personnel and approach despite its disappointing start to the campaign. United haven’t been outclassed in any of the nine fixtures they have contested following September’s return to action, save for the final quarter-of-an-hour or so of their recent 4-1 loss to Chelsea. Reigning champions Liverpool and their immediate predecessors Manchester City only beat them by a single goal. The same goes for Arsenal while Aston Villa and Leeds, who have also condemned United to defeat, both profited from controversial - and in at least one instance - incorrect refereeing decisions. (Which highlights the fallacy of VAR, but that’s another story).
But should Wilder and other members of Bramall Lane’s brains trust consider abandoning, if only for the time being, the 3-5-2 system which became United’s trademark during their promotions in 2017, 2019 and also en route to a nine placed finish last season? Personally, I think so - although I can also appreciate why others better qualified to comment than myself would petition otherwise, using the evidence I’ve just detailed which reveal how small margins can have a mighty big impact upon outcomes and performance.
The reason I ask is because, by the manager’s own admission, United’s balance has been affected by the loss of Jack O’Connell. The centre-half’s absence after undergoing knee surgery has left Wilder with only one overlapping centre-half at his disposal - the redoubtable Chris Basham - following United’s failure to draft-in a like for like replacement during the recent transfer window.
Their solution to this problem, after deciding to stick rather than twist in the formation stakes, has been to move Enda Stevens - for my money, one of the best attacking wing-backs in the competition right now - inside to fill the void created by O’Connell’s injury. It makes sense, because the Republic of Ireland international has deputised there before and is capable of providing the left flank of United’s back three with some attacking thrust. But Stevens wouldn’t be considered for selection there in normal circumstances, because he isn’t a central defender by trade. And so it could be claimed, what United have done, is simply weaken themselves in two positions rather than one.
This is one of those awkward situations where I can see, and appreciate, both sides of the argument.
Jack Robinson might, but has yet to properly master the role. That is not a criticism of the 27-year-old, who was signed from Nottingham Forest in January, because it took O’Connell the best part of a season to complete his own apprenticeship. And, unlike his colleague, Robinson does not have the luxury of fine-turning his understanding against League One opponents. Nicolas Pepe, Willian and Patrick Aubameyang are, with all due respect, more likely to punish positional missteps than, say, Kieran Agard or Jonathan Obika. Phil Jagielka remains an important presence but, at 38, probably no longer has the engine to perform such a gruelling job. Ethan Ampadu, on loan from Chelsea, does but his athleticism and ability to pick a pass means he can make more of a contribution in midfield where United must be careful not to ask too much too soon of John Fleck following his own fitness issues.
Wilder’s decision to turn to Stevens suggests he is unconvinced Robinson, Jagielka or Ampadu are entirely comfortable or suited to providing a foil for Basham right now. It is hoped, with Ampadu damaging a hip during last weekend’s meeting with West Ham, that Stevens is available for selection in the Midlands after missing that fixture with a knock of his own. United’s three man rearguard has provided the platform for some exhilarating, scintillating performances under Wilder. But its ability to do so is the result of hours, months and even years of practicing the required choreography on the training ground. If it isn’t fluid, it can falter. Which is why, even though it would also represent a huge gamble, I wonder if Wilder and his staff are either contemplating a switch or would be wise to do so.
Taking either path is a risk.
What everyone can agree on, however, is the need, unless O’Connell makes a miraculous recovery, for United to bring in tailor-made cover when the market reopens in January. Whether they have begun to climb the rankings by then or not. Because, losing O’Connell has exposed a major flaw in an armoury which, when it is firing on all cylinders, has shown itself to be capable of pulverising some of the most formidable defences in England.