James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The difficult decision facing Chris Wilder
It seems overcritical, perhaps even captious, to begin picking apart their performances this term.
Eight games into the season, only six months after returning following 12 years away, Sheffield United entered the international break above the other two newly promoted clubs and positioned comfortably in mid-table. Thanks, it must be said, to some combative displays against the likes of Everton and Chelsea. Not to mention, take Lys Mousset's goal at Goodison Park for example, some real flashes of brilliance.
But if United are to build upon the foundations they have successfully established at the beginning of the season, then some sober analysis is required. Rather than being seduced by the plaudits which have deservedly come their way, Chris Wilder's players must identify and then accept they can get better in several key areas.
The most obvious, given the manager's decision to highlight them and then hold those responsible publicly to account, is United's propensity for individual errors. The kind of which rarely go unpunished. Admittedly, given the squad's lack of top-flight experience, mistakes are inevitable. But still, even though the situation should improve as the novelty of being a top-flight side wears off, concentration levels could be better at times. Attention to detail is vital.
However, there are systemic changes United can make which could prove beneficial too. Not many, granted. But certainly one, on recent evidence, is how they provide service for their centre-forwards.
There have been times, particularly following United's defeat to Southampton, when it has been impossible not to feel sorry for Callum Robinson and Oli McBurnie. Having emerged as Wilder's preferred front two, the summer signings have spent most of the last four games running themselves to a standstill for precious little reward.
Okay, so you can make an argument this creates room for others. But by definition, strikers are always a team's best finishers. And taking chances, not creating them, has been a problem for United this term. The trouble is, the majority of them have fallen to midfielders or defenders since David McGoldrick succumbed to injury.
Despite returning more than the point per game average which has guaranteed survival in each of the last eight campaigns, United have only found the back of the net six times since Billy Sharp's equaliser on the opening weekend. Rather than intricate, patient build-ups which showcase their technique, perhaps it might be better to simply turn opponents with a simple pass over the top and allow McBurnie and his fellow centre-forward to try and hunt the ball down. At the very least, it would give them a much greater chance of getting the better of top-flight defenders. Or "physical beasts" as Wilder calls them. Sharp and to a lesser extent Mousset would appreciate this too.
Intriguingly, although he was criticised for wasting numerous opportunities before entering the treatment room, United are far more effective at prising apart rearguards whenever McGoldrick features prominently. The former Ipswich Town marksman has started half of their league outings so far, with the shots on target count during those games numbering 47 compared to 31 when he has not. So could there be a way of shoe-horning McGoldrick into the eleven whilst still selecting two more forwards. Playing him in the 'hole', where Mark Duffy used to operate, would seem to be the obvious solution. But that would necessitate moving John Lundstram, and he has been one of United's most influential figures so far this term.
These are the type of seemingly intractable problems coaches at the highest level must wrestle with on a daily basis. Wilder, as two promotions in the space of three seasons demonstrates, usually comes up with the right answer. His ability to do so again could be the difference between comfortably staying up and a gruelling scrap to avoid relegation. Given the strides they have taken, there is every reason to believe it will be the former.