James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Stop talking cobblers, us Brits can be up there with the best

When Marcelo Bielsa opened-up his laptop and began hosting an impromptu seminar on football management, supporters swooned, journalists fawned and those who realised they were in for the long haul sent-out for refreshments.

By james.shield1
Wednesday, 27th March 2019, 12:27 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th March 2019, 8:08 pm
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

The seminar, held in the wake of the Spygate scandal which had threatened to engulf Leeds, was indeed fascinating. The sheer level of detail, the in-depth scouting dossiers and painstaking briefings on opposition teams, provided a revealing insight into the preparation he puts into games. No so much loco, as the 63-year-old as been dubbed, as thorough and meticulous.

To some people, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino included, Bielsa is a genius. The body of work he has compiled during a remarkable career, including stints in charge of Chile, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao before embarking upon his transformational spell at Elland Road, is mightily impressive. The West Yorkshire club are no longer viewed as a model of how not to do things in the Championship. Rather, after making a series of changes both on and off the pitch, they are a shining example of how intelligent leadership and innovative thinking can be the catalyst for a change in fortune.

The same can be said at Sheffield United too, although Chris Wilder and his coaching staff still receive little public acclaim beyond the boundaries of South Yorkshire despite the 51-year-old being named the best manager in the division by the English Football League on Tuesday evening. Bielsa, whose side were beaten by the visitors from Bramall Lane two weekends ago, is an exception; describing his opposite number's take on the 3-5-2 system as "worthy of study." Devised, or at least brought to prominence, by compatriot Carlos Bilardo, the Argentine can be forgiven for being intrigued by Wilder's interpretation.

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Chris Wilder and Marcelo Bielsa: Bruce Rollinson

It is therefore justified to ask why the likes of Wilder and Preston North End's Alex Neil, whose injury hit but play-off chasing squad will pose a serious test for second-placed United at Deepdale early next month, do not enjoy the same reverence as Bielsa or Daniel Farke, whose work with leaders Norwich City is similarly excellent?

Lee Johnson, who brings his enterprising Bristol City side to South Yorkshire tomorrow, might pose the same question too.

The answer, I believe, is snobbery and a strange peculiarity of the British game; the assumption that foreign is always best.

Stripping away the unsexy postings on their respective CV's, Wilder and Neil, whose use of the youth system at Hamilton Academical was both insightful and inspired, deserve greater acclaim than they actually receive in the wider footballing world. The same can be said of United's Alan Knill and Paul Mitchell, whose ability to spot a player capable of blossoming within Wilder's tactical framework is responsible for much of the squad's progress on a competitive but modest budget when compared to some of those around them in the table.

Derby County manager Frank Lampard and Preston North End manager Alex Neil (left): Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

The trouble is, particularly in Wilder's case, neither he nor Neil explain their methods by using ridiculous language. United's win at Leeds was, for example, "a full on big b******s performance." After watching his side beat Birmingham City later that day, Neil admitted: "We only go under the radar because nobody cares about Preston apart from those involved with Preston, but we don't care."

In a strange way, if indeed they are even bothered, the two are probably partly responsible for their own lack of recognition. Many of their contemporaries, wise to people's love of indulging in pseudo-academic analysis and willingness to be seduced by psycho-babble, talk about philosophies, playing between the lines and low blocks when what they are actually referring to is strategy, passing and applying pressure. But that does not quite sound as good.

The sooner people realise football is essentially about people, not spreadsheets and scientific theories of sometimes dubious provenance, the better. The daft thing is, Bielsa and Farke probably already accept that fact.

Norwich City manager Daniel Farke: John Walton/PA Wire
Bristol City manager Lee Johnson: Nick Potts/PA Wire