Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: It's early days, but Blades look comfortable in the Premier League... and why I feel they have a few more higher gears to find yet
Like me, most Blades fans are probably still on cloud nine and rubbing their eyes at the Premier League table after the victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday.
We sit in EIGHTH place. Yes it’s ridiculously early days to assume anything yet, especially as we’ve had a supposed ‘easy’ start with regard to how the fixtures have fallen. But the signs from our performances so far are good….in fact, they’re very VERY good indeed!
Palace rocked up at BDTBL on Sunday having won seven of their last 10 Premier League away matches, having scored the second most away goals, and with the sixth best away record in the division last season. They came as an established Premier League side having spent the past seven years competing in it, fielded a team littered with big-name, expensive stars, and managed by the high-experienced and respected Roy Hodgson.
His CV contains a list of managerial jobs including the likes of Inter Milan and Liverpool, plus of course our own national team England – who actually rose to third in the world rankings during his largely successful reign. Thrown in spells with the Switzerland national team, plus West Brom, Blackburn and Fulham, and I think you’ll agree with me that the phrase “been there, seen it, done it” in football terms might adequately sum up his career.
So on Sunday, a trip up to Sheffield against a team new to the Premier League, pitting his wits against a manager also new to it, shouldn’t have really caused Roy any particular trouble then… right? No. Not right at all. In fact, wrong. Totally and utterly, completely wrong.
Because Roy Hodgson, with his hundreds and hundreds of top-level football matches under his belt and managerial experiences all over the world, was not ready, and had no answer to what confronted him on Sunday. As per usual, Chris Wilder – the manager whose CV contains less-famous clubs of Alfreton, Halifax and Oxford, and who hasn’t managed abroad to my knowledge (unless Bradway FC had a game on a beach somewhere during a Spanish holiday) – came out on top with his approach to the game, his player selections, and the crucial factor in getting his team to carry out the tactical instructions and playing shape that they’d all worked on and have brought them such success.
Sheffield United, on Sunday, looked like a team in total control of the game and in all honesty, I never felt Palace had the set-up – or their players showed even the necessary desire - to get something out of the game. Which is actually quite a damning statement, when you think about it.
Chris picked the same team and with a similar mindset to the Saturday before at Bournemouth. Obviously aware of Palace’s ability to use fast, athletic, powerful players to counter-attack, it was a formation with a hint of caution in mind – especially in the early stages of our first home game in the Premier League for 12 years.
With all the fireworks and hullaballoo of the Sky TV cameras there as well, we didn’t want our showcase game to fizzle out if Palace exploded into life before we’d even sat down and got settled in for the display! But as the game wore on it soon became apparent that only one team ever really looked like scoring, and despite the talents of flying wingers Zaha and Townsend, it was our own flying wing talent in the shape of our 6ft 3in centre-backs that seemed more likely to carve out openings.
Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell started pushing on, creating their now-famous overlaps and, coupled with instinctive movement and pace of our wing-backs in front of them, together with the calming assurance of Norwood and Lundstram alongside them, we looked the far better side. Far better than this established Premier League outfit, who specialise in away games, remember!
The goal came and deservedly so, after a trademark passage of ‘overload’ play on the left, aided by the clever football brain of the highly-impressive Luke Freeman, who cut inside brilliantly to create the chance. Lundstram scored, and although we didn’t realise at the time, after 47 minutes it was virtually game over.
It panned out to be a comfortable home win and three vital points in the bag, simply because Palace had no ideas or creative ability to even start to penetrate our rock-solid defence. We bang on about our marauding, rotating, over-lapping centre-backs and wing backs, but in all those words and comments, something is sometimes forgotten… they are also a superb defensive unit. When needed, they chase, press, compete, tackle, head and clear balls away…in other words, they are proper defenders who defend properly.
So when Palace resorted to hitting high hopeful balls into our box all the way through the second half, looking for the head of Benteke, there was only ever going to be one winner. If teams want to ‘mix it’ with us, we’re absolutely fine with that as Jack, John Egan and Bash will come out on top all day! Wilf Zaha disappeared (or maybe dived?) into a hole in the ground and Andros Townsend was substituted, and I swear it was the fastest he moved all afternoon as he ran across the pitch to the touchline!
Again, I will reiterate, it’s early days, but we seem to have adapted well to the initial demands of the Premier League, and we look in great shape. There are undoubtedly some big tests ahead, but having seen us in the past two matches, we have coped admirably with the different ones set us so far.
I genuinely believe that we are even ‘coasting’ a bit a the moment in second or third gear, and that’s not to take anything away from the team in any way shape or form, as it’s a deliberately cautious approach and without doubt the right one for now. We are simply finding our feet and our rhythm, and we have a few more higher gears to find yet. When we hit top gear, we’re going to take some stopping; believe me.
And by the way, reverse gear? Don’t even think about it! This team doesn’t have one. Onwards! UTB