Match Analysis: How being “Unorthodox” helped Sheffield United underscore their promotion credentials by beating West Bromwich Albion
The editor of the matchday programme proved remarkably prescient, splashing the words "Gladiators" and "A hero will rise to head in the first" across the front page of his latest publication.
The only trouble, not that Sheffield United gave a stuff as they celebrated another win over a direct promotion rival, was that Kieran Dowell rather than West Bromwich Albion's Kyle Bartley answered the emotive calls to arms. And the goal he scored, using his forehead to loop Martin Cranie's centre beyond Sam Johnstone and into the back of the net, proved to be the opening and only goal of this crucial contest towards the top end of the Championship.
Speaking afterwards, analysing United's performance and tracing the course of the game, Chris Wilder did his best to play down its potential implications. Indeed, preferring to highlight those areas where he felt they had come up short, the visitors' manager went as far to insist Darren Moore's side would have triumphed by "three or four" had the roles been reversed.
So as Wilder focused on injecting some perspective into the promotion debate, reminding that nothing definitive had been decided at The Hawthorns, defender Marvin Johnson was the one tasked with identifying why, with only a dozen matches remaining, United find themselves second in the table and peering down on some serious financial heavyweights.
"Being unorthodox helps," he said, referring to a system which utilises overlapping centre-halves, enterprising wing-backs and defies tactical logic. "Teams probably play against the same formations a lot, especially in this division.
"We're a bit more mixed up, even though everybody has seen us in action, we're hard to pick up when we do it right.
"When we're on form, it works really well for us."
Dowell's effort, his first since arriving on loan from Everton last month, laid bare both the thinking behind United's approach and why it is so difficult for opponents to combat. As Kieron Freeman picked up the ball and drove deep into the West Brom half, before releasing a pass which Cranie did superbly well to whip back across the box, six of Wilder's players had poured forward towards the penalty area. The overwhelming majority, were either defenders or midfielders and it was one of the latter who applied the finishing touch.
"We know what kind of side they are," Johnson continued. "We couldn't afford to come here and sit back.
"When we do attack the gaffer just wants us to be free and have players in and around the box because that's where we're going to score goals and that's what he's bothered about.
"We got the goal and we had backing there, so if Kieran had missed the header, we had other boys following in, which is great."
With fourth-placed West Brom entering the fixture as the most prolific team in the division and able to call upon most of the squad which competed in the Premier League last term, United always knew Saturday's match would prove a test of their footballing prowess. Given the scheduling, with leaders Norwich City, third placed Leeds and Middlesbrough in fifth all posting victories beforehand, it became a psychological challenge too as Johnson and his colleagues kicked their heels in the dressing room and watched the results come in. It is not a scenario they have always dealt well with in the past, often dropping points when the taking to the pitch either after or ahead of others with designs on reaching the top-flight. So, although Wilder disputed the notion it has ever been an issue, United's ability to negotiate safe passage through the game suggested they are now a much more mature and knowledgeable unit that the one which began the January transfer window.
"That's the hard thing, you do a lot of sitting around and you see the scores," Johnson admitted. "You've got to make sure you get the right result, especially if the teams around you are winning., We saw them up to half-time,. We knew we had to be right on it.
"At this stage, when you get in at the final whistle you are straight on your phone checking the results. At this stage of the season, it's about getting the results as you can."
Despite their supposedly depleted resources - Jack O'Connell and George Baldock both ruled-out through injury and John Egan and Cranie later withdrawn with calf problems - United could easily have extended their advantage had Johnstone not produced an excellent save to deny Johnson following Dowell's intervention. Deploying Jake Livermore and Gareth Barry together in midfield, fourth-placed West Brom lacked the drive of Wilder's men and only began to trouble United's rearguard when Jefferson Montero was introduced late on; Dean Henderson excelling himself to deny the Ecuadorian a last gasp equaliser.
The hosts, who saw a Jay Rodriguez effort correctly ruled-out for handball, were fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men when Kieran Gibbs caught Freeman high and late soon after the restart. Enda Stevens, whose only mistake of the evening allowed Montero to go racing through, made a series of important blocks after again being tasked with deputising for O'Connell at centre-half.
"It's pretty tight up there and we can only take it game by game," Johnson said. " A lot of people are probably doubting us, being up there. But all of them have seen how we go about it and, if we keep the same tempo, then we'll win more than we lose."
West Bromwich Albion: Johnstone, Gibbs, Livermore (Edwards 87), Phillips (Montero 65), Gayle, Barry, Rodriguez, Dawson, Hegazi (Adarabioyo 65), Harper, Holgate. Not used: Bond, Bartley, Johansen, Edwards, Field.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Stevens, Egan (Stearman 46), Cranie (Basham 75), Freeman, Johnson, Norwood, Fleck, Dowell, Sharp, McGoldrick (Madine 65). Not used: Moore, Hogan, Coutts, Duffy.
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).Attendance: 24,928