Like Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, Sheffield United are changing the face of football...unfortunately so is VAR
A little over 48 hours before kick-off, when he sat down with the media to discuss Sheffield United’s forthcoming visit to Manchester City, Chris Wilder made no secret of his admiration for the manager he would soon be meeting inside the Etihad Stadium’s technical area.
“He’s changed the game,” Wilder said, when the conversation turned towards Pep Guadiola. “And not many managers can claim to have done that in the history of football.”
The former Barcelona, Brescia and Roma midfielder has transformed touchline attire too. But it is Guardiola’s tactical nous, not his Stone Island jacket or Dsquared2 jeans, which have earned Wilder’s respect since his arrival in England three years ago. The passing, the movement and the constant rotation - three hallmarks of the Catalan’s teams - were all in evidence during both clubs’ final Premier League fixture of 2019. Likewise the suffocating pressure applied to the opposition whenever they dared to wrestle possession away from Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Sergio Aguero.
Wilder might not be able to rival Guardiola in the fashion stakes. His regulation club tracksuit, accessorised with a shiny black gilet and comfortable trainers, would probably never ever darken his rival’s wardrobe. But in terms of strategy, devising systems and formations wholly different to the norm, Wilder has made an arguably greater impression on this season’s competition than Guardiola. Indeed it was telling, until City profited from another VAR omnishambles, that the latter spent long periods of the evening deep in concentration and rubbing the designer stubble on his chin as he tried to fathom a way of preventing United’s defenders from charging up the pitch to help out in attack. Wilder, like his much-feted counterpart, likes to think outside the box.
Although the battle of wits between the respective benches was fascinating - United, mindful of City’s preference for playing high up the pitch, selecting the turbo-charged Callum Robinson and Lys Mousset at centre-forward - this result was ultimately decided by someone 197 miles away in a glass fronted building on a nondescript industrial estate.
Predictably, understandably, that angered Wilder who after initially pledging to give video reviews a chance, is now sick of talking about them.
“Just hit ‘play’ because I’ve already made my thoughts clear,” he replied, when quizzed on Mousset’s disallowed ‘goal’. “Do we want people drawing silly lines all over the place? Do we want people putting blurred lines on things that no one else can understand? No. But that’s what we have got.”
Wilder then turned his attention to events which, before De Bruyne applied the coup-de-grace, put City on course to victory.
“He’s definitely affected things,” Wilder said, describing the moment referee Chris Kavanagh obstructed John Fleck and in turn allowed Aguero to break the deadlock. “In fairness, he (Kavanagh) invited me into his room afterwards and was very open about it. It was a private conversation. Whether or not the PGMOL issue a statement, we’ll have to see. I’ll keep things private but you can put two and two together. Let’s leave it at that.”
“We saw during the summer, in one of our friendlies, that play usually stops when something like that happens,” Wilder continued. “Nobody knew what was happening then but that was the new rule that’s supposedly been brought in.
“If it had have been stopped, then I don’t think there’d have been too many complaints from them (City). Let me put it like this, and I’ve got the ultimate respect for Pep and his club, if it had have happened the other way around I think a lot more might have been made of it.”
Despite the gulf between them in terms of top-flight experience and of course financial resources, United looked more than City’s equals for much of this game. Which, when you consider they gained promotion only eight months ago, is nothing short of remarkable. Not to mention a testament to both the intelligence and technical prowess of Wilder and his players.
The finest move of the first-half, possibly even the match, was crafted by two midfielders wearing red and white stripes as first Oliver Norwood and then John Fleck, demonstrating a much better grasp of geometry than the officials at Stockley Park, sent Mousset bearing down on City’s penalty area. His shot was on target. Claudio Bravo, deputising for the suspended Ederson, powerless to prevent it reaching the back of the bet. But Stuart Attwell, from the safety of his bunker in London’s south-western suburbs, ruled Mousset had strayed offside.
It was a dubious call. But nowhere near as controversial as the one which allowed Aguero to break the deadlock. As he prepared to receive Norwood’s pass, Fleck was impeded by Kavanagh and surrendered possession. Aguero’s finished in the manner you would expect of a marksman who reputedly earns around £250,000 a week. But United were incredulous, actually make that downright furious, that after studying a replay Attwell allowed this goal to stand.
“If he hadn’t been offside,” Guardiola said, scrolling back to Mousset’s run. “Then it would have been incredibly difficult to beat them.”
“I already knew it but now I really understand,” he continued. “Why Sheffield are in the position they are in the table.”
United’s performance, as Guardiola appeared to concede, deserved better. As did their bold approach, which saw them end the contest with three strikers on the pitch following the introductions of Oli McBurnie, David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp. But as the latter waited to be introduced, City scored a second when De Bruyne wrong-footed Dean Henderson during the closing stages.
It was another fine conversion. It also ensured United’s unbeaten run away from home, which prior to kick-off had stretched all the way back to January, came to an end. But neither the Belgian’s effort, nor the farcical manner in which games are now being governed, should deflect from the calibre of United’s contribution. On the pitch, in the dug-outs and also in the stands, where the singing of their supporters provided a noisy soundtrack.
“I’m not saying we would have won if some of the things that happened, hadn’t happened,” Wilder said. “Were they better than us in possession overall? Yes. They’ve got some wonderful players.
“But they certainly played a part. I didn’t think up until then there was a great deal between us.
“That’s doesn’t make things easier to take though.”
Manchester City: Bravo, Walker, Sterling (Jesus 88), Aguero (Foden 81), Zinchenko, Rodrigo, De Bruyne, Silva (Gundogan 63), Fernandinho, Mahrez, Garcia. Not used: Carson, Mendy, Cancelo, Otamendi.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Besic (McBurnie 76), Robinson (McGoldrick 60), Mousset. Not used: Verrips, L Freeman, Sharp, Jagielka, Osborn.
Referee: Chris Kavanagh (Manchester).