But against a Leicester City side he believes can challenge for the European places, manager Chris Wilder and his squad will take heart from the fact that, until Harvey Barnes conjured a moment of footballing magic, they were on course to claim another morale-boosting result. After drawing with AFC Bournemouth on the opening weekend of the campaign and beating Crystal Palace eight days later, United had already demonstrated they can be more than competitive at Premier League level. Despite the result - Oli McBurnie cancelling out Jamie Vardy's opener before the visitors' substitute pounced - they confirmed as much again with a combative performance against Brendan Rodgers' side.
The momentum of the first half flowed one way and then the next before Vardy ensured City entered the interval enjoying the most slender of leads.
But the fact it was impossible to ever quite establish who was on top - a period of pressure from one team was inevitably followed by a shot on goal from the other - will have been of greater comfort to United than than their opponents. Until, of course, a lapse in concentration presented Vardy with the chance to fire home past Dean Henderson.
The former England international, who had earlier found himself on the receiving end of a thumping Jack O'Connell challenge, glanced wide from Youri Tielemans' cross as United and City created a series of chances. At the other end, George Baldock found the sweet spot when he met O'Connell's centre but not a route past Kasper Schmeichel.
In the end it was a mistake, from the usually dependable Chris Basham, which led to Vardy's goal. Robbed of possession by Ayoze Perez, he could only watch as James Maddison then scrambled forward and released Vardy, who fired home at the near post.
O'Connell spurned a glorious chance to equalise seconds before the break, but headed Oliver Norwood's corner back across goal.
It was the introduction of Billy Sharp and McBurnie which enabled United to plot a route back into the game. Although it was the latter who levelled - heading home past a despairing Kasper Schmeichel after Baldock had punched a hole in City's rearguard - Sharp's presemce seemed to lift both his colleagues and the crowd.
That was until Barnes restored City's lead with a superb finish during the closing stages; Henderson left rooted to the spot as the ball flew past him following an exchange involving Christian Fuchs and Caglar Soyuncu.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (Morrison 78), Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Lundstram, L Freeman, McGoldrick (McBurnie 54), Robinson (Sharp 54). Not used: Moore, Jagielka, Osborn, Besic.
Leicester City: Schmeichel, Soyuncu, Evans, Tielemans (Mendy 89), Choudhury, Pereira, Fuchs, Praets (Barnes 65), Maddison, Perez (Morgan 78), Vardy. Not used: Ward, Justin, Morgan, Gray, Albrighton.
Referee: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire).