Sheffield United are lavished with praise by an old enemy despite being held to a draw by Watford
“They’ve got a fantastic work ethic and they play a very expansive brand of football,” was Nigel Pearson’s take on this Sheffield United team.
These are strange times indeed in the Premier League. Not only is Chris Wilder’s squad pushing for a place in Europe, only eight months after sealing promotion from the Championship. But, having been described as “basic” and “simple” by some supposedly neutral analysts, it took an opposition manager - and a former Sheffield Wednesday captain at that - to provide the type of critical assessment most of those who watched this Boxing Day fixture against Watford would appreciate an recognise.
Indeed, despite watching his side frustrate United’s search for a fourth consecutive win, Pearson’s post-match observations were even more complimentary.
“It’s a fabulous brand of football,” he insisted. “I think it’s very refreshing for the game.”
The qualities which have seduced Pearson were again in evidence during the final contest Bramall Lane will stage before the turn of the year. Their centre-halves bombed forward. A wing-back won a penalty and John Fleck and Oliver Norwood were both tenacious in midfield.
The only trouble was, even after Norwood’s penalty had cancelled-out Gerard Deulofeu’s opener, United struggled to join-up these different facets of their game.
And on those occasions when they did, such as when substitute Lys Mousset found Fleck inside the six yard box, Wilder’s men found Ben Foster in inspired form. The visitors’ goalkeeper had earlier twice denied Oli McBurnie before United’s promising start began to peter-out.
“We weren’t at our best,” Wilder conceded, following a sometimes fractious 1-1 draw. “We just couldn’t find that last bit. And when we did, their ‘keeper has made an incredible save. Even though I thought we really should have scored.”
Suspecting this would prove a much tougher assignment than the rankings might suggest, Wilder had begun preparing both his players and the crowd for a gruelling arm-wrestle 72 hours before kick-off.
Pearson’s track record, most notably his spell in charge of Leicester City, was mentioned. Wilder also shoe-horned his counterpart’s associations with Hillsborough - “He’ll be desperate to nail the old enemy” - into all of his pre-match conversations.
But it was the depth of experience and quality at Pearson’s disposal which appeared to trouble Wilder most.
Yes, he acknowledged, the visitors’ start to the season had been difficult. And that was being polite.
But confidence, not calibre, can probably explain why a team which reached last term’s FA Cup final made the journey north looking up at the rest of the division. After all, it was a former Barcelona player who handed them the lead before Oliver Norwood, signed from Brighton and Hove Albion, levelled from the spot.
Picking apart both the build-up to Deulofeu’s finish and events afterwards, Wilder and Pearson provided an insight into the tactical research top-flight coaches perform on opposition teams.
The Spaniard’s strike was clinical, after Nathaniel Chalobah’s header had pierced United’s defence. But absolving Dean Henderson of any responsibility for the breakthrough - the on-loan youngster advanced off his line and then stopped before being beaten at the near post - Wilder instead highlighted an error further upfield. Pearson, meanwhile, suggested a move which had started with Foster’s long upfield punt, had actually featured in Watford’s plan.
“In terms of Dean’s positioning, of course we’ll have a look,” Wilder said. “But in terms of the goal, I don’t even think it should have come to that because in the week, when you do all your preparation, one of the things you highlight is those narrow runs Deulofeu and (Ismaila) Sarr make.
“We’d already tracked a couple and seen them out. But we didn’t do it with that one, and you saw what happened.”
“Like I say, I love their brand and the way they go about things,” Pearson reminded. “But every brand of football has got a weakness. And our goal maybe exploited the one their brand has got, which is the swift counter attack.”
Just as the fact Watford’s ability to recruit players such as Deulofeu and Sarr, a £30m Senegal international, underlines the disparity in riches between newly promoted sides and those who have enjoyed a prolonged stay at the highest level, United’s frustration at not winning speaks volumes about the progress they have made since being promoted eight months ago.
Sixth in the rankings, ahead of trips to Manchester City and Liverpool, they are no longer viewed as starry-eyed interlopers into the sport’s most exclusive clubs. In fact, as Pearson suggested afterwards, United are now seen as a scalp.
“It’s important that players can contribute like that,” Pearson said, reflecting upon Foster’s brilliance to thwart Fleck. “For such an experienced goalkeeper, who has the fire on his belly to perform, you know he will do what he can on any given day to deliver.
“There were a couple of great saves and one unbelievable one.”
“But for all of that, and even though I wouldn’t say we were on top of the game, we managed to keep Sheffield United are arms length shall we say,” he continued. “And this is a difficult place to come. Make no mistake about it. Especially when you are in the position we are in. We had to be resilient and ride our luck at times.”
They did, most notably when Mousset, seconds after replacing McBurnie, prised apart Watford’s rearguard with a searing turn of pace. Tracking his run, Fleck appeared destined to convert. But somehow, as three-quarters of the crowd rose to their feet, Foster clawed the ball away to safety.
Enda Stevens later went close while John Lundstram, after McBurnie had seen a first-time shot also blocked on the line, fired just over the crossbar from range.
Deulofeu also went close with a set-piece during the closing stages but Wilder said: “We will always look at games in isolation. We just didn’t do quite enough.
“Against a team with plenty of talent and a manager who knows what it takes to really win a game. In the end, because we were a little bit flat I thought, I think it was a fair result.”