Sheffield United: Billy Sharp's analysis highlights one of the secrets behind this team's success
It was supposed to be a friendly. Another opportunity, following last week's victory over Real Betis, to blow off the cobwebs and get some miles back into their legs.
But an hour after Tuesday’s outing against Burton Albion, the frustration was still etched across Billy Sharp’s face. The centre-forward’s expression, as he performed an almost forensic analysis of events inside the Pirelli Stadium, provided a fascinating insight into what makes this Sheffield United team tick. It also, as the players brace themselves for the demands of Premier League football, highlighted arguably the biggest challenge they will face next season: Coping, after winning 81 and drawing 33 of their previous 151 outings, with defeat.
“We don’t like to lose,” Sharp said. “It doesn’t matter what the game or the occasion is. It not something that sits comfortably with us. The gaffer makes sure of that.”
Although Wilder put a positive slant on Tuesday’s loss, highlighting the complexity of United’s system and number of new arrivals in the team, Sharp’s demeanor suggested he had also criticised aspects of their performance. After all, this is the manager who once declared “there’s no such thing as a friendly” before an earlier warm-up fixture. Still, as United prepared to continue their preparations at Northampton Town on Saturday, neither Wilder nor Sharp were unduly perturbed by the result in Staffordshire.
“We’ve got a pretty unique way of playing and the lads who have come in, they’ve got to get to grips with that,” Wilder reminded after the final whistle. “We can show them as many videos or DVD’s as we want. Tell them all about it. But the only way they really learn is by playing games.”
“I thought aspects of what we did were really good,” he said. “We’ve got a target on our back now but there was plenty to build on.”
United, as Northampton will be aware, tend to recover from set-backs well. Indeed, after losing the opening two fixtures of last season, they did not suffer consecutive defeats again. Those powers of recovery go a long way towards explaining why, despite the financial clout of teams including West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, they secured automatic promotion.
Next term, though, will prove the ultimate test of United’s durability. In November, for instance, they host Manchester united after travelling to Tottenham Hotspur. Over Christmas, United visit Manchester City before travelling to Liverpool.
The quality of the opposition explains why, even though there are no points to play for, Wilder places a great deal of importance upon these warm-up games.
“We played a lot of good stuff (at Albion) but got a little bit sloppy in both boxes,” Sharp, his voice in the dressing room, conceded. “That’s something we need to cut out the next time we’re on the pitch.”