Sheffield United: Chris Wilder on 'streetwise' football and the tactics which frustrated Crystal Palace's dangerman
Earlier this summer, long before a ball had even been kicked in anger, Chris Wilder warned during a series of round table interviews that his team would have to become even more streetwise.
It sounded strange, given so many members of his squad started out in non-league football, where the dark arts and sharp practice is rife. But as they prepared to acqaint themselves with the Premier League, he knew Sheffield United would soon be exposed to a whole new level of cunning; with top-flight footballers some of the best in the business at deliberately drawing mis-timed tackles and other types of fouls.
Speaking after the victory over Crystal Palace, Wilder approached the subject once again. It was not a complaint about the visitors' behaviour. Rather, witnessing how AFC Bournemouth had also played the game and the officials seven days earlier, an acknowledgement that United need to brush up on some of the tricks of the trade.
"It's still a contact sport," Wilder replied, in response to a question about Wilfried Zaha's complaints that he had been singled-out for special treatment by some of his team. "Players are still allowed to make contact with each other and they should be allowed to make contact. That's part and parcel of what we do."
"Maybe at times," Wilder continued, turning the query around in the deftest of fashions, "We've got to be a little bit cuter ourselves. But that's something we'll get to grips with as we go along.
"But for me, so long as I'm here, we'll always engage with the opposition. I think it would be a shame if that went out of the window all together."
The strategy United had devised to combat Zaha was actually a combination of graft and guile. It also worked a treat, with the Ivory Coast international, reported valued at around £80m, spending long periods of the afternoon on the periphery of the fixture rather than dictating its tempo and direction of travel.
Although George Baldock was always a danger going forward, the United wing-back demonstrated an excellent work ethic by also tracking Zaha back whenever Palace looked to counter. Aided and abetted by Chris Basham, who had also been tasked with policing the 26-year-old, the pair were able to disrupt both his rhythm and train of thought. Indeed, during the closing stages of the first-half, Zaha became involved in an exchange of words with United's bench.
"The lad's a good player, a really, really good player in fact," Wilder said. "Everyone knows what he's capable of and that's why there's been so much interest in him.
"We wanted to play our own way and pose tests of our own. But at this level, against top professionals, you've also got to be mindful of what's coming back at you. You've got to do something to recognise that."