Sheffield United: Chris Wilder reveals why his miserly defence can get even better

Having established a reputation for overwhelming opponents and spending nearly £40m on forwards after waving goodbye to the Championship, it sounds strange to suggest their assault on the Premier League is being powered by a strong defence.

Wednesday, 23rd October 2019, 6:01 pm
Updated Wednesday, 23rd October 2019, 10:02 pm
Sheffield United are built on a strong defence: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

But, as they prepare for this weekend's visit to West Ham, Sheffield United are proving as adept at changing perceptions as accumulating points. Three more of which were claimed against Arsenal on Monday.

That narrow but deserved 1-0 win - which lifted them to ninth in the table ahead of their trip to east London - saw Chris Wilder's side praised for taking such an expansive approach during a meeting with one of the competition's heavyweight names. Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool centre-half turned expert analyst, admitted it was "refreshing" to see a newly promoted team "refuse to wave the white flag" in such circumstances.

But buried beneath the plaudits, an important statistic lurked. The clean sheet United kept means they travel to the capital boasting the joint-best defensive record in the division. Early leaders Liverpool are the only other club whose rearguard has been breached on fewer than eight occasions. Together with United, they have conceded only seven goals since the start of the new season. Little wonder then that, as he devises his strategy for the fixture with West Ham, Wilder has promised not to stray too far from the one which has also delivered victories over Crystal Palace and Everton.

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"It's all about the balance," he said. "We've got to respect the quality of the opposition we're facing at this level, while at the same time staying true to how we want to go about things, which is being on the front foot and trying to pose questions ourselves.

"That means accepting, even though we don't like it, there are going to be times when we get pushed back. So it's about being organised and choosing our moments. Knowing when we can really commit in attack."

By adopting a more nuanced approach to the one which proved so successful in the second and third tiers of English football - United were still in League One when Wilder arrived three years ago - the 52-year-old's squad has shown itself to be more tactically sophisticated than some commentators suggested at the beginning of the campaign. But even more impressive is the fact that two members of the back three which shackled Arsenal's front-line - Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell - are veterans of Wilder's first promotion at the helm. John Egan, who completed the trio - was acquired from Brentford before the start of last term.

Resisting the temptation to tinker with United's backline has proved to be a masterstroke; particularly given the demands of United's 3-5-2 system.

"I like consistency," Wilder admitted recently. "Obviously, you might have to change things for certain games. But you also want people to have good lines of communication because that helps with organisation."

"We focused on attackers (in the transfer market) last time out because that's where we felt we might be a little bit light and would need strengthening," he added. "It's also a reason why, because of the way we set-up, that I think we'll grow and get better as the season goes on. Because they new lads who came in have to get used to how we go about things."

As they attempt to reach the 40 point target generally considered enough to secure survival, United should also be encouraged by the fact that Wilder attributes many of the seven goals they have conceded to individual errors rather than systemic mistakes. Despite enjoying less possession than Arsenal - 31 per cent compared to 69 - United allowed Emery's men only three shots on target at Bramall Lane. Lys Mousset converted one of the two they enjoyed during the televised fixture.

"There's always areas where you can improve," Wilder said. "I don't think there's anyone, even though it might happen, who has really undone us yet. But we've got to keep striving to get better and that's one area where we can."

Meanwhile, United's David Parkhouse has been nominated for the League of Ireland Premier Division team of the year after impressing on loan for Derry City.