Sheffield United: Chris Wilder showcases his new approach ahead of the visit to Birmingham City
Earlier this month, when Sheffield United confirmed their status as automatic promotion contenders by beating Leeds at Elland Road, Chris Wilder warned those closest to him he was about to change approach.
On the pitch, the 51-year-old reassured them, everything would remain the same. But off it, having previously shared his opinions openly with journalists, questions about anything other than team selections would be met with an unerringly straight bat.
The reasoning behind the decision became clearer earlier today. Asked to comment on tomorrow's opponents Birmingham City and their troubles with the English Football League, Wilder shrugged his shoulders and began talking about something else. Why risk making a tough game positively toxic by discussing politics?
"He's a bright and intelligent man,"Wilder said, side-stepping the issue neatly and showering praise on Garry Monk. "Managers use whatever they can, be it people making outrageous comments or something happening to the team, to provoke a reaction and foster a siege mentality.
“They're a tight knit bunch and have find themselves in a situation which obviously isn't ideal. But that's not a group of players that should be fighting relegation. Not with the people in charge and the talent they've got at their disposal."
Eleven days ago, this fixture promised to be an encounter between two of the Championship's leading teams. After being handed a nine point deduction for breaching Profit and Sustainability regulations, City now enter it fighting for survival rather than play-off qualification.
But, as Wilder reminded on countless occasions during his latest pre-match interview, their position in the table is not an accurate reflection of the quality Monk can call upon. Marcelo Bielsa's squad discovered a much when they were beaten at St Andrews over the weekend. That result, combined with United's 1-0 win over Preston, saw Wilder's men prepare for the contest in second ahead of Leeds' trip to Deepdale tonight.
Remarkably, although Bielsa's charges enjoyed nearly 75 per cent of the possession against City, they were able to muster only one shot on target. It is a statistic which did not go unnoticed in the Bramall Lane bootroom where Wilder, together with his assistant Alan Knill, has spent the past 48 hours fine tuning United's tactics.
"Birmingham give up possession," he said. "But a team, Leicester, gave up that and won the Premier League not so long ago. We've done it in the past and won 4-0.
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"Teams do it different ways. That's great. However you dress it up - hard to beat, counter-attacking or whatever - it's effective. And that, more than anything else, is what managers want to be."
United have proven extremely effective themselves in recent weeks, going 10 matches unbeaten and keeping seven consecutive clean sheets until losing to Bristol City last month. The shut-out in Lancashire nearly pleased Wilder as much as David McGoldrick's first-half goal.
"We were really disappointed with the goals against Bristol City," he said. "I think a few things went against us but some good individual errors got punished by a good side firmly in the race for the play-offs.
"Preston are a threat and we knew they were going to start quickly, which they did. They are possibly the fastest starters in the division. After that, it was a tight game. But I thought we looked more likely to get a second. We had to defend properly though."
Che Adams, the former United centre-forward, has scored 22 times for City so far this term and, like United striker Billy Sharp, was recently named in the divisional team of the year by his fellow professionals. Wilder acknowledged Adams will pose a threat but with Gary Madine available again following suspension, has plenty of attacking options. Mark Duffy, who spent a frustrating spell with City before joining United, is likely to be tasked with creating the chances for the visitors' front line.
"It happens all the way through football," Wilder replied when asked why, despite failing to impress in the Midlands, Duffy has become a talisman for United.
"People just find homes, where they are settled, feel comfortable and enjoy it. He's certainly found a home here.
"I know how important he is for us. I think I know how to manage him as well. He gets frustrated at times because he wants to play every week. But I think he's at that stage of his career where we need to do what's right by him”