Sheffield United: Could Watford clash mark the start of a new trend for the The Blades?
Nearly six months ago, when Chris Wilder first began plotting a course towards Premier League survival, he did not expect it to be quite like this.
The Sheffield United manager suspected opponents would try and bludgeon his newly promoted team into submission. Not, as Watford did on Saturday, flood their defence, sit back and lure them into a false sense of security before attempting to land a sucker punch.
Although the tactics Quique Sanchez Flores employed did not exactly make for an enthralling game, they did prove successful. The Spaniard's side overcame a difficult start before growing in stature as the match wore on and recording a first clean sheet in the competition since February. But Flores' strategy, partly designed to help his players recover from a woeful sequence of results, also represented a nod of respect towards the visitors. And, quite possibly, revealed how many future opponents will look to handle a squad intent on attacking their way to safety.
After scaring but ultimately succumbing to Liverpool, the reigning European champions, Wilder appeared as interested in the psychological challenge his men faced as he did the result in Hertfordshire. Which, like the hosts' under-conservative approach, was a measure of the speed with which they have adapted to life at the highest level.
"It was a little bit of a different pressure on us in a way, because people felt there was a result in there for us," Wilder acknowledged. "Yes, because people look at league tables and current form. I don't know what the odds were but I'd have thought they were pretty tight for the home team and the away team. So we had to deal with that and the situation, where we were in control of the game but be aware of their major threats. Be aware of their great quality at the top of the pitch."
Watford, as Wilder alluded, are club devoid of confidence rather than exceptional talent. Nine of those who began the meeting with United were internationals, including former Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck. Ismaila Sarr, a £30m signing from Rennes, was introduced as a substitute. Given Flores’ employers still prop up the rest of the table, that underlines the vast gulf in class between the second tier and the highest level. There were flashes of their quality during a largely forgettable contest, most notably from Argentine Roberto Pereyra, previously of Juventus. But for the most part, Watford focused on stifling United's creativity. There were times, particularly before the interval, when it seemed as if their three centre-halves and two full-backs had been instructed not to stray beyond the penalty area.
"I was pleased with the performance but disappointed with the result, and that shows how far we've come," Wilder said. "Against a team that was playing on the counter attack and desperate for its first win of the season.
"It's for every manager and coaching staff to set up how they want. I thought we controlled possession. When we got it into the wide areas, their centre-halves didn't shift. They'll be delighted with the clean sheet."
"We all have that ability to set up how we want," he continued. "We were coming to an established Premier League club. To be fair, theh got a head of steam up first 20 minutes of the second half but then we came roaring back. I thought we showed great ambition to win that game and our record has been very good away from home so far."
Had United shown a little bit more care when choosing and executing their final balls, they might well have taken three points instead of one. Oli McBurnie and Callum Robinson worked tirelessly in attack. But a combination of Watford's stubbornness and the visitors' failure to draw them out meant they were effectively suffocated. It would also be remiss not to concede that Flores' charges also enjoyed the better chances, with Dean Henderson thwarting both Welbeck and Craig Cathcart after Andre Gray had earlier missed a sitter.
"I think it would be foolish of me to think we're not going to have to defend well against them, regardless of how they're doing, because they've got some really great players," Wilder said. "But overall, genuinely, taking those bits in isolation out, I was pleased. We're going for wins away from home in the Premier League."