Sheffield United: Events at Molineux underline the remarkable speed of The Blades' progress
Two seasons ago, Chris Wilder stood in awe on the touchline as Diogo Jota sliced open Sheffield United’s defence and scored Wolverhampton Wanderers’ second goal of what would prove a 3-0 victory.
The finish was good. The build up even better as the hosts, who would go on to lift the Championship title, proved they were too slick and too clever for second tier football.
Only 21 months and 80 games later, United prepared for this fixture sixth in the Premier League. Only a point and a place behind Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, the speed of their progress, like the Portuguese’s strike on that February evening, is best described as remarkable.
Although the action was compelling - ebbing and flowing as Lys Mousset and Matt Doherty traded goals - it was the contrasting methods these two clubs employ behind the scenes which, at least before kick-off, piqued peoples’ interest.
Wolves, owned by a Chinese conglomerate and effectively controlled by one of the game’s most powerful agents, have established themselves in the top-flight by flexing their financial muscles. United, whose budget is dwarfed by the majority of their rivals, rely on intelligence gathering; identifying players from the lower divisions with the potential to perform at the highest level.
“It’s important you ultimately don’t look at wage bills, budgets, the names on the back of shirts and the badges on the front,” Wilder had said beforehand. “We don’t and that has been our approach all the way through. When we first stepped into the Championship, as we all know, people weren’t scared of telling us that we’d get eaten up. People were telling us from about two miles away. But here we are now, in this position. Still, I don’t want to take a backwards step and the players don’t either. Respect has to be earned and that usually comes at the end of games, not at the beginning of them.”
United had certainly earnt Nuno’s by the time referee David Cootes brought proceedings to a close, with the Portuguese describing them as a “very good team” prepared to fight until the bitter end. The same, Wilder correctly pointed out, could be said of Wolves who kept plugging away after surviving a series of scares to take something from a fixture staged less than 72 hours following their Europa League tie with Braga.
On this occasion, after confusing Manchester United with their movement, it was United’s tactical discipline which impressed. Mousset’s strike, his fifth in as many league starts for the club, provided them with a platform upon which to build. Doherty punished United’s failure to stretch their advantage immediately after the break, with David McGoldrick and Mousset failing to find the back of the net after being presented with opportunities. But Wolves were also unable to properly exploit the possession they enjoyed thanks, in no small part, to United’s defensive shape. It was further proof they are becoming more sophisticated by the week, no longer reliant upon being able to overwhelm opponents with their attacking wing-backs and over-lapping centre-halves although one of those - Chris Basham - was immense.
“When we last came here, we couldn’t lay a glove on them,” Wilder said. “They’re a good side, a really good side and Nuno is someone I have a lot of respect for. He’s been great to us here.
“We posed them problems and we knew they’d keep going and coming back at us. I thought you saw two really determined groups out there.”
It speaks volumes, about both their performances since being promoted earlier this year and Wilder’s faith in his players, that the United manager’s post-match analysis was tinged with disappointment. The result stretched his charges’ unbeaten run to seven, with United travelling to Molineux having taken two points from meetings with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
“We felt we could have come away with more from those,” Wilder said, his voice trailing off into the distance. “We don’t want to be too greedy. But it’s good that we want to keep driving things forward.”
In order to do that, United must attempt to become even more clinical and, in certain situations, use the ball better. Looking further ahead, to the January transfer window, they must also invest in order to avoid being overtaken by their rivals at the top of the rankings. Although United do not possess the same resources as the likes of, say, Wolves, their ability to identify under-valued talent should enable Wilder and his staff to keep bucking the trend. For the time being at least.
“Historically, you look at teams at the top of the division and they are the ones who invest in players,” he had reminded, ahead of kick-off. “That isn’t rocket science. To take our club forward, we have to invest because this is a ruthless and relentless business. We keep raising the bar on our own way. But we’re nowhere near some of the others. Take Norwich City out of the equation and there’s quite a big gulf to the rest of the 18 and what we’ve done. Wolves and Aston Villa, who came up with us, they are big powerful football clubs who were already set for all of this before they even came in.”