Sheffield United: Inside the hotel where Premier League promotions are made
When Sheffield United strolled through the doors of their team hotel, where they will spend the rest of the week preparing for Friday's friendly against Real Betis, a comforting sense of familiarity washed over Chris Wilder and his players.
The marbled foyer. The terrace, shaded from the sun by an umbrella of green foliage. Nothing, not even the cavernous dining area ruled off-limits for other residents, had changed since the last time they stayed here 12 months ago. Except, of course, the division they are preparing to compete in next season.
This luxurious hideaway, located in the purpose-built and affluent Portuguese resort of Vale do Lobo, is where United laid the groundwork for their promotion last term. It is also where the likes of Everton, Celtic, Ajax and Bayer Leverkusen come to whip themselves into shape during the summer months. Now, having also achieved top-flight status, Wilder's squad checked-in as equals. Not an interesting warm-up act for the sports-mad locals before the real headliners arrive.
"We've got proper stuff to do out here," Wilder said. "We know the size of the challenge, the scale and importance of it, that's ahead of us. It’s not going to be easy. Pre-season isn’t either. I’ve always been a believer in the idea that you get out what you put in.”
Despite being on a mission to put the fun back into football, the 51-year-old has always been deadly serious about his work. Team spirit and togetherness are important weapons in Wilder's managerial armoury. But suggestions that United will be building relationships over litres of Super Bock or using the trip to whittle down their handicaps are so wide of the mark that Billy Sharp, their captain and centre-forward, would probably retire in shame if one of his shots flew as far past the goal.
A collection of perfectly manicured pitches, a 10 minute stroll through the villas and apartments which surround United's base for the past five days is where Wilder and his staff fine tune the system which has fuelled their rise through the divisions. Languishing in the third tier and struggling for both form and fluency, United's results immediately spiked when they switched to a back three at the beginning of the 2016/17 campaign. Winning 81 and drawing 31 of their 149 matches since, it has proved an inspired decision. A profitable one, given the riches associated with Premier League football, too. Combining swashbuckling wing-backs with over-lapping centre-halves should, by rights, be a recipe for chaos. But United's tactics deliver results because, as those who have watched them put through the paces this week can testify, they are drilled to within an inch of their lives. Nothing - shape in possession, out of possession or in the transition - is left to chance.
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"We use all the tools that are available these days," Wilder explained. "I've always said, stripping everything else away, it comes down to winning tackles, headers and races. I still stand by that now.
"But at the same time, what's happened hasn't happened by accident has it? The boys have done what they've done because of their attitude, professionalism and desire to improve."
In order to avoid an immediate return to the Championship, United must retain the same drive and attention to detail. With the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur featuring on their forthcoming fixture schedule, what happens during the build-up their meeting with Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia's side will go a long way towards deciding if United reach their next target. Recent signings Luke Freeman and Phil Jagielka, whose experience with Everton could prove invaluable, must get to grips with a formation which tests both their fitness and tactical discipline. Longer serving names, including John Fleck and Chris Basham, require an in-depth understanding of how the new arrivals interpret the game in general. Given the complexity of the strategy United employ - even if it can appear anything but to untrained eyes - nuance is important.
The match against Betis, based a two hour drive away in the Spanish city of Seville, will provide the first clues as to how the whole process is unfolding. And Wilder, despite always playing down their significance beforehand, does not like to lose any game. Even those ostensibly arranged to ease players back into action following a well-earned break.
"Basically, the way we do things won't change," Wilder said. "But there are things we're going to have to do a little different, make small tweaks here and there, on certain occasions."