Sheffield United: Is Chris Wilder attempting to fool the opposition or will he really tear up his system against Middlesbrough?
Sheffield United could unveil a new defensive system against Middlesbrough tomorrow, manager Chris Wilder has suggested, as they attempt to cope with the loss of Chris Basham.
With the centre-half serving the first game of a two match suspension, United will be forced to make at least one change to a back three which has been a driving force behind their climb to third in the table.
Although Martin Cranie is expected to deputise for Basham, allowing Wilder to retain the same team shape, he insisted coaching staff have also given some consideration to the possibility of changing their formation for the meeting with Tony Pulis' side.
"I'm obviously not going to tell everyone what we're going to do," Wilder said. "We can bring someone in (for Basham) or we could go to a back four.
"Martin is experienced and he's done it before. He came in at Wigan recently and we won 3-0 there. Whether we go with a three or a four, the squad is a lot stronger."
Despite his efforts to spread a smokescreen across United's plans, it would be a major surprise if Cranie is not selected to face his former club. When the 32-year-old arrived at Bramall Lane earlier this term, after leaving Middlesbrough last season, Wilder insisted his presence was designed to prove competition and security should Basham be unavailable.
Marvin Johnson, an unused substitute during Friday's draw at Aston Villa, is ineligible for selection after moving to United on loan from Middlesbrough in August. But, illustrating his comments about United's strength in depth, Wilder must decide whether to name Scott Hogan, Kieran Dowell and Gary Madine into his starting eleven or recall David McGoldrick and Mark Duffy.
Progress, though, has come at a price with United's wage bill rising more than 90 per cent during the 2017/18 campaign compared to the year before. As reported in November, the club's income rose by 76 per cent over the same period, largely by virtue of increased TV monies and Premier League solidarity payments.
Middlesbrough prepared for the contest in fifth, but leading the 'head to head' table of meetings involving the division's leading eight clubs. United are ranked seventh, although they have played fewer times in this hypothetical competition than four of their rivals.
"Boro are a big club in the division and they're going well," Wilder said. "It goes to show how well our boys have been doing that, even though this is no time to relax, we're a touch above them. What we've got to do is drive it on."
United enter the meeting with Pulis' squad looking to put events at Villa Park, where they surrendered a three goal lead during the closing stages of the game, behind them.
Wilder, who praised the contribution Madine and Dowell made to a "near perfect" 80 minutes, insisted the individual errors which gifted Dean Smith's men a point will not influence his choices against Middlesbrough.
"I'd like to think people appreciate it, how well the lads are progressing," he said. "But it's not a time for back-slapping.
"The fact of the matter is we are five points off top and three off second. it's tightening up behind us, but you'd expect that because of the quality there.
"I believe the lads feel as if it's going well. The players are genuinely looking for the next challenge. There's no hint or feeling of it being any other way."