Sheffield United: Slaves to a system? Rubbish. Chris Wilder has proved The Blades can still spring a surprise
Earlier this evening, after studying the report of Sheffield United's game against Middlesbrough, José Manuel Gomes' probably rubbed his eyes and sighed.
Reading's manager was expecting it to confirm everything he thought he knew about Chris Wilder's side; who plays where and what system it employs. Instead, as he double-checked his scout's breakdown of Wednesday night's fixture, it must have dawned on the Portuguese that his plans were redundant. United, despite Wilder's penchant for consistent team selections and tactics, still boast the element of surprise.
On Saturday, when Gomes' team arrives at Bramall Lane, the 51-year-old is unlikely to repeat all of the tricks which proved so successful against the visitors from Teesside. Richard Stearman, scorer of the winning goal, could find himself back on the bench if Jack O'Connell recovers from injury. Despite impressing on his debut as a wing back, coaching staff would prefer to name Kieran Dowell in midfield.
But the fact Wilder can still keep Gomes guessing, after seeing his options limited by injuries and suspensions, confirms United are not hostages to their 3-5-2 formation. And why, with 14 matches remaining, they are third in the Championship and challenging for Premier League football.
"There's not only one way to win a game," Wilder said last night. "There's more than one, we all know that. Yes, we like to play a certain way. Yes, we like to do certain things when we're out there on the pitch. But if we have to go long, if we have to miss the press out, then I've got absolutely no problem with doing that. We'll do whatever it takes to get the right result."
Although Reading are expected to pose a different kind of test to Middlesbrough - rather than eyeing promotion, Gomes' squad are battling for survival - Wilder is convinced some of the lessons United learned against Tony Pulis' men can serve them well this weekend. Indeed, with their latest opponents teetering on the brink of the relegation zone, he suspects it is doubly important they show courage and desire.
"It wasn't a great first-half performance from us (against Boro)," Wilder, refusing to attribute a fractious start to the absence of O'Connell and Chris Basham, continued. "We sparred a little bit and we didn't drop on enough second balls.
"Middlesbrough get right on top of you, make no mistake about that, and every team in the competition does the same. You've got to defend right and you've got to stand-up to that in this division. If not, then you'll get turned over."
As Gomes considers whether or not to tweak his strategy, Wilder is wrestling with some dilemmas of his own. Gary Madine, signed on loan from Cardiff City, made a tangible difference to United's performance in midweek and, after impressing against Aston Villa five days earlier, has staked a strong claim for a starting role. With Scott Hogan also added to their roster and David McGoldrick refreshed following a break, United's manager has a wealth of options at his disposal. But he must balance his temptation to give Madine and Hogan more game time with the fact centre-forwards benefit from regular football.
"One hundred per cent, he's given us a problem," Wilder said, referring to Madine. "It was disappointing not to get Scott on. We were desperate to do that. But they're all ready, they all want to get on. We've got to keep that attitude going if we want to stay in the mix and I believe we will do. I thought the players who came in were outstanding."
Despite their changing their shape countless times against Middlesbrough, and the possibility Wilder could adopt a similar approach again, certain elements of United's blueprint remain set in stone.
"I don't want us to go out of the back door," he reminded. "We'll always look to attack it, from here on in. That's when we're at our best and it gets the crowd going as well. When we're on the front foot, and the fans are behind us, this can't be a nice place for our opponents to be."
It will not have escaped United's notice that Reading, who they beat 2-0 at the Madejski Stadium in December, have improved of late with Wednesday's win over Blackburn Rovers marking the first time they have taken points from four successive games in over 12 months. With only 10 separating leaders Leeds from Derby County in seventh, Wilder insisted it it impossible to predict how the remainder of the season will unfold.
"There's going to be so many twists and turns right the way through," he said. "I think it's going to go right down to the wire. It will be important that you keep everybody fit and that you can recover from disappointment, because there are going to be disappointments for everyone in the top six, top eight and top 10."