Sheffield United: So what does it take to command a place in one of the Premier League's best defences?

The late great Gary Speed, one of Chris Wilder's predecessors in the Sheffield United hot seat, used to complain that tackling, the ability to win the ball in hard but fair fashion, was becoming a dying art.

Friday, 25th October 2019, 11:38 pm
Chris Basham tackles Matteo Guendouzi of Arsenal: James Wilson/Sportimage

Players, he sighed on countless occasions, were now more interested in creating rather than snuffing out chances. That the balance, between finesse and physicality, had been lost.

His former club's record in the Premier League this season suggests those fears might have been premature. United travel to West Ham, their 10th match of the campaign, searching for a third straight clean sheet and having conceded only seven goals since August. No rearguard in the division has been more effective.

The reasons for that success, according to Chris Basham, are organisation and character. A perfectly choreographed back three, drilled to within an inch of its life on the training ground, comprised of footballers who get their kicks from being destructive.

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"You've got to enjoy defending," he said. "Actually, I think you've really got to enjoy to be any good. I've got to work really hard, to keep my place in the team because there's some brilliant lads here. But the great thing is, although all of them are great players, they're also prepared to put their bodies on the line and throw themselves in front of the ball."

Former defenders themselves, it should come as no surprise that Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill subscribe to the theory that every top side is built from the back. Despite pioneering the use of overlapping centre-halves and other attacking tactics, their squad's ability to survive pressure situations was one of the most important factors behind its promotion last term. It is a trick they expect to reprise at the London Stadium today, where Manuel Pellegrini could have a £45m striker - Sébastien Haller - and Brazil international Felipe Anderson at his disposal.

Speaking at the Steelphalt Academy earlier this week, 72 hours after a 1-0 victory over Arsenal had lifted United to ninth in the table, Wilder concocted a story to explain why his centre-halves and wing-backs are special personalities.

"George Baldock clear it off the line with a last ditch tackle," he said, breaking into a broad smile. "He plays three one twos and then squares it for Sharpy (Billy Sharp), who smashes the ball into the back of the net. Billy runs to the supporters and they're all going 'What a goal that is from him.' Meanwhile, George is just trotting back to the halfway line."

Chris Basham (left) and John Egan of Sheffield United embrace after the win over Arsenal: James Wilson/Sportimage

"Billy, to be fair, would recognise what the lads at the back have to do to allow the boys at the top to grab the headlines when they can. He knows what Bash, Jack O'Connell, Jags (Phil Jagielka) and Stears (Richard Stearman) do and bring to the table."

The contribution of United's defence might be recognised by colleagues and supporters, But those tasked with stopping goals rather than scoring them seldom enjoy positive headlines. So nobody within Bramall Lane, least of all Wilder, begrudges the likes of Basham, O'Connell and John Egan the coverage they are enjoying now.

"The art of defending, both individually and as a group, you have to be good at," Wilder continued. "It's no good us just concentrating on going forward. We have to give ourselves the opportunity of getting a result and if we keep getting opened up, that's not going to happen. Sometimes, there's goals you just can't do anything about and we've had a few of those against us, even though you can look at the lead up.

"We're still looking to add bits to our game, though, to give us that chance to start attacks and create."

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder (left) and his assistant Alan Knill: James Wilson/Sportimage

Although strength is important, Basham's admission that he leaves the pitch more mentally than physically tired confirms concentration and focus are potentially more important for top-flight defenders.

"Definitely, I come off more tired in the mind than I do in the body," he said. "You can't switch off for a moment, positioning is so important because the forwards at this level, one touch, little step or move of their body and that's it, they're gone. So you've got to try and anticipate everything."

Eleventh-placed West Ham were beaten by Everton last weekend but have been encouraged by news that full- back Aaron Cresswell is available following a groin strain. Wilder has selected an unchanged defence in every league game this term, while goalkeeper Dean Henderson is also an ever-present.

"It's just general desire and decent defending," Wilder, said, reflecting upon United's progress in recent months. "We know we're going to have to be good at it because of the quality of the opposition, especially at the top end of the pitch. There's good players all around but usually, where the money is spent, it's at the top end of the pitch. So it's just a desire to keep the ball out of the net and then, if they get through the defenders, they've got to get past the goalkeeper who is doing really well for us."