Sheffield United: The reasons why it would be a shock if Oli McBurnie does not start against Chelsea

Around an-hour-and-a-half after the final whistle, Oli McBurnie was still standing in the car park at Bramall Lane signing autographs for fans who had just witnessed him score his first Sheffield United goal.

Friday, 23rd August 2019, 16:02 pm
Updated Sunday, 25th August 2019, 14:36 pm
Oli McBurnie: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Of course, he was disappointed. Earlier that afternoon, Chris Wilder's team had lost to Leicester City. But, painting a smile across his face and indulging them in conversation, McBurnie approached his post-match duties with the same attention to detail which, thanks to a subtle change of posture and arch of the back, had enabled him to head George Baldock's cross past Kasper Schmeichel.

It was the type of clinical finish, at a critical moment of the match, that persuaded United to spend around £20m to acquire his services earlier this summer. And totally at odds, given McBurnie's rolled down socks, untucked shirt and wild facial hair, with his street-urchin style style. Appearances really are deceptive.

Given his impact on Saturday's fixture - the 23-year-old's introduction, alongside captain Billy Sharp, coincided with United's best spell of the game - it now seems impossible to argue against McBurnie making his full debut at Chelsea this weekend. Particularly as the result served as a painful reminder about the ruthless nature of Premier League football. City enjoyed only two shots on target in the South Yorkshire sunshine. And, thanks to Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes, converted both. The latter's effort was exceptional.

"The gaffer brought me in to do that," McBurnie said. "I always fancy myself to put the ball in the net when a good cross comes into the box."

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Although McBurnie refused to talk-up his chances of a start at Stamford Bridge - "There's real competition (among the strikers) here. All we can do, as individuals, is try and put up a case" - a combination of factors mean it would be a major surprise if Wilder decides against reshuffling his attack for the visit to west London. The United manager was understandably non-committal afterwards, reserving the right to make changes as he sees fit. Tactics, the opposition's strengths, weaknesses and other footballing considerations will ultimately influence Wilder's picks. But so too, whisper it quietly, will off-the-pitch matters. Given the scale of their investment - McBurnie cost twice as much as the next most expensive player in the club's history - United's hierarchy could be forgiven for questioning its value if the Scotland international continues to be summoned from the bench. Particularly after watching him open his account during a frustrating defeat.

"First half, our performance was poor, not just compared to the last two games," Wilder said, noting United had entered the contest unbeaten since the beginning of the campaign. "We gave the ball away cheaply, not because they (City) pressed. We just did it. You can't do that against really good players. We weren't brave on the ball enough, we spoke about really stepping on their full-backs. We fell below our standards."

Wilder's refusal to make excuses raised eyebrows among some members of the media, who felt he had been overly critical of United's performance against a squad expected to challenge for the top eight. But it provided an insight into not only his character, but also the attitude he believes United must display in order to survive at the highest level. Defeat, even against the better names in the division, is not something Wilder is prepared to accept. The next nine months is about more than simply savouring the experience of competing inside some of the country's greatest sporting cathedrals before returning meekly to the Championship. Which makes changes much more likely as Wilder looks to provoke a response.

"When the two lads came on," he said, referring to McBurnie and Sharp, "They really stepped up the pitch. They got on top of them and the ground was really rocking. We need to alter things and Oli and the skipper gave us a lift."