Sheffield United: Why Chris Wilder, despite seeing a star name succumb to injury, is in bullish mood ahead of Leicester City test
By rights, he should have been worried. His brow a little more furrowed and demeanor anxious, not relaxed.
But with a little over 48 hours to go before another Premier League fixture and two key players still recovering from injuries, Chris Wilder appeared positively tranquil when he began discussing Saturday's game against Leicester City. It was a sign, for the journalists who have learnt to read his mannerisms, that all is good in the Sheffield United manager's world.
"We're not looking at points, totals, what we need or what we can get," he replied, responding to a question encompassing the threat posed by the visitors, his team's start to the season and its survival target. "We're just looking to every game in isolation. And I always look forward to watching my team play."
The source of Wilder's sangfroid could be traced back to four days earlier when, despite seeing John Fleck and Callum Robinson retire early with fitness issues, United recorded a deserved victory over Crystal Palace thanks to a rare John Lundstram goal. But the most important moment of the match, from the 51-year-old's perspective at least, came long before the midfielder rifled the ball past Vicente Guaita and into the back of the Londoners' net. Rather it was when Luke Freeman, who provided the assist for United's match-winner, stepped-off the bench to replace the stricken Fleck and produced a tour-de-force display. Six months earlier, the prospect of entering battle without the Glaswegian would have filled Wilder and his staff with dread. But now, after investing wisely since being promoted from the Championship, few members of their starting eleven are indispensible. Not even those who have played crucial roles in the club's recent resurgence.
"There's a doubt about John, yes," Wilder continued, suggesting Robinson should be declared fit. "He's been a big player for us but was was comforting on Sunday was the introduction of the substitutes. Luke Freeman came on and picked up that role seamlessly."
Those attempting to chart the progress United have made in terms of strengthening their squad need only cast their minds back 20 months, when Paul Coutts' fractured right tibia effectively derailed their season. Fresh from lifting the League One title, they climbed to the top of the table after beating Burton Albion. But with the midfielder lying stricken in a Staffordshire hospital, United won only eight more games that season and ultimately finished 10th. Wilder spent the rest of the campaign trying - and failing - to convince people that Coutts' absence was not the cause of their decline.
Scroll only four transfer windows forward and the loss of one player is unlikely to have such a debilitating effect now. Freeman, signed from Queens Park Rangers earlier this year, is expected to face City if Fleck is declared unavailable. But another new arrival - former Nottingham Forest youngster Ben Osborn - could also step-in. Or Mo Bešić, on-loan from Everton and capped 40 times by Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"That's the reason we picked that squad," Wilder said. "Luke plays a number of positions. Bash does and so does Ben Osborn. We need that for our progression."
United will enter the meeting with City on the back of two positive results. After opening the new campaign with a draw at AFC Bournemouth, Roy Hodgson's side were then beaten in South Yorkshire despite selecting the likes of Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke and Andros Townsend. City, however, represent a significant step-up in class. Under Brendan Rodgers' stewardship, they are being touted as dark horses for a European place. Even though Harry Maguire, who progressed through Bramall Lane's youth system, recently completed an £80m transfer from the KP Stadium to Manchester United.
"The manager will have been disappointed to lose Harry," Wilder said. "But they've got world class players who could fill in. Brendan is a fantastic manager and his team are tipped to go well."
"It's not a step up in challenge, it's just a different challenge," Wilder added, showcasing his diplomatic skills. "Look at Bournemouth beating Chelsea (last season), look at Palace's away record which is excellent. Leicester will push, you'd think, for the top six. I'm just enjoying watching my team and what they do."
City, crowned Premier League champions a couple of weeks before Wilder's appointment in May 2016, might have seen Maguire wrestled from their grasp. But they can still draw upon an array of talent, with Youri Tielemans and Ayoze Perez joining James Maddison and Christian Fuchs at the club during the close season. But predictably, given his ties to the region and support for Sheffield Wednesday, Jamie Vardy was the player Wilder chose to namecheck. Like Wilder, who cut his coaching teeth at Alfreton before taking charge of Halifax, the 32-year-old centre-forward also launched his career in non-league football before going on to represent England.
"We're looking to the next challenge now," Wilder said. "No disespect, the elite players are the ones who hurt you are at the top of the pitch. And a certain lad who wants to do well, who supports the other firm from down the road.
"Listen, I've got pals who are Sheffield Wednesday supporters. I've got nothing but respect for his career and what he's done. It's an inspiration for others. I've got a lot of respect, with my career, for the grassroots game. Looking at the clips against Chelsea, looking at the desire on his face, he's still got that hunger."
Vardy, who impressed during City's draw at Stamford Bridge four days ago, is set to partner Perez in attack on his return to South Yorkshire. United, who have named an unchanged side for their two outings so far, must decide whether or not to hand record signing Oli McBurnie his full debut following two appearances from the bench. The Scotland international, a £20m acquisition from Swansea City, replaced Robinson against Palace while Ravel Morrison hopes to make Wilder's matchday 18 after featuring in a behind closed doors friendly at Old Trafford in midweek. Previously of Ostersund, the midfielder, once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as the most gifted youngster he had ever worked with, was hampered by a foot problem after arriving from Sweden.
"Everybody has their own expectations," Wilder. "They (City) won it three or four years ago. Our ambition is to win a game of football. To give ourselves the best opportunity, that's the way it has to be. That's how we deal with their threats and they've got huge threats. But we want, as always, to pose problems of our own."