Sheffield United: Why the greatest manager England never had would identify with The Blades' system

“You get the ball, you pass it to a red shirt”: Brian Clough, still the greatest manager England never had, always boiled the game down to something so simple, even a child could understand his instructions. Defenders defended, midfielders passed the ball and strikers, on Old Big ‘Ead’s watch, were told to focus on making sure it found the back of the opposition’s net.

Saturday, 7th December 2019, 10:00 am

Chris Wilder, like the overwhelming majority of managers forced to drag themselves up the hard way, has nothing but respect for Clough’s achievements. Ten major honours, including two European Championships, achieved with Nottingham Forest and Derby County, two previously unfashionable provincial clubs.

But it should come as no surprise that someone responsible for devising a system based on attacking wing-backs and marauding centre-halves thinks football has evolved. Roles and responsibilities, Wilder believes, are becoming interchangeable.

“I’ve improved so much since I came here and that’s the culture, always looking to get better and do things better,” John Egan the United defender, said. “It, goalscoring, is something I definitely need to improve on. At my previous teams, I always chipped in with four or five. And it’s huge for us if the defenders can do that. So I want to get more.”

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As his team prepares for tomorrow’s visit to Norwich City, Wilder’s theory about how players are required to operate still boasts something in common with Clough’s modus operandi. Despite its complexities, the instructions issued to those tasked with making United’s 3-5-2 system work are always straightforward and issued with a minimum of fuss.

Wilder’s words should also provide some welcome encouragement for David McGoldrick who, following Thursday night’s defeat by Newcastle, is still yet to open his account for the Premier League campaign. The United’s manager’s stance explains why, despite hitting the target only once since April, the Republic of Ireland international remains a near permanent fixture in his starting eleven and, after being named on the bench for the meeting with Steve Bruce’s side, is likely to return at Carrow Road.

“Yes, he wants to get one,” Wilder said. “But he brings so much more to the table than that.”

Egan has found the back of the net only once in United colours; against City at the beginning of last term. That finish, a header from Oliver Norwood’s corner, laid the platform for a 2-1 win over Daniel Farke’s side who, following a series of well-documented off the pitch episodes, have developed a fascinating rivalry with Wilder’s men. Both went on to win promotion from the Championship.

The late Brian Clough (left) with Bill Shankly
The late Brian Clough (left) with Bill Shankly

“We’ve kept our identity,” Egan said, explaining why United have adapted so quickly to life back in the top-flight following a 12 year absence. “We have a way of doing things and although we’ve looked to make it better, to drive it forward and change a couple of things, basically the framework is the same. That’s really helped us because the communication, especially with us lads at the back, has got so strong as things have gone on.”

The transition has proved tougher for City who, in 19th, are 10 places and eight points behind United. However, as Wilder reminded yesterday, Daniel Farke’s efforts have been hampered by a series of injuries to key players.

United, who are expected to recall David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset for the trip to Norfolk, will board their plane south unbeaten away from home since January.

“It’s a Premier League game and both teams want three points,” Egan said. “Our form in general has been good. We’ve taken our style and brought it into the Premier League. In the games we’ve played so far, we’ve been consistent. We’ve looked to improve it and tweak it. If we keep playing as we are, there’s no reason why we can’t do well.”

Sheffield United striker David McGoldrick (right): Danny Lawson/PA Wire.