What Sheffield United - and the Steel City as a whole - can learn from a long night in Liverpool

Earlier in the day, before going into battle against the reigning European champions and Premier League title winners elect, Sheffield United’s players were filmed trying to hold a training session in Stanley Park whilst shoo’ing a runaway pet pooch away from their improvised pitch.

Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 11:36 pm
George Baldock of Sheffield Utd dejected at the end of the game during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. James Wilson/Sportimage

The clip, which inevitably went viral on social media, highlighted the gulf in stature between two clubs at different stages of their footballing development. And yet, as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp later confirmed in his official programme notes, they also boast plenty in common. Culturally, tactically and personality-wise too.

“They strike me as a group who cares not one bit about what people outside of their circle think of them,” the German, whose players are used to the best of everything, said. “I love this.”

It isn’t just United’s attitude which has piqued Klopp’s interest. He loves their style and staff too.

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Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. PA Photo. Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

“There is nothing I could write here that would appropriately reflect what Chris and his team have achieved over the past few seasons,” the 52-year-old continued. “I read a lot about their determination and fight. But this does them a disservice. They are smart in every department and this clearly comes from the manager.”

Unfortunately for United, Klopp’s welcome did not extend to the pitch where the hosts gave them precious little encouragement during 90 testing minutes.

But his words did reveal the depth of Liverpool’s respect for the visitors from South Yorkshire who, by Klopp’s own admission, had set their “toughest” test of the season so far at Bramall Lane in September.

It was after that contest - “Our toughest” of the season so far, according to Klopp - when the two men in the technical area cemented their friendship. An hour after Georginio Wiljnaldum’s fortuitous strike towards the end of the second condemned United to defeat, Wilder and his opposite number could still be found talking football and plenty more besides over beer and the remnants of a post-match buffer pilfered from the home dressing room.

Chris Wilder manager of Sheffield Utd with Dean Henderson of Sheffield Utd during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. James Wilson/Sportimage

Some details of that conversation have since crept into the media, with Wilder providing a few extra morsels during the build-up to this fixture.

“I actually think the two cities have got plenty in common,” he said. “Two teams, a big rivalry and, like them, we can turn out some damn good bands as well.”

In a sense, although Sheffield’s status as the birthplace of the modern game remains one of its best kept secrets, the trip to Anfield represented a glimpse into the future for United. Providing, of course, they can establish themselves at the highest level and then continue to progress.

Sixty-seven major honours, including the FIFA World Club crown they secured towards the end of last month, have given Liverpool a profile few others can match.

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (second right) wins a header during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday January 2, 2020. See PA story SOCCER Liverpool. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

But there is no reason, with a little imagination, ambition and help from regional politicians, why Wilder’s employers can not achieve something similar albeit on a more modest scale.

United might not have the trophies. But they do possess the history, the home and the heritage to become a ‘bucket list’ destination for students of the sport. And also music too.

Those fans in the away end chanting “We support our local team” midway through the first-half might not thank anyone for saying so. And yes, they are right, identity is important.

But the tourists from across the globe, who began flooding into Liverpool as early as Wednesday night, help Klopp acquire players like Mo Salah and Virgil van Dijk. They produced the two most important touches of the first-half before Sadio Mane ended United’s hopes of a comeback.

Dean Henderson, whose error had helped gift Liverpool a win four months ago, was hugely impressive on this occasion. Indeed, there were moments when it appeared he was taking part in a personal duel with Salah, whose 14th of the campaign laid the foundations for a win which moves Klopp’s men 13 points clear at the top of the table.

But, before acrobatically tipping a long range shot from the Egyptian over the crossbar and turning another attempt past the foot of the post, Henderson was powerless to prevent Salah turning home from close range after a slip by George Baldock, who lost his footing at the vital moment, granted Andy Robertson both the time and the space to produce an inch-perfect cross.

Chasing shadows for the most part, as Liverpool pinged passes across the pitch, United would nevertheless almost certainly have equalised had van Dijk, after John Fleck had punched a hole through the red wall in midfield, not whipped the ball away from Lys Mousset’s feet.

Mane ensured Liverpool’s unbeaten start remained intact when he turned home after the break; Henderson saving the Senegalese’s intial effort following an exchange with Salah.

Substitute Oli McBurnie was inches away with connecting with a Jack O’Connell centre as the final whistle approached. But, in truth, the difference between the two sides was as stark as their choice of training facilities.

Liverpool: Alisson, van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Keita, Firmino, Mane (Origi 78), Salah (Elliott 90), Gomez, Henderson, Robertson (Lallana 89), Alexander-Arnold. Not used: Adrian, Milner, Phillips, Jones.

Sheffield United: Henderson, Baldock, Stevens, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Norwood (Besic 78), Fleck, Lundstram, Mousset (McBurnie 66), McGoldrick (Sharp 66). Not used: Verrips, Robinson, Jagielka, Osborn.

Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).