What Sheffield United’s latest Premier League win taught us ahead of their visit to Arsenal
As the dust settles on Sheffield United’s win over West Ham - a result which consolidated their position in the upper reaches of the Premier League - The Star’s James Shield takes a look at some of the things events Friday night’s match taught us ahead of next weekend’s visit to Arsenal.
Wilder makes the right selections: Earlier this season, when the two clubs drew 1-1 at the London Stadium, Lys Mousset and Robert Snodgrass were the two most influential players in the game. So after their goals during that fixture, it was a surprise to see both start the return in South Yorkshire on the bench. Wilder’s decision to prefer Oli McBurnie to the Frenchman was justified when, after John Fleck seized possession following a mistake by David Martin, the former Swansea City striker claimed his fourth goal since leaving the Liberty Stadium. But even though Snodgrass’ late ‘equaliser’ was eventually ruled out, the same can not be said of Moyes’ call to leave the midfielder on the bench for most of the game. Given his fellow Scot’s record against United for both the Londoners and Aston Villa - he scored a superb winner for the Midlanders inside this stadium during a spell on loan there two years ago - the visitors’ manager must regret that decision now. Wilder failed to disguise the fact that Snodgrass was the one member of West Ham’s squad he feared, truly feared, during the build-up to the contest.
Owners are not immune to outside influence: On two counts. Speaking after agreeing to sign a new four-and-a-half year contract before kick-off, Wilder admitted following a question by The Star that United had initially planned to wait until the end of the season before awarding him fresh terms. So why the change? They might not care to admit it but Bramall Lane’s board of directors, including owner Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, will noticed the raised eyebrows among supporters and journalists who regularly follow United when - after Aston Villa and Brighton both rewarded their own managers in kind earlier this season - nothing similar happened with Wilder. Dean Smith and Graham Potter are both excellent coaches. But as the Premier League table proves, both are also delivering poorer results despite having far greater resources at their disposal. United’s initial refusal to budge had, whether people care to admit it or not, been noted by several of their top-flight rivals. Including Friday’s visitors West Ham, where there could be a vacancy to fill in less than 18 months time. Beyond the club’s own website, Prince Abdullah also performed only one interview about the development. It was with SKY television; the league’s most influential domestic rights-holder. Other media outlets, who have followed United’s progress through thin and thinner at times, were not granted the chance to speak to the Saudi Arabian. They might be at some stage. But at the highest level, whoever pays the piper clearly calls the tune.
The man at the the helm isn’t satisfied: By rights, he should have been delighted. Nobody would have been surprised if Wilder, after watching his side finish the game in fifth, had cartwheeled into the post-match media conference, sunk a bottle of Peroni and then started tooting on a giant party horn. But he didn’t. Nor did he seem to be in the mood. Instead, despite expressing his satisfaction with the result, United’s manager began picking apart a performance during which he accused them, during the first-half at least, of conceding possession cheaply and failing to press. It was a sign that United, as far as their coaching staff are concerned, aren’t in the division simply to make up the numbers. And a reminder they can still win games without being at their absolute best. Which is encouraging. Very encouraging.
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Oli earns his stripes: On paper, one goal in his first 12 outings wasn’t the most spectacular way for a record signing to begin his career with a new club. Particularly when he plays at centre-forward. But after scoring for the fourth time this season against West Ham - and for the second time in his last three starts - Oli McBurnie is beginning to win over those who doubted he has what it takes to impress at the highest level. United’s coaching staff always suspected, having spent the majority of his career in he English Football League, the £20m man from Swansea City would prove to be something of a slow burn. It seems they were right. Although, in fairness to McBurnie, he put in plenty of effort for very little reward during the opening third of the season. Cast your minds back to United’s trips to Everton and Watford; where they won at Goodison Park and drew at Vicarage Road. McBurnie drew a blank in both but he kept on plugging away, kept on going toe to toe with defenders and refused to give them a minute’s peace. Those shifts not only created space for others but, particularly on Merseyside, ensured opportunities opened up during the closing stages of the fixture when they had been at premium earlier on. McBurnie might not be the most dangerous marksmen in the competition - yet. But he is one of the most willing to sacrifice himself by tiring rearguards out.
Fleck the fantastita: Others have enjoyed golden periods since United reached the Premier League. But has there been a more consistent player in Wilder’s squad than Fleck? Probably not. The midfielder’s assist for McBurnie’s finish against West Ham was his 12th of the season, meaning he heads to the Emirates Stadium as by far the 52-year-old’s most creative player. That is four more, by the way, than any of his team mates. Crucially, after years of being told he was not ruthless enough in the box, Fleck has also added goals to his repertoire this term. Indeed, he nearly claimed another against Moyes’ side, seeing a shot blocked before sending another inches past the post before punishing Martin’s error by powering past Fabian Balbuena and squaring for McBurnie. A slight change of position has benefited the Scotland international, who now operates slightly further up the pitch. But it speaks volumes about his talent - and the potential he has yet to fulfil - that Fleck has made these improvements despite the huge step up in class United made when they were promoted last term. It also makes you wonder just how effective some of the scouting systems employed across the English game are give he had spent four seasons in League One with Coventry City before helping United power out of the third tier. Arsenal like to pass the ball and so Fleck is likely to emerge as one of the most important weapons in Wilder’s armoury once again on Saturday, as the visitors look to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm, win possession and then use it effectively.
It’s still a farce: Against West Ham, United benefited from the introduction of VAR when Snodgrass’ ‘goal’ deep into added time was ruled-out by officials at Stockley Park. After impeding Fleck during the build-up to Manchester City’s opening goal at the Etihad Stadium last month, Chris Kavanagh, who was in charge of the video review technology, probably owed them that one. Although it worked in their favour on this occasion, it must still be remembered how many times VAR has cost United dear since the beginning of the campaign with a series of ridiculous calls and interventions. Yes, Declan Rice had good reason to claim he was powerless to prevent the ball striking his arm before Snodgrass converted. Yes, VAR is not entirely to blame because IFAB, footballing’s rulemakers, changed how handballs in such situations must be interpreted by referees over the summer. Yes, the law is an ass. But so are arguments that critics of VAR are blaming technology for controversial decisions, when they should be pointing the finger at IFAB instead. The fact is, the law would not be able to be effectively applied in this manner if VAR did not exist. Both Moyes and Wilder sounded utterly exasperated by the way matches are now being governed when question on the subject following Friday night’s contest. Which spoke volumes about the way it is viewed by those at the coal face. Do not bet against another round of mind-numbing VAR chatter during the aftermath of United’s visit to Arsenal. It would be lovely to talk about skill instead.
Back to front: If the importance of a good goalkeeper was in doubt, it certainly shouldn’t be following United’s meeting with West Ham. The visitors have been transformed since Lukasz Fabianski returned from injury. When he succumbed to the same complaint at the beginning of Friday night’s game, his replacement Martin was guilty of gifting United what proved to be the only strike of the game. At the other end of the pitch, Dean Henderson produced two fine saves to deny Manuel Lanzini. His presence spreads confidence through the entire United team. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, can not have failed to have been impressed as he watched the drama unfold from the stands. With Henderson almost certain to be in the next England squad, his value is rising by the week. Given his age, though, trying to sign the 22-year-old on a permanent basis should be one of United’s top priorities when his loan from Manchester United expires this summer. Even if it means they must sacrifice some funding elsewhere.