Lundstram, Burke and Brewster: The key talking points from 10-men Sheffield United's draw at Brighton and Hove Albion
It wasn’t the win they craved, or indeed deserved after playing more than half of this predictably tension-filled contest at a numerical disadvantage following John Lundstram’s sending-off.
But any fears Sheffield United are ill-equipped to prevail in what promises to be a long and gruelling battle for Premier League survival were dispelled by the courage they displayed against a Brighton and Hove Albion side also in trouble at the wrong end of the table.
Leading courtesy of a goal from top-flight debutant Jayden Bogle, who was introduced during the reshuffle which followed Lundstram’s dismissal following a tackle on Joel Veltman, Chris Wilder’s men were only four minutes away from securing their first victory of the season when Danny Welbeck equalised for the hosts; firing beyond the helpless Aaron Ramsdale when the ball fell fortuitously into his path.
Down on the touchline, fidgeting anxiously and kicking every ball, Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill looked crestfallen. But when the disappointment began to subside, the United manager could reflect upon “a small step forward” in his squad’s push for safety and a significant rebuke to those who had questioned its fighting spirit.
“When you come so close, it hurts not to see things out,” Wilder said. “But I thought we showed some real qualities out there - real desire and ambition.”
BURKE IN CREDIT DESPITE MISS
United should actually have extended their advantage following Bogle’s opener when, after seeing the substitute combine with Enda Stevens and David McGoldrick, Oliver Burke failed to hit the target from just outside the six yard box. Two minutes later, Albion were level. But the former Nottingham Forest and RB Leipzig striker finished the contest comfortable in credit - his presence and ball carrying ability providing the visitors with some much needed respite as Albion applied pressure of their own.
“If we’d have gone another one up,” Wilder, whose side remain at the foot of the rankings said, “I think that would have been enough.”
It was also a potential turning point in the career of Ramsdale too who, after facing some vitriolic criticism on social media in recent weeks, responded by making a series of exceptional saves.
IS THIS THE LAST OF LUNDSTRAM?
Injuries have been a constant headache for United in recent weeks, with the indifferent and sometimes downright disappointing form of those players who have remained available for selection exacerbating the problem.
With Oli McBurnie, Jack O’Connell, Kean Bryan and Wes Foderingham already ruled out, Wilder’s hopes of bringing some consistency to his selections were wrecked when Sander Berge joined them on the treatment table ahead of kick-off - failing a late fitness test on the hamstring he damaged against Manchester United three days earlier.
The sight of Lundstram replacing the Norwegian - United’s most effective performer of late by Wilder’s reckoning - underlined why a new midfielder is now viewed as being as much a priority as a left-sided centre-half during next month’s transfer window. The latest in a series of contract offers United have made to Lundstram remains unsigned and, despite doing his best to convince otherwise, Wilder is unlikely to be comfortable selecting someone who views their future as being away from Bramall Lane.
Even less so after the Liverpudlian was sent-off towards the end of the opening period. Lundstram now faces a three match suspension and, with the transfer window opening next month, the possibility that his final act in a United shirt was an ill-judged challenge.
IMPOSSIBLE TO JUDGE BREWSTER
The other change United made was tactical, with Rhian Brewster handed a first start in six outings. Used sparingly since arriving from Liverpool earlier this term, the youngster owed his selection to Wilder’s suspicions that pace might prove a problem for an Albion defence marshalled by Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster.
But with United failing to impose their authority on proceedings in the middle of the pitch, it was the speed of Aaron Connolly which had the most impact on the game. At least until Lundstram’s exit five minutes before the interval, which precipitated Brewster’s departure and Bogle’s introduction.
THE RED CARD
Predictably, given that both teams began the contest fearing for their top-flight futures, the opening exchanges were nervous, fractious and largely forgettable - save for the odd flash of inspiration which inevitably petered out when play reached either penalty area.
But as the half wore on, Albion’s passing became more fluent with Adam Lallana seeing a shot deflected behind for a corner, Connolly testing Ramsdale after punching a hole in United’s rearguard and Dunk seeing another effect land on the roof of the net following a Solly March set-piece.
United's best chance came when Fleck, who looks a pale shadow of the player who impressed with both his bite and passing repertoire last term, was withdrawn following another ineffective display. The Scot, whose carelessness had presented Lallana with his earlier opportunity, made way for Burke as Wilder changed United’s system to try and alter the flow of the game.
It nearly proved to be an inspired move, with Burke immediately winning a free-kick following a driving run which McGoldrick saw turned around the foot of the post. But United’s hopes of testing Albion’s tactical flexibility were dashed when Lundstram walked after Bankes, who had initially issued a yellow card, was shown a yellow when footage of his tackle on Veltman was reviewed.
“Borderline,” was Wilder’s assessment afterwards, as he made his displeasure with the decision known.
BLADES SHOW BOTTLE
Although Stevens sliced an attempt wide, Albion appeared destined to make their numerical advantage pay until a dramatic sequence of events sent them into a tailspin. Only a minute after Ramsdale had made an excellent save to deny Connolly - racing off his line to smother a shot and then palm the loose ball away to safety - Stevens released McGoldrick who in turn found Bogle. After engineering enough space, the former Derby County defender saw his shot fly past Robert Sanchez with the aid of a slight deflection.
Ramsdale excelled himself again, this time to deny Webster, but he was powerless to prevent Welbeck scrambling home from close range after Chris Basham had got a touch on Leandro Trossard’s centre. Welbeck went close again with the last kick off the match but his header was cleared off the line, before Alireza Jahanbakhsh hit the woodwork during the ensuing melee.