Having conspired to create and miss so many chances, there was an air of inevitability about Sheffield United’s exit from the EFL Cup last night.
Chris Wilder’s first competitive fixture at Bramall Lane since being appointed manager three months ago ended in a painful and wholly avoidable defeat as Crewe Alexandra produced a dramatic comeback to reach the next round.
Two goals from Ryan Lowe, the second in the first-period of extra time, ended United’s hopes of a long run in the competition and left them still searching for their first win of the new campaign.
The knowledge that, for the second time in the space of a week his team had been the architects of their own downfall, will not have helped Wilder’s mood.
United, beaten by Bolton Wanderers on the opening day of the new season, looked to be on course for a comfortable victory when Leon Clarke broke the deadlock early on. But, just as it had against Phil Parkinson’s side, their lack of attention to detail in the final third left the door ajar.
Lowe, Crewe’s veteran striker, gladly charged through. Much to the dismay of Wilder and the vast majority of the crowd.
United clearly have plenty of work to do.
Despite greeting the final whistle with a shake of his head before retreating down the tunnel, Wilder will have been equally aggrieved by the manner of their defeat.
Billy Sharp, the United captain, worked tirelessly but cut a frustrated figure as the near-misses and half-chances racked-up while Matt Done, Chris Basham and John Brayford also saw shots blocked.
Lowe ensured United’s profligacy did not go unpunished when, with only seconds of normal time remaining, he powered home after Dominic Calvert-Lewin had missed a glorious chance to extend the hosts’ lead. Crewe’s substitute pounced again in the first-half of extra time and while Mark Duffy and John Fleck both hit the crossbar late on, United were down and out.
However, after declaring that the “players trying to force themselves into the team are the most important in the group,” Wilder’s concerns about United’s performance will have been tempered by contributions of Marc McNulty and Stefan Scougall. The substitutes produced lively, inventive displays after being introduced during the closing stages and pressed their claims for more prominent roles when Rochdale visit South Yorkshire this weekend.
On this evidence, the case for changes is compelling.
For long periods, this tie seemed destined to become personal duel between Ben Garratt and Clarke as Crewe’s goalkeeper produced a series of excellent blocks to keep the 31-year-old at bay. Clarke, whose power and positional sense caused the visitors problems, eventually claimed his first goal in United colours with a volley from close range before Lowe took the game into extra-time.
But it was Mark Duffy, one of seven signings Wilder has made since being appointed in May, who emerged as United’s driving force. Instrumental in most of their best attacking moves, the midfielder showcased the touch and anticipation which convinced Wilder to sign him during the close season.
But his efforts came to nothing as United were dumped-out of the competition at the first round stage.
United have been busy in the transfer market after parting company with Nigel Adkins in May. Arguably the biggest change Wilder has made, however, is not United’s personnel but their approach. Although Crewe, and young George Cooper in particular, caused their fair share of problems, they failed to apply any concerted pressure until the closing stages.
But, while United’s aggression initially proved difficult for Crewe to handle, their failure to translate promising situations into goals was anything but. As chance after chance went begging, so the League Two team’s belief grew. As United became increasingly ragged, Lowe took his cue in emphatic fashion.
Wilder had used his programme notes to reaffirm that gaining promotion from League One is his priority this term. But, by electing not to break up the starting eleven which had travelled to the Macron Stadium only three days earlier, progressing to the next phase of this competition was clearly high on the agenda too.
United’s players took the hint with Duffy creating an early opportunity for Matt Done before Garratt darted off his line to smother at Clarke’s feet. The former Sheffield Wednesday marksman, who joined United from Bury earlier this summer, was foiled again soon after but finally engineered the breakthrough his industry deserved when Duffy whipped an inviting seventh minute cross into Crewe’s penalty area.
Like Wilder, Steve Davis cut his managerial teeth in non-league before climbing-up the coaching ladder. Crewe’s intricate approach might be more Nou Camp than Nantwich Town but they still demonstrated a willingness to roll-up their sleeves and scrap. The League Two side benefited from a huge slice of luck too when, 10 minutes after Clarke’s effort, Fleck met Hussey’s centre at the far post only for his shot to hit the unwitting Garratt.
Cooper nearly took full advantage of that reprieve when, midway through the first-half, he drilled a low shot just past the foot of George Long’s left hand upright.
Clarke went close again after beating Crewe’s offside trap, Garratt’s outstretched palm but not the post.
Sharp thought he had doubled the lead after finding himself in space on the edge of the six yard box but miscalculated his angles. Then, Done escaped Perry Ng’s clutches and whipped an inviting ball across the area. Clarke had anticipated the winger’s intentions but the ball flew agonisingly beyond his right boot.
Calvert-Lewin could, indeed should, have but the match beyond Crewe’s reach in the 89th minute. McNulty found the teenager lurking in acres of space near the penalty spot and, with the goal at his mercy, the teenager somehow conspired to slice his shot wide.
It turned out to be an costly as well as embarrassing miss. Lowe equalised moments later when a corner was only half cleared. He was on target again in the 100th minute and while Fleck and Duffy both hit the woodwork from long-range late on, Crewe held on to secure only their second every victory at this ground.
Sheffield United: Long, Brayford, Hussey, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Sharp (McNulty 69), Done (Scougall 76), Wilson, Duffy, Clarke (Calvert-Lewin 82). Not used: McNulty, Ramsdale, Wright, Coutts, Freeman.
Crewe Alexandra: Garratt, Turton, Ray, Nugent, Jones, Dagnall, Saunders (Lowe 68), Cooper. Bakayogo, Bingham (Ng 46), Kirk (Kiwomya 58). Not used: Guthrie, Davis, Richards, Udoh.
Referee: James Adcock (Nottinghamshire).