The nine Sheffield United players set to benefit from the most demanding Premier League fixture schedule ever
With 10 matches of their Premier League season remaining and potentially 90 minutes away from a place in the last four of the FA Cup, Sheffield United, who are scheduled to face Arsenal at the quarter-final stage later this month, face a gruelling schedule over the next six and a half weeks.
As he contemplates the prospect of sending a team into battle once every 3.5 days - should United reach August 1st’s showpiece at Wembley - Chris Wilder accepts it will be both physically and mentally impossible to select a settled starting eleven between now and the end of a campaign which sees his club chasing European qualification on two different fronts.
Previously loath to make unenforced changes - only three top-flight managers had deploy fewer players when the fixture programme was suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic in March - Wilder is now making plans to utilise all the options at his disposal as United attempt to close the five point gap separating them from fourth-placed Chelsea.
The Star’s United writer James Shield identifies some of the players likely to benefit from this situation by receiving a chance to stake claims for more regular game-time.
Simon Moore: The visit to Manchester United represents an obvious opportunity for the goalkeeper to make his second Premier League start of the campaign, given that Dean Henderson will be ineligible for selection against his parent club. Moore deputised when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side travelled to South Yorkshire earlier this term. Reliable and a fine team player, Moore will be determined to start in the North-West.
Michael Verrips: The Dutchman appears to have edged ahead of Moore in the pecking order since his team mate suffered an injury just before Christmas. He made his debut for United in the FA Cup earlier this season and, despite being injured himself, noticeably returned to the bench when fully recovered. Like Moore, will be eyeing the trip to Old Trafford as a chance to showcase his talents and make his top-flight debut in English football.
Ben Osborn: Despite being signed to play in midfield, the 25-year-old has also shown himself to be a more than capable performer at wing-back whenever Enda Stevens is unavailable for selection. This versatility is likely to lead to plenty of chances for the former Nottingham Forest man between now and the end of the season. His presence means United do not have to change the entire dynamic of their game plan if Stevens is ruled-out. And Osborn’s energy could prove useful in the middle of the park too.
Luke Freeman: Previously of Queens Park Rangers, Freeman has enjoyed nine top-flight outings - six of those coming from the bench - since arriving at Bramall Lane during the close season. Like Osborn, his versatility means this number is likely to increase over the coming weeks - even if he is brought on from the bench to provide a colleague with a rest if the outcome is no longer in real doubt. The fixture programme could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Londoner.
Phil Jagielka: In terms of Premier League knowledge, the defender is by far and away the most experienced player at Wilder’s disposal. Although he is still getting to grips with United’s system, the former England international represents a ‘no risk’ option for coaching staff to call upon as the club chases a place in Europe. After making eight appearances so far this term, he seems certain to reach double figures.
Kieron Freeman: The defender is expected to leave at the end of the season but, even though he has yet to make a Premier League appearance this term, the demands associated with playing wing-back under Wilder could see him step in on a sporadic basis between now and the start of August. There are others ahead of him in the queue but Freeman must be ready to step in. Performing well could lead to him being presented with some attractive options during the next transfer window.
Leon Clarke: Like Freeman, the centre-forward is destined to leave Bramall Lane when the season finally draws to a close. Made his Premier League debut as a substitute against Liverpool in September and should view the FA Cup as a chance to enjoy some game time before waving goodbye to United - even if this does come from the bench. United are not short of forwards - with Oli McBurnie, Billy Sharp and Lys Mousset among those at Wilders disposal. But, like Freeman, Clarke must be prepared should the call come.
Jack Rodwell: Signed on a short-term basis earlier this term, Rodwell’s only appearance for United so far has come in the FA Cup. But like Osborn and Luke Freeman, he is capable of performing in several different roles. This, combined with his experience, could see Rodwell brought on during the closing stages of matches should injuries begin to bite. Can play either in midfield or as a centre-half.
Jack Robinson: Wilder is clearly a big fan of the former Nottingham Forest and Liverpool defender, despite utilising him only twice since signing him in January. Both of Robinson’s outings for United so far have come in the FA Cup. But it would not be a major surprise to see him handed a chance to accumulate some Premier League minutes between now and the end of the season. Even if this comes as a substitute.