Penalties, Brewster and Berge, big calls and an experiment: FIVE big takes from Sheffield United 1 Fulham 1
It was only the fifth assignment of the season for these teams but, even with another 34 remaining on their respective schedules, neither Sheffield United nor Fulham could escape the significance of this match as they prepared for kick-off.
After an hour-and-a-half of predictably nervous action, Billy Sharp’s late penalty following Ademola Lookman’s opener ensured both finished the contest with a little more optimism and hope after ending a run of four straight defeats, which had prompted some observers to already cast doubt over their survival prospects.
But the fixture was also another chastening lesson in the importance of clinical finishing at the highest level, with the respective managers expressing their frustration at the final outcome. A much bigger prize than a first point of the new Premier League campaign was, at different moments of the contest, within their sides’ grasp.
“I thought we were the better side at the start, and could have come in with a lead,” United’s Chris Wilder said. “But, being honest, they were better in the second. There were moments, though, when I thought we looked much more like ourselves.”
EVERYONE INVOLVED SUFFERED
The body language of Wilder and Scott Parker on the touchline betrayed exactly what was at stake, with the two growing increasingly animated as the drama unfolded. But it was the performance of Aleksander Mitrovic, Fulham’s usually deadly centre-forward, which really revealed the pressure they and United were under thanks to their disappointing results of late.
After United had passed up the opportunity to build a healthy lead at the break, and surely shatter the visitors’ confidence, the Serb blazed a penalty over the crossbar before being wasteful again at the death. In between, Billy Sharp equalised from 12 yards out following Mitrovic’s high challenge on Jack Robinson.
“We looked a little bit anxious at times but that’s understandable,” Wilder acknowledged. “That anxiety comes from the results before. We’ve got to give the lads encouragement, though, and they’ve also got to find it from within. Because they’ve shown they can do it.”
“I’m disappointed we didn’t get all three (points),” Parker countered. “But I thought there were some real positives we can take away with us. Alex has had a tough day, there’s no denying that. He’ll be the first to admit it.”
BREWSTER’S MILLIONS AND BERGE
After electing to start him on the bench, United introduced Brewster, their new record signing just past the hour mark in an attempt to curb Fulham’s growing momentum.
The youngster announced his arrival following a £23.5 move from Liverpool with a delightful little cameo - showing good strength to hold off a defender before powering away and winning a foul. But in truth, the increasingly open nature of the game made it difficult to judge Brewster’s contribution.
Not so Sander Berge who, despite seeing his influence wane during the closing stages, caused Fulham all manner of problems to begin with. Now more attuned to the physical demands of the English game, Berge, who until Brewster’s capture was United’s most expensive ever purchase, used his sizeable frame to good effect and whipped a series of tantalising centres across Fulham’s area - at least two of which should have been converted.
“He lost his legs a little bit as things went on,” Wilder said. “But that’s inevitable, given the schedule he’s had, going away with his country, over the past fortnight. I thought all of the lads in there, Ollie (Norwood) and John (Lundstram) did really well first-half, when we controlled it in there.”
THE SELECTIONS THAT SPOKE VOLUMES
Before the international break, which nearly proved costly for United in terms of injury and illness, Wilder insisted a series of contentious refereeing decisions had contributed every bit as much to his squad’s poor start to the campaign as the profligate finishing which heralded Brewster’s arrival.
Indeed, he expressed his frustration so forcefully, that Mike Riley, the head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, felt compelled to contact the 53-year-old and offer reassurance about his organisation’s competency.
Although the details of their conversation remain a closely guarded secret, Riley’s decision to task Andre Marriner and Martin Atkinson, two of the most experienced officials at his disposal, with overseeing this contest could be interpreted as a tacit admission that Wilder’s concerns were not completely unfounded.
Marriner acquitted himself well - wisely reviewing footage of the incident which led to United being awarded a spot-kick - while Atkinson, whose name also features on FIFA’s select list, enjoyed an uneventful afternoon in the VAR suite at Stockley Park.
“I’ve seen it again and, to be fair, I do think it was a penalty,” Parker acknowledged. “I don’t think we can have any complaints about that.”
A BRIEF EXPERIMENT
Solving the problem of how to maintain United’s attacking thrust from deep lying positions until Jack O’Connell recovers from knee surgery has been taxing Wilder and his staff ever since they decided to remove the best overlapping centre-half in the business from the firing line.
Robinson is a dependable and defensively solid deputy but, in order to improve United’s dynamism, Enda Stevens was selected in his place against opponents who gained promotion via the play-offs last term.
Max Lowe, acquired from Derby County during the close season, duly stepped into the breach at wing-back and after requiring treatment following a collision with the brick wall that is Ruben Loftus-Cheek, was forced off midway through the opening period with concussion. Cue, with Robinson being summoned from the stands, a return to the formula Wilder clearly felt was in need of some adjustment.
The change, however, saw United seize the momentum, with Berge in particular proving particularly influential. The only trouble was, their finishing remained wasteful with Oli McBurnie glancing a header wide from a Chris Basham cross before seeing another effort scrambled clear by Alphonse Areola. It was a breathtaking save by the Fulham goalkeeper but one, in all honesty, he should not have been in a position to make.
After Aaron Ramsdale had palmed a Tom Cairney shot away to safety, Lundstram also drew a block from Areola while Basham dragged another shot wide.
SECOND-HALF, DIFFERENT STORY
United were dominant during the first-half but the second belonged to Fulham and, had Mitrovic brought his shooting boots, could well have seen them seize control before Sharp’s crucial intervention. After Ramsdale had excelled himself to deny Lookman - the winger, on loan from RB Leipzig, later teasing his way into position before firing into the roof of the net - Mitrovic was presented with a chance to break the deadlock when Robinson handled the ball during an aerial challenge.
However, as Parker held his breath and Wilder looked away, he smashed the ball into the stand where Fulham’s supporters would have been sitting but for some increasingly perplexing social distancing guidelines.
Brewster was brought on as United attempted to rediscover the purpose and conviction they had displayed before the interval, producing a few flashes of pace as the action became increasingly stretched.
However it was Sharp, after Mitrovic’s high challenge on Robinson, who made the difference - powering home past Areola and ensuring United’s earlier promise did not entirely go to waste.