Revealed: Why Sheffield United are struggling and the fixes they can employ to achieve Premier League survival
Bottom of the Premier League table after taking only a point from their opening 10 games, Sheffield United, who suffered their ninth defeat of the season at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, enter this weekend’s meeting with Leicester City under intense scrutiny.
But why is a team which finished ninth last term struggling? And what can be done to ensure it climbs the table? The Star’s James Shield identifies some of the issues facing Chris Wilder’s side and offers some potential fixes.
Defence: One of the most miserly in the competition for much of last season, before seeing its reputation for frugality dented a little post-lockdown, United’s rearguard has undoubtedly been easier to breach this term. It has conceded an average of 1.6 goals per game since returning to action in September, compared to 1.02 during the previous campaign. However, four of the goals the back three or back five, depending upon how you look at things, has let in over the course of the past 10 outings came during one fixture - a heavy defeat at Chelsea - with two of the Londoners efforts coming during the closing stages of the contest. If you remove this match from the equation, opponents score an average of 1.3 times per game against United. Four other clubs in the bottom half of the table have been more vulnerable. So why has this happened? Injuries, and a controversial red card awarded to John Egan at Aston Villa, appear to be the key. Wilder has been able to select his first choice backline - Enda Stevens, George Baldock, Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and Egan - only twice. The loss of O’Connell, who is recovering from surgery, has been particularly damaging with his ability to surge forward or start attacks with accurate crossfield passes meaning the reverberations have been felt further upfield. Keen to avoid further disruption by abandoning their 3-5-2 system, United have experimented with numerous different options in this pivotal position. Although courtesy prevents them from saying so publicly, and despite Wilder’s insistence he will remain in situ, it would be a surprise if consideration is not being given to recalling Rhys Norrington Davies, now a Wales international, from his loan spell at Luton Town. And when Stevens returns, it must be at wing-back. Otherwise two position are weaked rather than one.
Midfield: Again, fitness issues have caused Wilder a headache although form is an issue here too, with few of those at his disposal achieving their full potential. There was also a downturn in performance levels among United’s midfielders post-lockdown, which suggests something else must be factored into the mix. The manager clearly suspects it concerns mobility, mentioning it on several occasions of late. This explains why Ethan Ampadu was signed on loan from Chelsea. He provided a glimpse of what he can bring at Liverpool, when United caused the reigning champion problems before narrowly being edged out. But the loss of O’Connell, and issues with Stevens, have forced Ampadu to spend much of his time operating in defence before succumbing to injury himself. Sander Berge is now showing glimpses of why he was viewed as one of the best young players in Europe before arriving from Genk. But he still needs to use his physical attributes to grab games by the scruff of the neck and bring more ‘punch’ to United’s work. There was a moment during the first-half of the visit to West Brom when he broke the lines and, with the opposition exposed, was ideally placed to instigate a counter attack., Instead he paused, considered his options, and the opening was gone. John Fleck was one of United’s most influential performers last term but has missed half of United’s league games this season. With John Lundstram distracted by his on-going contract issues - do, with the benefit of hindsight, they regret not retaining and developing Ben Whiteman, who is now excelling at Doncaster Rovers? - the Scot’s absence has been particularly costly. But when he returns to peak condition, some of these issues could be solved.
Attack: It goes without saying that any team averaging only 0.4 goals per game this season is unlikely to survive - even if the points total required to stay up is likely to be much lower than in recent years. United’s forwards must take their share of responsibility for the club’s predicament, with Oli McBurnie in particular missing a number of chances in recent weeks. However Lys Mousset and Rhian Brewster were also guilty of spurning opportunities at The Hawthorns on Saturday night. But are they solely to blame for results of late? No. Statistics reveal United are no longer seizing possession as high up the pitch as they did last season, which means opposition defences are more able to ‘get set’ before those operating in advanced areas attempt to prise them apart. Although this can be attributed to the loss of form and key personnel in midfield and defence - O’Connell’s long raking passes used to be a key weapon - more must be done to provide United’s frontline with greater support; particularly as, at this stage of their top-flight development, they can not afford to sign a proven Premier League striker. Brewster has yet to get off the mark since becoming the most expensive purchase in United’s history following his move from Liverpool earlier this term. But his partnership with Conor Gallager, who scored West Brom’s winner, during their spell together on loan at Swansea City last term suggests he isn’t getting the type of service he requires either. Brewster is a ‘first time’ finisher and profits when moves are built quickly. Like Mousset, whose return to fitness offers hope, this would help United to more effectively exploit his pace. McBurnie must become more clinical but there is always a direct correlation between confidence, composure and results. On a positive note, however, at least United are creating openings.