Rhian Brewster, Aaron Ramsdale and a huge call to come: James Shield's take on Sheffield United's defeat to Burnley
Sheffield United have been confronted by a number of issues towards the end of what, unless you happen to live on the red half of Merseyside, has been a forgettable year for English football and the country as a whole.
Dealing with injuries, loss of form, momentum, confidence and the inevitable effect that toxic cocktail has upon results were all vying for position at the top of Chris Wilder’s in-tray until it emerged a couple of hours before this meeting with Burnley, that rather than simply casting a shadow over their lives, Covid-19 had entered the Bramall Lane camp. The news, with Ben Mee condemning United to their 14th defeat in 16 outings, is the latest blow to a side which remains without a win since July.
For the umpteenth time during a campaign which has so far delivered nothing but disappointment, Wilder was left scratching his head at United’s inability to take something from a contest which saw them enjoy plenty of good field position.
Yet for all the possession they enjoyed, particularly after the interval, they were unable to translate possession into clear cut opportunities.
A reshuffle which saw John Fleck, Oliver Norwood and Oliver Burke all introduced, saw them apply plenty of pressure in the home side’s half. But Nick Pope was never really tested as Burnley, who are set to be taken over by former United suitors ALK Capital, limited George Baldock and John Egan to shots from distance.
It has become a familiar trait, far removed from last season, and one which sees them begin preparations for Saturday’s visit to Crystal Palace 11 points from safety.
A BIG CALL ON THE HORIZON
As Wilder and pretty much everyone else on the planet can testify, these are strange times indeed. So strange in fact that Lys Mousset, a player who journalists had been told only 48 hours earlier was two months away from being considered for a place in the starting eleven, was tasked with spearheading United’s attack on a bitterly cold evening in Lancashire.
With Oliver Burke being named on a depleted bench, the decision to partner Rhian Brewster with the Frenchman was presumably a tactical decision on Wilder’s part.
Nevertheless, despite the manager’s stoicism afterwards, officials at Premier League headquarters could soon have a big call to make.
With 18 positive cases confirmed during the latest round of testing, and matches involving Manchester City and Newcastle recently being postponed, administrators must decide if a pandemic which has already wreaked havoc with fixtures schedules and attendances is poised to irreparably damage the competition’s integrity.
RAMSDALE DESERVED BETTER
Too often this term, and much to Wilder’s annoyance, it has seemed as if Aaron Ramdale is being held personally responsible for United’s disappointing returns since September.
The young goalkeeper’s self-belief has waned a little in recent weeks, as his team slipped deeper and deeper into trouble at the bottom of the table. But after making a series of important saves following his move from AFC Bournemouth, Ramsdale produced another within three minutes of kick-off to prevent Harvery Barnes from firing Burnley into an early lead.
It laid the platform for a promising period of pressing and pressure, with Ethan Ampadu dictating United’s tempo in midfield while Enda Stevens and George Baldock made inroads down the flanks. But their failure to engineer any clear cut chances, other than when Josh Brownhill cleared off the line from Brewster, came back to haunt them when Mee outmuscled Ampadu at a corner. Ramsdale, who moments earlier had done superbly well to deny Chris Wood, looked apoplectic with rage after being left horribly exposed, not to mention being knocked off balance by Burnley forward Ashley Barnes, whose physicality was a constant thorn in the Blades backline’s defence.
BETTER FROM BREWSTER
After becoming the most expensive player in United’s history following a £23.5m switch from Liverpool, Brewster has struggled to live up to his billing during an underwhelming start to life in South Yorkshire. The England under-21 international is still far from the finished article, despite arriving armed with glowing references from Jordan Henderson and Jurgen Klopp.
However, although someone who counts pace among their greatest weapons should not spend so much time playing with their back to goal, Brewster was lively, strong and energetic here; demanding the ball and trying to force the issue either side of Mee’s effort. Mousset, perhaps betraying the lack of fitness Wilder had alluded to earlier in the week, was less influential and mobile and was replaced by Burke in the second half
EFFORT BUT LITTLE INVENTION
A change of shape midway through the second period saw United tighten their grip on the contest. But a combination of overly intricate play - a symptom of their diminishing self-belief - and poor execution of the final ball meant Pope remained relatively untroubled. Burnley, now four points clear of the relegation zone, pressed with real conviction and purpose. But United should have created more, particularly after shunting Egan forward to bring a physical presence to their frontline. The centre-half went close after Baldock had seen a shot deflected behind for a corner.
Burnley: Pope, Lowton, Taylor (Benson 9), Tarkowski, Mee, Brownhill, Wood, Barnes (Stephens 80), Brady, Westwood, Pieters. Not used: Peacock-Farrell, Norris, Bardsley, Long, Dunne, Mancini, Mumbongo.
Sheffield United: Ramsdale, Baldock, Stevens, Basham, Egan, Robinson (Fleck 58), Ampadu (Norwood 65), Osborn, McGoldrick, Brewster, Mousset (Burke 62). Not used: Verrips, Lowe, Bogle, Bryan.
Referee: Chris Kavanagh (Lancashire). VAR: Peter Bankes.