The secret behind John Fleck's success for Sheffield United is revealed
The shape of his body, the way he adjusted position and traced the flight of the ball before threading it into the back of Bernd Leno’s net, provided the clues.
At around 5.40pm on Saturday evening, 60 minutes or so after John Fleck’s finish earned Sheffield United a draw against Arsenal, Chris Wilder delivered the confirmation.
The midfielder, he revealed, grew-up scoring rather than creating goals.
“He started out as a centre-forward,” the United manager said, tracing Fleck’s journey from teenage protege at Rangers to Premier League footballer. “Technically he’s really good.
“That was John’s position to begin with, I believe. That’s why he knows what he’s doing and has got the ability.”
Fleck’s late equaliser, after Gabriel Martinelli had left the visitors on the brink of defeat at the Emirates Stadium, was the latest addition to the growing body of evidence that, having initially struggled, the 28-year-old is now equipped – physically, tactically and mentally – to fulfil the promise which once saw him dubbed Scotland’s answer to Wayne Rooney.
Although it might still be a stretch to suggest he is capable of replicating what the former England marksman achieved, Fleck’s strike in north London was his fifth of the campaign; more than he achieved during five seasons at Ibrox, a brief spell with Blackpool and, following four in Coventry City colours, his previous three with United.
Speaking before the trip to London, Wilder insisted the player himself must take the lion’s share of the credit for his emergence as one of the top-flight’s most effective midfielders.
But Fleck’s rise to prominence can also be attributed to a decision taken inside Bramall Lane’s bootroom way back in August when, having won promotion four months earlier, coaching staff began devising ways of ensuring United could perform effectively at the highest level.
“He’s getting that belief and the system suits him,” Wilder explained. “Instead of playing in a ‘two’, he’s now got that licence to get up the pitch more and we’re seeing the benefits of that.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to look at the players you’ve got and tweak things a bit.
“You can’t just sit in for 90 minutes. You’ve got to have people who can score and open things up.”
Part idealist – devising his own take on the 3-5-2 shape after taking charge four years ago – Wilder’s solution to the problem of how to unlock Fleck’s potential confirms he also possesses a pragmatic streak.
Arsenal’s approach to this fixture suggests he could be forced to rely on the latter once again over the coming weeks as United, although they won’t admit it publicly, eye Europa League qualification.
Despite being a newcomer to the managerial profession, Mikel Arteta had clearly worked on a way to unpick Wilder’s strategy at London Colney in midweek. Tasking Granit Xhaka with operating as an auxiliary defender whenever Arsenal seized possession, allowed Bukayo Saka to charge upfield and prevent his fellow wing-back George Baldock from doing likewise, which in turn limited the effectiveness of United’s overlapping centre-halves.
It proved an successful ploy for long periods, with Saka delivering the cross, following an interchange between Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette, which allowed Martinelli to convert.
With even better players at their disposal, Manchester City, who travel to South Yorkshire on Tuesday, could attempt something similar.
“I wasn’t surprised we were behind at the interval, because they had grown into the game,” Wilder said. “ But I’m pleased we took a point because we always give ourselves a chance with our attitude.
“We have to play a lot better than that, though, to pick up points over a period of time.”
It is a measure of United’s progress, however, that despite dominating possession, an Arsenal squad which cost nearly £300m to assemble struggled to translate that figure into clear cut chances.
Indeed, until Martinelli twice shot wide after combining with Saka, United had crafted the best two of the game: Lys Mousset heading wide from Enda Stevens before glancing over from close-range. Adjudged offside by the assistant referee, video replays suggested VAR would have overturned that decision had the Frenchman hit the target.
The introduction of Billy Sharp, the first of two brave changes by United, helped them wrestle back the momentum.
Only a fine interception by Shkrodran Mustafi prevented Oliver Norwood’s pass from reaching an otherwise unmarked Sharp on the edge of the six yard box before, after watching Oli McBurnie test Leno’s handling, the United captain’s presence ensured a cross by his fellow substitute Callum Robinson reached Fleck for the equaliser.
“He’s a proper midfielder for me,” Wilder, who later saw Mo Besic go close to snatching a winner, said. “John tackles, he wins headers and he wins races. He doesn’t think about being a defensive midfielder, an attacking midfielder or all of those boxes people try and put players in his position into.”
Arsenal: Leno, Lacazette (Nketiah 74), Ozil, Torreira, Maitland-Niles, Pepe, Mustafi, Luiz, Xhaka, Martinelli, Saka. Not used: Martinez, Bellerin, Ceballos, Holding, Willock, Guendouzi.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (Besic 77), Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Lundstram (Robinson 67), McBurnie, Mousset (Sharp 54). Not used: Verrips, Jagielka, K Freeman, Osborn.
Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral).