When Chris Wilder instructed his players to study Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and the rest of Manchester City’s magical attack, little did he realise it would have such a powerful effect.
But Leon Clarke, whose four goal haul secured him a place in Sheffield United’s history books and left Hull City manager Leonid Slutsky looking absolutely bereft, attributed the club’s 11th and most emphatic win of what is promising to become a remarkable season to good old fashioned attitude rather than video analysis.
Describing this match as the most memorable 90 minutes of his career, Clarke was among the group of centre-forwards Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and coach Matt Prestridge had treated to a showreel of City’s finest moments earlier in the week. Although the footage clearly made an impression - Wilder, explaining it was designed to encourage near post runs, must have been delighted when Clarke opened his account by doing exactly that - the 32-year-old cited United’s stubbornness after falling behind to Kamil Grosicki’s long-range effort as the game’s most telling factor.
“Getting a group like this doesn’t happen everywhere,” Clarke said. “You go to teams where different personalities clash and stuff like that.
“But since I’ve been here, everybody has got your back. We work for each other, we look out for each other and that’s down to the management for getting good people in. Others might have given up or thought it wasn’t going to happen. “We always stick with it and keeping plugging away.”
Although Clarke’s assessment revealed plenty, about both his own personality and character of United’s squad, it would be remiss not to shine a spotlight on an individual display which confirmed, beyond all reasonable doubt, the wisdom of Wilder’s decision to persevere with the striker throughout a spate of injuries last year. Clarke has now hit the target 14 times in 19 outings and, but for the brilliance of Allan McGregor, would have improved upon that figure.
“It was getting to the stage where the goalkeeper was making saves,” he continued, “And you were thinking ‘is it not going to be our day, are we going to get anything from this game?’ When the second went in, I was ecstatic. It just felt great. Then when the third and the fourth followed, well, I really can’t say.”
STRONG BOND BENEFITS LEON
While Slutsky bemoaned the mental fragility he believes is responsible for City’s slide down the rankings - they have now lost three in a row and conceded 30 goals in the league so far this term - United were left reflecting on a performance Wilder labelled as “excellent” and propelled them to second in the table. Clarke, who becomes the first person to score four goals for United at Bramall Lane since 1983, cancelled-out Grosicki’s 30 yard finish with clever conversion of his own; diverting Cameron Carter-Vickers’ centre past McGregor before combining with Mark Duffy, Billy Sharp and finally benefiting from a slice of good fortune to complete the rout.
“Playing consistently, I think” Clarke replied when asked why, after unlike many of his 17 previous clubs, United are getting the best out of his talents. “Last season, I had a couple of niggles and that kind of hampered me being able to be in the team. The manager and the staff trust me to play too, even if I don’t play as well as I could, so that helps.”
“Obviously I can hear when the crowd chant my name and that’s really nice,” he added. “I just go into games wanting to work as physically hard as I can; run, challenge and head the ball. I try to do all of the right things and they appreciate that.”
A TALE OF TWO FOOTBALL CLUBS
Despite winning three titles with CSKA Moscow and leading his country to Euro 2016, arresting City’s decline following last season’s relegation from the Premier League is proving a tough ask for Slutsky. Unfortunately for the Russian, while United pull in the same direction, the visitors, beset by off the pitch issues, resemble a tug-of-war team with St Vitus Dance. Clarke’s opener, after Grosicki had edged them in front, saw them capitulate in alarming fashion. Wilder’s team were too slick and, when McGregor was finally beaten, too intelligent. But Slutsky, usually so protective of his players, felt that on this occasion they had not done enough.
“In the last three matches, we have had the same question,” he said. “When we concede, we stop. We stop playing football. We have spoken about the situation but we don’t have a strong mentality or team spirit. Each goal, breaks it.”
“It is not the system,” he continued. “We changed the system. It is mentality and team spirit. Maybe we have individual targets, not team targets. I have a lot of questions in my head and I will find the answers.”
Slutsky was right; after surviving an early onslaught from United, City posed a threat. Seb Larsson drew a smart block from Simon Moore, replacing the injured Jamal Blackman, and Grosicki also impressed. McGregor thwarted Clarke and Jack O’Connell either side of the Poland international’s thunderbolt before adjusting his body to keep another attempt out. But he was left rooted to the spot when Carter-Vickers charged forward on the overlap and found Clarke lurking at the near post. Jake Wright and Chris Basham produced excellent tackles to stop two City counter-attacks in their tracks but United asserted their authority when Duffy’s pass split open an inexperienced rearguard and Clarke, who later headed home Sharp’s centre, did the rest.
“The manager here has got a structure and a way of playing,” Clarke, who netted his fourth after seeing a pass rebound off a defender, said. “As you can see from the results, everybody, and I mean everybody, has really bought into it.”