“If you know your enemies and know yourself,” Sun Tzu opined a long, long time ago, “You will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.”
Despite their manager’s fascination with the ancient strategist’s teachings, it has taken less than half that number to irreparably damage Sheffield United’s latest League One campaign. But, forewarned if not always forearmed, Matt Done is confident that Nigel Adkins and his players are destined, at some point in the future, to win the war.
“There’s an intelligence, if you like, about what we do and that’s down to the staff. The gaffer obviously, Deano (Dean Wilkins), Cros (Andy Crosby) right down to the analysts like Mikey and Josh. You can probably over-think things at times but you still can’t leave anything to chance. The staff here are brilliant at what they do, they love their football, they’ve been there seen it and experienced it Their understanding is superb.”
Knowledge might be power but, as United’s results erratic results ahead of tomorrow’s game with Chesterfield demonstrate, learning how to exercise it effectively can be a complicated, time-consuming affair. The match, Adkins’ 50th at the helm of this enchanting but sometimes thoroughly frustrating club, sees his team travel to the Proact Stadium having won four and lost four of its last 10 outings. A haphazard record which, recent improvements apart, explains why they will make the journey nine points behind sixth-place.
“The performances and structure have been good, much better recently,” Done, surveying the state-of-play in the League One table, insists. “There’s a consistency in the team which hasn’t always been there in the past. The thing for us is turning-up and playing like we know we can do. Just turn-up.
“We’ve blown teams away before first-half and not kicked-on in the second and made it hard for ourselves. But we’re learning from our mistakes. The other week we discussed what we’d do if we came out of the traps really strongly but found the game was still in the balance at half-time. We’ve got a Plan B and a Plan B to counteract things.”
Disappointment about their league position not withstanding, Done insists this has been an enlightening season behind the scenes at Bramall Lane following Adkins’ decision to completely overhaul the way United’s squad prepares for matches. In Gianluca Vialli’s book ‘The Italian Job’, former Aston Villa, Juventus and Sampdoria midfielder David Platt described how the eyes of English players “glazed over” whenever subjects like systems or team shape were discussed whereas, for their calcio counterparts, such matters “are an essential part of the game.” Times, it seems, have changed. Especially at United where, following Adkins’ appointment in June, a Sunday session now means an hour in front of the tactics board rather than at the snooker hall.
This year has been massive for me,” Done says. “Working with the staff, they don’t leave anything to chance. The detail they go into is phenomenal in fact. I’ve not played at the highest level but they’ve managed and coached there. So you know that level of detail, that attention, is what it takes to get there. I really enjoy listening to them.”
“I’ve been a pro’ for about 10 years now and, over that period of time, the analysis guys have become a really big part of what we do,” he adds. “When I first came through it was ‘You’re playing against him, he’s six foot whatever, now go out and do your stuff.’ That was literally all you got. Now the analysis stuff is even in the team talk. We got through different scenarios, different things that might arise during the course of the game and what we can do to force the issue ourselves or counteract that.”
With his predecessor Danny Wilson now in charge of Chesterfield and Chris Morgan, who served United for over a decade as a coach, caretaker and player, recently appointed as the 56-year-old’s assistant, Adkins knows could prove difficult to take the opposition by surprise. But not, Done explains, impossible.
“Set plays are when you really notice the difference. It might not always be obvious to the naked eye but, trust me, it works. We scored from a corner at Scunthorpe, for example. It might not have been pretty on the naked eye but we’d practised doing that all week. The goal at Southend was another good example. Deano (Dean Hammond) got round the back to the far post and because we’d been working on it, I knew exactly where to put the ball. We meant to do it. Those are the small things which can make a big difference.”
United, seven positions and 10 points above Chesterfield in the rankings, triumphed 2-0 when the two teams met earlier this term with Che Adams scoring both goals. Done is hoping for a similar outcome tomorrow as Adkins’ squad continues its admirable but almost certainly futile pursuit of a play-off berth.
“Ultimately, it’s about ‘us’ but you’ve got to have an understanding of what you are coming-up against because, if not, then you can end-up playing to the oppositions’s strengths. If we know what they like to do, what they’re good at then we can stop them. You’ve got to be ready for everything because, if not, then you leave yourself wide open.”
Sun Tzu would be proud.