Sheffield United desperately in need of points rather than positives after late heartbreak against Leicester City
There have been times this season when Chris Wilder admits he has felt more like a counsellor than a football manager as Sheffield United limp through a season which is already threatening to be more a test of their confidence than footballing ability.
After watching his team slip to their 10th defeat in 11 outings - Jamie Vardy firing Leicester City to victory in the 90th minute - Wilder faces yet another test of his psychological skills following the most painful and gut wrenching of the 10 defeats United have suffered since the campaign began 11 matches ago.
With Oli McBurnie cancelling out Ayoze Perez’s opener, and Lady Luck for once appearing to smile kindly on the hosts with Brendan Rodgers’ men twice hitting the woodwork, United appeared destined to secure a point which, despite not being enough to alleviate all of the pressure now weighing heavily on their shoulders, would at least have given them something to work with going forward.
That was until yet another lapse in concentration, at a vital moment of a game, cost them dear once again and ensured they remained five points adrift at the bottom of the table.
“I’m not going to say we were the better side, again we turned over the ball too cheaply and not for the first time, we had nobody to blame but ourselves,” Wilder lamented, after watching Vardy dart through at the death. “I usually deal with it straight away afterwards but I’ve just left it to be honest.
“We didn’t make the right decision when it mattered and that’s what happens. It’s got to stop. We can’t keep on doing that.”
SOME SIGNS BUT NOT ENOUGH
Although United benefited from some slices of good fortune at times, Wilder will be able to unearth some sources of encouragement when he sifts through the wreckage of this result. Unfortunately for United, as the 53-year-old’s mood afterwards reminded, they need points not positives.
McBurnie, whose profligacy in front of goal has right attracted criticism in recent months, scored for the the first time since July and impressed with his combative approach at both ends of the pitch; making a series of vital interceptions inside his own area as well as proving a handful for City’s defenders.
“I thought Oli was outstanding all afternoon,” Wilder said. “When the game became stretched, I thought we kept our discipline but then well, you can take it if you get undone by a bit of brilliance, with someone smashing it in from 25 yards or whatever, but that’s not what happened was it.”
HONESTY NOT ALWAYS THE BEST POLICY
Burnley, hard-working, functional and usually hard to beat, are always put forward as the example United should follow as they attempt to establish themselves at the highest level. Sean Dyche might not be the biggest spender in the division. But, like Wilder, he is on a one man mission to prove deep pockets aren’t always necessary to be a success.
However City are the team United should really aspire to be. In the third tier themselves only 11 years ago, the visitors’ ambitions now stretch beyond finishing 17th or producing the odd shock result thanks, in no small part, to the resources provided by their minted Thai owners which helped deliver the KP Stadium.
Vardy showed his quality at the death, staying composed and picking the right spot after a catalogue of errors, made in quick succession, saw him pounce at the death. But had John Egan brought the England striker down, then the outcome could have been different. Likewise when, with the match still evenly poised, Sander Berge elected to stay on his feet when a City defender lunged in on the edge of the area. Others, those more accomplished in the darker arts, would not.
A CLEAR PLOY
Rodgers, the City manager, likes to portray himself as a sophisticated tactician but there was nothing trailblazing or extravagant about his team’s approach at the beginning of this contest.
With Jack O’Connell recovering from knee surgery and Enda Stevens and Ethan Ampadu joining him on the treatment table, the Northern Irishman had clearly instructed his team to probe the left flank of United’s defence, where Max Lowe and Kean Bryan, making only the second league start of his career in South Yorkshire, again started for the hosts.
It was a ploy which initially paid dividends, with Jamie Vardy striking a post after being released by Perez; who teased the two top-flight rookies out of position with some delightful footwork before bisecting them with a low, angled pass.
Lowe was later withdrawn after being fortunate to escape his second yellow card of the afternoon. But Bryan repaid Wilder’s faith with a relatively incident free display, despite being constantly sought out by Vardy.
GOOD FORTUNE WASN’T EXPLOITED
Predictably, City dominated possession for long periods of the contest with Perez and Youri Tielemans dictating the tempo of their play. Disciplined, Lowe’s trip on Perez apart having earlier been cautioned, United enjoyed another stroke of good fortune moments before the interval when James Maddison saw another effort cannon back off the same upright Vardy had hit earlier.
United, however, engineered some promising positions of their own but lacked the decisiveness to make them count. The most notable came at the beginning of the contest, when an intricate exchange between McBurnie and Berge ended with Oliver Burke losing his footing as he primed to shoot.
POOR DECISIONS AGAIN
McBurnie wasn’t the only member of United’s squad to nearly prove a point, with John Fleck producing his most effective performance since recovering from the back complaint he sustained on international duty with Scotland earlier this term. On several occasions, particularly during the second half, the midfielder was able to spin his marker and surge forward on the counter attack as some of his old tenacity returned.
It was just a shame, with around quarter of an hour remaining, it appeared to desert him when, appearing set to profit from another fine piece of play from McBurnie, he checked his run and tried to release substitute Ben Osborn rather than testing Kasper Schmeichel. Wilder, aware of the possibilities as he watched the move develop from the touchline, wheeled away in frustration before offering words of encouragement.
Typically, with United proving to be the architects of their own downfall on numerous occasions since returning to action in September, Fleck then undid all of his good work by “taking the wrong decision”, as Wilder put it, seconds before Vardy pounced.
“It (the ball) came back to Bash (Chris Basham) who doesn’t choose the right option and then it falls to Fleck, who does the same,” Wilder said. “When you go deep into a game like that, and you’re looking for a result, you just can’t get beaten. You just have to see it out and take something. We’ve not done that and it falls to Vardy, who has been doing that all his career.”
Sheffield United: Ramsdale, Basham, Egan, Bryan, Baldock, Lowe (Osborn 46), Lundstram, Fleck, Berge, Burke (Brewster 80), McBurnie: Verrips, Sharp, Jagielka, Norwood, McGoldrick.
Leicester City: Schmeichel, Justin Fofana, Evans Tielemans, Vardy, Maddison (Praet 90), Albrighton, Perez (Iheanacho 69), Mendy (Ndidi 69), Fuchs. Not used: Ward, Morgan, Barnes, Under.
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire). VAR: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).