Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder admits he is facing a big dilemma over the international break - and this is it
It is to Chris Wilder’s credit, despite acknowledging Sheffield United are in a perilous predicament, that he finds himself agonising about doing something which could help them win more points but would cause more irreparable damage to the spirit of the game.
A long-standing critic of teams who feign injury, buy fouls and attempt to fool match officials in order to gain an advantage, Wilder takes pride from the fact his players want to use their footballing rather than theatrical skills to plot a course to Premier League safety.
But after growing tired of seeing United’s honesty failing to be rewarded - and, in several high profile instances over the course of the past 15 months, effectively punished when the opposition’s trickery pays dividends - he admits to considering if the time has come to break one of the club’s golden rules by instructing its squad to begin using more underhand methods.
“You see it all the time, cheap fouls people going over and then getting their own way,” Wilder said, insisting Sander Berge, the United midfielder, has fallen victim to these tactics in recent weeks. “He gets battered all over the place and, because he wants to stay on his feet and because he’s six foot four or whatever, the lad gets nothing for it. He’s not the only one and, to be totally open, it’s left me in a bit of a predicament.”
Although the sight of United entering the international break languishing at the foot of the table is ultimately responsible for persuading Wilder to consider abandoning his principles, gamesmanship and sharp practice have long been bugbears for the 53-year-old. On several occasions last term, as United challenged for a place in Europe before ultimately finishing ninth, he publicly complained about what he perceived as the willingness of many top-flight professionals and coaches alike to turn a blind eye to incidents of simulation - or ‘cheating’ as it is called by those with no time for euphemisms - whenever it suited their own purposes.
Although he acknowledged Chelsea were superior in almost every department when his side travelled to west London last weekend, one incident during the 4-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge appears to have been responsible for the United manager’s latest bout of soul searching. It came, a millisecond before Thiago Silva headed home the hosts’ third goal of the evening, when Max Lowe was “blocked off” by one of the Chelsea captain’s colleagues as he attempted to intervene.
“Maybe we’re being a little bit naive,” Wilder admitted. “I’ve been told by some very decent people who follow us that we’re going to have to join in with all of this, because we won’t get anything for doing it the way we try to.”
“I’m not talking about Chelsea, absolutely not,” Wilder added. “But there are a lot of teams that seem totally comfortable doing it. They don’t bat an eyelid. And they do seem to be getting a lot (of decisions) going their way because of that, whereas I don’t think we do - even though it’s not something we want to really get involved in. Maybe the time has come? I don’t know.”
Despite his frustration, not to mention desire to see United win their battle for survival, Wilder should think long and hard before ordering his men to become more deceitful. Following last month’s visit to Arsenal, when Oliver Burke attempted to ignore David Luiz’s tug on his shirt as he surged through on goal, it was impossible not to sympathise with Wilder’s argument that the Brazilian was fortunate to escape a red card - even though former referee Keith Hackett later told The Star why Lee Mason had not taken this course of action. But if Burke had flung himself to the turf, United have lost the moral high ground - dampening the resonance of Wilder’s complaint they had been the victims of another miscarriage of justice.
Others within his inner circle are known to have warned against joining what would essentially become a race to the bottom, despite acknowledging United must become more attuned to the methods being employed across the division.
In truth, Wilder’s decision to speak publicly about the dilemma he says he is facing is probably more of a plea for United’s approach to receive the recognition it deserves, rather than a signal they are about to become more Machiavellian themselves.
An explosion in the number of ‘tactical fouls’ - another genteelism used by football’s intelligentsia - has also become a source of concern, as orders to deliberately foul following a turnover in possession are now viewed as acceptable. Midway through last term, as United were en route to a ninth placed finish, one statistical study suggested only five teams in the competition - two of which went on to be relegated - committed fewer than Wilder’s men. Arsenal topped the table, followed by City.
“I am in a bit of a predicament with the tactical fouls as well,” Wilder said, as he prepared to provide those players still at the Steelphalt Academy with a crash course in how to recognise the ploy. “It seems to be very consistent in the Premier League and not consistent to us as a team, we don’t seem to be getting the benefit of what’s happening out there.
"Sometimes, yes, but most of the time, we don’t. That’s the way I see it.”