Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder reveals what he will tell his players moments before they go into battle against Chelsea
There are moments, in the heat of Premier League battle, when footballers require what might be politely described as a motivational pep talk rather than an in-depth tactical analysis of their performances so far.
The half-time interval of last season’s game between Chelsea and Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge was, inside the visitors’ dressing room at least, one such occasion as Chris Wilder gathered his players in a circle and began picking apart 45 minutes of one-sided action which had seen them concede twice without reply during what he would later describe as a “star struck” display.
“You don’t need to suck me into what I told the lads,” he told The Star earlier this week, smiling at the memory of what was said back then. “We are always honest with our opinions and we were definitely very honest in that instance. I think it’s fair to say there was a full and frank exchange of views.
“Basically, we told the boys they needed to make more contact, they needed to get higher up the pitch and that they needed to engage more. Because, if you give good players the chance to get their heads up and look, then they’re going to hurt you aren’t they. And Chelsea have got good players.”
The upshot of Wilder’s bombastic rallying cry was three-quarters-of-an hour of thrilling, absorbing drama which saw the visitors pick haul themselves off the canvas and snatch a late but deserved draw; Kurt Zouma’s own goal, after Callum Robinson’s finish had earlier reduced the deficit, ensuring United claimed a point at the home of the former champions only four months after being promoted. They must produce something equally combative tomorrow evening when they return to west London, having lost six and drawn one of their first seven outings since finishing ninth in the table last term.
Although Wilder remains convinced that United’s recent results do not reflect the quality of their performances - “We’re not far off, no matter what anyone says” - he did acknowledge they face a difficult balancing act against opponents who, despite being without Kai Havertz because of a positive Covid-19 test, can still call upon the likes of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Thiago Silva. Wilder wants United to attack Frank Lampard’s side - pose questions of a defence which, even though it has kept five consecutive clean sheets, can be vulnerable on the counter-attack - whilst recognising the threat Chelsea pose going forward.
After troubling Liverpool at Anfield a fortnight ago, United were accused of showing Manchester City too much respect when Pep Guardiola’s men triumphed 1-0 in South Yorkshire last weekend. Reflecting on those narrow defeats, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota propelling Liverpool to victory after Sander Berge had given United the lead, Wilder rejected the argument that his team should simply throw caution to the wind and see what happens.
“The difference, against a club that’s better equipped and experienced in the Premier League, is that you can’t just have a game of basketball,” he said, noting how Atalanta and Olympiakos had tried that approach against Liverpool and City earlier this week. “There has to be control in our game. I can’t have (centre-half Chris) Basham on the wing early on, because we have to be mindful of the fact that as soon as we turn over the ball, the counter attack is huge. You saw that with Liverpool in midweek, and also with City going to Greece - the games are done and dusted after 20 minutes. It’s very rare that a team like us is going to come from 3-0 down and take it to 4-3. But there will be times when we can push on and get people forward.”
Although he was critical of aspects of United’s play against the two North-West giants, he did indicate they will follow a similar strategy at Chelsea; albeit one with a few subtle tweaks and adjustments given that the on-loan Ethan Ampadu is ineligible for selection against his parent club. Unbeaten in 10, Chelsea are again without Christian Pulisic due to a hamstring injury.
“My only criticism in those two has been that I felt, when we had that final chance, we couldn’t take it,” Wilder, who could recall John Lundstram or Oliver Norwood, said. “Going into the last 20 or 25 minutes, especially against City, it was game on. But when you are careless with the ball and you turn it over, they end up keeping it from you because of the quality these very top teams have got. The Premier League is different to any other league in that respect.”
Despite United’s predicament towards the foot of the table, Wilder is convinced a first win of the campaign is not far away. Indeed, even though they were seven points better off at the same stage last season, he told journalists on Thursday there has actually been a marked improvement and maturity in aspects of their displays this term.
“I believe we were better this season against Liverpool and City than we were at Liverpool last season and against City at our place last season,” he said. “The only trouble is, it gets highlighted a lot more at the moment because we don’t have as many (points) on the board. Everyone says the team is different and that everything is different. Really, it isn’t. I was honest when we went to Chelsea last year and I’ve been honest about our recent performances as well.”