Sheffield United: Martin Cranie explains how Chris Wilder’s pioneering approach has given the club its own identity in an era of tactical tedium

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At first, Martin Cranie admits it looked like a recipe for chaos.

But the more he analysed how Sheffield United played, the more he watched their centre-halves surge forward and lauch attack after attack, the more he realised this was something, if the opportunity ever arose, he fancied being a part of. 

"I remember coming to Bramall Lane with Middlesbrough last season and we lost 2-1," Cranie remembers. "But it wasn't the result that really stuck in my mind it was how United went about their business. We were being totally peppered.

“I didn't know if it was happening off-the-cuff or if they were being told to do it. I was sat there thinking 'How are they doing this?' It was pretty amazing stuff to watch."

Nine months on and Cranie, reclining on a sofa inside the Steelphalt Academy's common room, now understands a system which has torn-up the tactical textbook is actually part of his new club's Championship masterplan. Learning how to master it, becoming totally familiar with the finer details, has been an arduous process for the 32-year-old and required every last ounce of his experience.

But Cranie, who returned to South Yorkshire at the beginning of the season, is adamant all those hours on the training pitch have been worth it. Because being innovative, he explains, has helped United stand-out from the crowd and prosper in an era where imagination and invention are becoming dirty words.

Martin Cranie has enjoyed mastering Sheffield United's approach

Martin Cranie has enjoyed mastering Sheffield United's approach

"The gaffer here has a distinctive style, like a few of my managers," Cranie continues. "The centre backs overlapping the full backs was something I had not seen before. 

"It's a unique style that works really well with the group of players he has got. He identified who he wanted for those specific positions. It all gels together very well and he has done a fantastic job.

"He’s got it working really well. Everyone knows what they are doing. You need the right individuals to play that system and I don’t think any squad could play it. It is important for a club to have that unique identity. Going out and playing off the cuff every week is hard."

This weekend, when a resurgent Queens Park Rangers visit Bramall Lane for what promises to be a compelling Championship fixture, Cranie and his colleagues will enjoy another opportunity to showcase their trailblazing approach. Steve McClaren's side are ninth, eight points behind third-placed United, after winning four and drawing two of their last six games.

Chris Wilder likes two of his centre-halves to overlap and attack: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Chris Wilder likes two of his centre-halves to overlap and attack: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

The match, which could also mark Gary Madine's debut for the hosts after signing on loan from Cardiff City, will pit Wilder's team against two players he courted over the summer. Luke Freeman and Nahki Wells, a Bermuda international, were both on target during Rangers' 2-2 draw with Aston Villa on New Year's Day.

Cranie, who counts Portsmouth, Barnsley and Southampton among his former clubs, has settled quickly into his new surroundings since leaving the Riverside at the end of last term.

Talking football, sipping tea and casting a glance at a nearby pool table, where two other members of Wilder's squad are firing balls across the baize, he reveals his wife actually suspected United would come calling long before, their interest piqued by a CV which includes a promotion with Huddersfield Town, the manager and his staff first picked up the phone.

"I was getting ‘phone calls in the summer and hearing the odd whisper. But I said to my agent, 'Just ring me when something is concrete.' Just before I came here, there were a couple of Championship clubs interested. I was ‘umming’ and ‘aahing’ whether to go to one but then the manager rang me.

Martin Cranie in action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Martin Cranie in action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

"This was perfect for me. Funnily enough, my missus did say at the start of the summer, ‘I think you’ll end up at Sheffield United this summer’. I have no clue how. I had never heard anything. So if you want transfer news, just ask my missus."

The meeting with Rangers also represents an opportunity for United to demonstrate Sunday's FA Cup defeat by Barnet, a result Wilder attributed to "arrogance", represents a momentary stumble rather than symptomatic of a wider malaise.

Cranie, the only survivor of the starting eleven which beat Wigan Athletic five days earlier, must hope leaving his fingerprints on the carcass of their Wembley dream does not cost him a place when Wilder's side resumes its push for the Premier League although Chris Basham, who missed the trip to Greater Manchester through suspension, is eligible for selection.

With Madine's arrival helping to abate Wilder's anger following that loss to non-league opposition, he will be encouraged to learn Cranie sees similarities between United and the Town side which reached the top-flight two seasons ago.

"There, we also had a distinct way of doing things with the high pressing and tempo. Obviously, since arriving I know how much has gone in to this style. Teams cannot cope with the overload down each side.

“The gaffer has got it just right. We don’t take chances at the back. If it has to go, it goes. But he wants us to come out with the ball if there is a chance of doing so.

"At other clubs, I have played centre back and stayed in the centre of the pitch. We didn’t have to run a lot at all.

"Here, though, it is totally different. I am expected to fly off down the wing. Which I love, even though it took a bit of time to get used to. When to go and when to hold was something I had to learn. But it is enjoyable because it lets me attack."