Sheffield United: No Aaron Ramsdale, no goals and no points as The Blades are gutted by West Brom
Slavisa Jokanovic had hoped this would be all about the football, an opportunity to discuss formations, tactics and gauge Sheffield United’s progress against opponents expected to be one of their direct rivals for an automatic promotion.
Instead, for what already seems like the hundredth time despite only taking charge last month, the Serb’s plans were hijacked by Aaron Ramsdale after it emerged Arsenal had finally agreed a deal to sign the goalkeeper during the build-up to kick-off.
Omitted from the squad which faced West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns, Ramsdale still cast a shadow over last night’s game. While he was packing his bags and scrolling through Zoopla for something suitable in the capital - or possibly one of the well-appointed villages surrounding his soon-to-be employers training base near St Albans - the team he left behind was being schooled, dismantled and utterly eviscerated by Valerien Ismael’s men.
Ramsdale’s replacement, the inexperienced Michael Verrips, was at fault for at least two of the four efforts the hosts scored during a contest so one-sided there was an argument for stopping it on humanitarian grounds.
But while Jokanovic begins the search for a more experienced option between the posts - Robin Olsen, of AS Roma and Sweden, is believed to be his preferred choice - events in the Midlands confirmed United’s board of directors must use the majority of the £26m they will initially receive for Ramsdale in the 53-year-old’s squad. As his CV confirms, Jokanovic is a supremely gifted manager. But he has inherited a group of players which, after being relegated from the Premier League, appears stale, mentally scarred and past its sell-by-date. Jokanovic needs more help, and more financial support from those above him, than the £1m it cost to sign defender Ben Davies on loan from Liverpool 72 hours ago.
“The result is disappointing, the performance is disappointing,” Jokanovic said, after watching Jack Robinson’s own goal and strikes from Dara O’Shea, Alex Mowatt and Callum Robinson propel the hosts to the top of the Championship and leave United 22nd in the embryonic table. “It was a tough defeat for us and we lost the physical battle.”
While Jokanovic has changed United’s system on a game by game basis during his first four matches at the helm, his counterpart Ismael relies on brute force and speed rather than the element of surprise.
That approach, which helped him transform Barnsley into contenders for much of last season before being lured to the Midlands, proved as irresistible here as it did at Oakwell. Indeed, had the assistant referee not been on the top of his game, West Brom would have been two goals to the good inside the opening quarter-of-an-hour as they threatened to pummel, suffocate and press United into submission.
Robinson, once of the visitors and now Ismael’s go-to-man in attack, was responsible for doing most of the damage thanks to his direct running and pace.
The players had barely broken sweat when he prodded him from close range, after Darnell Furlong’s Howitzer of the throw had caused chaos in front of Verrips, before spotting an offside flag had been raised. It was a warning United failed to heed when Furlong’s delivery saw West Brom take the lead midway through the opening period. But not before Robinson was frustrated by the assistant referee for a second time - again after the hosts’ aerial prowess had unsettled United.
The United fans massed behind Verrips goal will have been disappointed to see Ismael’s men edge in front. But they can’t have been surprised. Either by the sight of their team’s defence finally cracking under the pressure or the manner in which the opener came about - Robinson turning another Furlong throw into his own net as everyone around him panicked.
David McGoldrick’s head still appeared to be spinning less than 60 seconds later when, after being sent clean through by Billy Sharp, he somehow managed to shoot wide when it appeared harder not to score. The centre-forward lifted up his shirt to try and hide his embarrassment. Turning away in disbelief down in the technical area, Jokanovic was probably tempted to try and throttle him with it.
United wouldn’t have deserved to be level when they made their way back to the dressing room for the half-time break. But football isn’t about fairness. It’s about being ruthless and exploiting every mistake or lapse in concentration by the opposition.
West Brom demonstrated they have grasped that concept when O’Shea doubled their advantage at the beginning of the second period. Mowatt swept a corner into the heart of the United area and, when Verrips came to collect but found himself juggling with the ball instead, O’Shea needed no invitation to prod it across the line. Cue another shrug of the shoulders and icy stare from Jokanovic before his expression turned to disgust.
Mowatt, one of three new additions Ismael has been allowed to make since being appointed earlier this summer, stretched West Brom’s advantage soon after when some pitiful defending allowed Karlan Grant to tee him up from close range. Verrips was let down by those in front of him on that occasion. But he quickly returned the favour by trying and failing to deal with another long throw, which allowed Robinson to sweep home.
Verrips recovered his composure to prevent Robinson from claiming another as West Brom slipped back into third gear, aware United were simply too shell-shocked to mount any sort of comeback. That probably led to the lapse in concentration which saw John Egan escape his marker on a rare foray forward during the closing stages, but the United centre-half’s header was parried away to safety by Sam Johnstone.