Sheffield United: Other than results, what has pleased Wilder and Knill about Blades’ pre-season?

Chris Wilder
Chris Wilder
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Six wins, 19 goals scored and only five conceded ... Sheffield United’s pre-season has been a resounding success.

But it is not just results which have pleased manager Chris Wilder and his coaching staff. Watching the players solve a variety of sometimes complex problems has, according to Alan Knill, been a source of great encouragement as well.

Alan Knill

Alan Knill

“Everyone thinks this part of the year is all about physical work, the fitness side of things,” the assistant boss explained.

“Yes, that’s important but we also try and work their minds too. Because, whatever people make out, you’ve got to think in football, think on your feet.”

United’s preparations for the Championship campaign, which begins with a home fixture against Brentford this weekend, concluded with Friday’s match at Eastleigh where goals from Enda Stevens, Daniel Lafferty and Matt Done secured their sixth victory in as many friendlies.

Last season’s League One champions chose to begin their summer fixture programme against non-league opposition before, having dispatched Stocksbridge Park Steels 9-0, beating Chesterfield, Rotherham and, most famously, Stoke City and Malaga FC.

Action from the Eastleigh match

Action from the Eastleigh match

Unlike the game at Bracken Moor, which was primarily designed to help Wilder’s players get back into the swing of things following a month-long break, those two opponents were hand-picked to test their analytical skills and mental strength.

“We have to be in control of the ball,” Knill said. “We are at our best when we have the ball. We are attacking and forward-thinking so we should keep it when we can.

“If you don’t get it back a lot, against the better teams, then you have to do something with it when you’re in possession. You have to really make it count. I think the lads did that well, although you can always improve on things.”

“They (Stoke and Malaga were very strong and the lads produced two excellent performances. Each pre-season game has given us different problems, a different scenario to try and cope with. But, throughout every single one, we’ve had to compete.”

United’s determination to arrange competitive fixtures is an acknowledgement that, after cruising to promotion earlier this year, they are bracing themselves for a much tougher campaign this time around.

With the likes of Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers lavishing millions on their squads, Wilder recently conceded “there may be times” when his side “has to take a few blows to the chin”. But United, who last tasted defeat in January, possess momentum, self-belief and, Knill maintained, lots of talent.

“We think it’s so important to win,” he said. “You can’t go into a season with that mentality if you switch it off during pre-season. The manager is as demanding in these games as he is in the actual season. Momentum is a huge thing in football. We’ve got a group here who won a lot last season, who did ever so well, and we want that to carry on.”

United could hand debuts to seven new players when Brentford, who finished 10th in the Championship last season, arrive in South Yorkshire, although George Baldock and Ched Evans are both carrying knocks.

Dean Smith

Dean Smith

Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, signed on loan from Chelsea, is poised to deputise for the injured Simon Moore.

“Everyone has told us that we are going to a different level but we believe in the players,” Knill said. “We believed in them to get us out of the division last year and we believe in them to do well a division above. We want to add to the squad and make it stronger. But these lads have also earned the right to have a go.”

Meanwhile, Dean Smith, the Brentford manager, watched United’s final friendly of their summer warm-up programme at Eastleight.

Wilder revealed his assistant returned the favour when, 24 hours later, Smith’s players met Celta Viga at Griffin Park.

“Knill went there to watch them,” Wilder said. “Everybody watches everybody else at this stage.

“It’s something you expect. It is what it is.”

Although Wilder’s decision to make a raft of changes midway through United’s 3-2 win limited the usefulness of Smith’s scouting mission - keeper Blackman was the only player to complete a full 90 minutes - he will have been able to discern broad patterns of play.

Knill witnessed Brentford trial both Andreas Bjelland and Yoann Barbet alongside centre-half John Egan as they beat the Spaniards 2-1.

Regular central defender Harlee Dean is suspended for the trip to South Yorkshire after being sent off against Blackburn Rovers last term.

“We were all over the country looking at people (on Saturday),” Wilder said. “We’ve watched everything we possibly can.”

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