Sheffield United: The tactics - and the tedious controversy that is VAR - behind The Blades' meeting with Newcastle
There were times during the build-up to this game when it sounded as if Chris Wilder and Steve Bruce, the Sheffield United manager’s rival, friend and occasional sounding board, were prepared to simply call it quits and share the points before a ball had even been kicked in anger.
Compliments were exchanged. Anecdotes were shared. And even though their respective pre-match briefings took place nearly 130 miles away, you got the impression the two would gladly have shared a stage as they talked about each other in almost affectionate terms.
“Over the summer, he was seeking my advice over one or two things and, before I knew it, I’m seeking advice off him,” Bruce had revealed on Wednesday lunchtime. “The ultimate winner...there’s nothing bang average about him either as a professional or a bloke,” was Wilder’s description of his counterpart at Newcastle.
The bonhomie, of course, proved a deceptively friendly prelude to a typically robust Premier League contest. But it was the subplot, not the main story, which proved the most fascinating feature of a tale settled by an Allan Saint-Maximin goal and another confusing episode involving VAR.
With four promotions each on their respective CV’s - more than Jurgen Klopp, Marco Silva and Nuno Espirito Santo combined - Wilder and Bruce deserve to be recognised as two of the most accomplished coaches operating in England. Yet, while others with sexier sounding surnames have been handed top jobs on a plate, both of the two men patrolling Bramall Lane’s technical area last night have been forced to build careers on their own skills and merits. Not, given the seductive power exotic cognomens seem to hold over some boardrooms, the assistance of directors who believe foreign is always best. Or that decorated players should receive an automatic pass into the sport’s most glamorous dug-outs. The strategies Wilder and Bruce employed during this match, the little tweaks and adjustments they made as their respective teams waged war, served to remind there are British managers who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the most shrewd in the business.
Wilder, despite watching his side lose for the first time since September, has mastered the art of turning the seemingly chaotic into something wonderfully coherent. A system which revolves around marauding wing-backs and attacking centre-halves should, by rights, be a disaster. Instead, subject to continual fine-tuning and work on the training ground, it has led the hosts from the third to the first tier of English football since being unveiled soon after his appointment three years ago.
Its strengths were once again in evidence as Enda Stevens forced to Martin Dubravka to make the first save of the evening, bursting down the flank before cutting inside and unleashing a shot which, having taken a deflection, the Slovak did well to turn over the crossbar.
But Bruce, despite being dismissed as a “dinosaur” after taking charge at St James’ Park, boasts a sharp brain too. Having travelled to South Yorkshire a place and two points better off than they were under his predecessor Rafael Benitez at the same stage last season, Newcastle reacted by trying to exploit what Bruce clearly perceived as an aerial vulnerability in United’s defence.
The ploy worked but it was Allan Saint-Maximin, not the towering Andy Carroll, who opened the scoring when he headed home Javier Manquillo’s cross. That was the cue for Newcastle to retreat and construct two banks of four in front of their penalty area. Bruce’s tactics might not be pretty or particularly en vogue. But they are effective. Unlike the idea of delegating big decisions to an officials at Stockley Park.
Wilder’s claim that his opposite number should receive “a standing ovation” for leaving Sheffield Wednesday to join Newcastle fell on deaf ears when Bruce, who walked out of Hillsborough over the summer, was pretty much ignored instead. Fortunately for those inside the stadium, and the viewers watching it unfold on the streaming service Amazon Prime, the game proved more intriguing than the “bitty” stalemate United and Wednesday fought-out in March when Bruce and Wilder last locked horns.
“I don’t think anyone deserved to win it,” the latter had remarked, on that occasion. “It was a passionate derby, a passionate crowd and players giving everything for the cause. But there wasn’t a lot of quality on show. We’ll take it and move on.”
Both United and Bruce did; with second-place in the Championship and a return to his native North-East their next respective ports of call.
Newcastle, handing Carroll his first Premier League start for the club in nearly a decade, took the lead when Saint-Maximin converted moments after Oli McBurnie, one of two changes United unveiled, had gone close at the other end. Billy Sharp, also recalled by Wilder in attack, failed to hit the target from an acute angle after McBurnie had forced the second of two early saves from Dubravka. The Scotland international’s header appeared destined for the corner of the net but, as the stadium held its breath, the goalkeeper stuck out a hand and directed the ball to safety.
As well as a battle of wits on the touchline, a personal duel was being fought between McBurnie and Dubravka too, with another flying block denying United’s record signing soon after the interval. Then came the controversy, when Dean Henderson allowed Jonjo Shelvey to effectively walk the ball into the net after spotting an offside flag. Yes, the midfielder was onside. Yes, United should have continued to whistle. But referring matters like this to officials at Stockley Park is not only causing confusion among supporters. It is clearly baffling players as well.