Having recorded three clean sheets in their last three games, Chris Wilder’s decision to stress the importance of an uncharitable defence has clearly resonated with Sheffield United’s players.
But, as recent results suggest, improving performance levels at one end of the pitch appear to have impacted upon returns at the other with the promotion hopefuls scoring only twice during those meetings with Ipswich Town, Burton Albion and Nottingham Forest.
It is a conundrum - fathoming how to be both parsimonious and prolific - the United manager and his staff must solve during the international break to give their squad the best possible chance of achieving a top six finish.
“Not conceding has been good to see,” Wilder said. “You always want the opposition to have to work hard for anything they get rather than just being presented with something. We’ve made some big blocks or saves of late and that was an area where we were wanting to get better. We’re always looking for those.”
United will enter Good Friday’s game against Brentford only two points outside the play-off positions with eight matches remaining following last weekend’s stalemate with Forest. Knowing they remain far from the finished article yet are still in with a realistic chance of competing in the top-flight next season should encourage rather than dishearten Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and head of sports science Matt Prestridge as preparations for the visit to Griffin Park gather pace.
However, with two of the three teams they must overhaul boasting superior goals per game records, time is of the essence. Middlesbrough (1.42) and Bristol City (1.42) both score more than Wilder’s side (1.34). Preston North End, who are also above them in the table, return a figure of 1.26.
Once again, though, there is reason for United to be upbeat. Even a slight increase could lead to significant gains. United, in ninth, convert more of the opportunities (17 per cent) they create than all but five of the competition’s 24 clubs.
Only Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa are more ruthless when presented with an opening. Fulham, Derby County and Ipswich Town dispatch the same volume.
United’s new-found defensive strength will be tested in London because no team this term has mustered more shots (678) then Brentford. Given their ability to take a chance, Wilder’s work during training next week is expected to focus on reducing United’s tendency to overelaborate in the final third; a habit which was in evidence against Forest. Only Reading, who yesterday parted company with their manager Jaap Stam, have taken fewer attempts on goal while United are ranked 15th when calculating shots on target.
“When we get into good areas, it’s vital we make the most of them,” Wilder said.