Sheffield United: Why the search for more attacking firepower must begin at home

Paul Coutts was a big miss during the second half of last season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Paul Coutts was a big miss during the second half of last season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

The obvious answer is sign a new striker. Or, if Chris Wilder’s wish is realised, possibly even two.

But there are other ways, even if they were barred from entering the transfer market, for Sheffield United to coax more goals out of their squad. Tiny tactical tweaks, subtle positional changes, that could potentially reap big rewards.

David Brooks brought the best out of Mark Duffy: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

David Brooks brought the best out of Mark Duffy: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Wilder, who has started drafting plans for next season despite suggesting he might not even be in charge, has frequently complained about his team’s profligacy. No attacking partnership was more productive than Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp. But, as the manager intimated on countless occasions, the percentage of chances United converted was actually pretty low. It cost them points against the likes of Cardiff City, Aston Villa and even relegated Barnsley during an eventful South Yorkshire derby at Oakwell. The seven points United dropped during those three games alone would, assuming everything else remained equal, have delivered play-off qualification. So it comes as no surprise to learn that a centre-forward, preferably proven at Championship or even Premier League level, is top of Wilder’s wish-list this summer.

The search for more firepower should not be interpreted as a slight on either Sharp or Clarke. Both are still important figures. Both have signed extended contracts within the past 10 months.

Instead, it is simply an admission that United must keep raising the bar in order to progress. And, remembering how he attributed Mark Duffy’s “brilliant” performances to the emergence of David Brooks, another reminder of how Wilder uses creative friction and competition to ensure his charges remain eager, alert and determined to improve.

Still, many of those already in situ are capable of delivering more in the final third. Especially, as the 50-year-old has alluded, if United make a few minor adjustments.

Mark Duffy was excellent last season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Mark Duffy was excellent last season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

One of these will happen naturally when Paul Coutts returns from injury. The midfielder, whose ability to pick a pass and dictate pace has been sorely missed since a broken leg ended his campaign, likes to work in the pocket of space just in front of United’s back three. His presence edges them upfield and nudges John Fleck and Duffy into more offensive areas. If they operate 10 yards further forward, the two men should begin to trouble the scoresheet more. If not, then expect Ricky Holmes to step into the breach. Lee Evans, who produced two memorable volleys during last month’s win over Middlesbrough, would also benefit. Particularly if there is a change of personnel or shape.

Another area United must analyse in the search for more firepower is, paradoxically, defence. Jack O’Connell claimed six goals en route to the League One title during Wilder’s first campaign at the helm. Although the step up in quality made a repeat unlikely, the fact he scored none last season will be a concern. United’s wide centre-halves still overlap. But, towards the end of last term, it seemed Chris Basham was charging forward rather than his team mate. The former Blackpool player has many different qualities. But clinical finishing is not one.

Wilder, who recently complained that boardroom issues could force him to consider his future, has already cleared the decks for new arrivals by releasing Clayton Donaldson while making James Hanson and Caolan Lavery available for transfer. A new face or two could turbo-charge United’s frontline. But at least part of the solution to this most pressing of problems probably lies much closer to home.