Sheffield United's best players of the Premier League season so far
Earlier this week, when Jack O’Connell was unveiled as The Star’s Sheffield United Player of the Year, our correspondent James Shield described it as the most fiercely contested race for the trophy he has ever known.
Nine members of the Premier League club’s squad, which sat seventh in the table when competition was suspended due to coronavirus, could legitimately claim to be among the contenders.
Here, we analyse who else was in the running. And why, following a tough selection process, O'Connell got the nod.
Dean Henderson: On-loan from Manchester United, Henderson has confirmed his status as England’s most promising young goalkeeper since helping Chris Wilder’s side gain promotion last term. Indeed it could be argued, given his displays in the top-flight this season, that he is the country’s best goalkeeper full stop. Has kept 10 Premier League clean sheets and developed a wonderful knack of making big saves at crucial moments.
Enda Stevens: Is there a more improved player at Bramall Lane over the past two seasons? Probably, although George Baldock might beg to differ, probably not. Despite enjoying a spell with Aston Villa at the beginning of his career, the Republic of Ireland international was a relative unknown when he arrived at Bramall Lane from Portsmouth. Now he is one of the most accomplished wing-backs in the country. Initially, Stevens’ biggest strength was going forward. Now, up against some of the best attacking talent in world football, he has become a formidable defender too.
George Baldock: Like Stevens, the former MK Dons defender has looked surprisingly comfortable at the highest level. But unlike Stevens, the defensive side of Baldock’s game was stronger than his attacking prowess when he joined United three years ago. Seemingly destined to win his first cap for Greece - Baldock qualifies through a grandfather - he is now equally adept at both. Making this improvement in the Premier League is worthy of recognition in itself, and it has also brought a sense of balance to United’s rearguard.
Chris Basham: The Premier League was supposedly going to be a step too far for Basham, who was transformed from a midfielder into an overlapping centre-half by Wilder following the manager’s appointment in 2016. But the 31-year-old has flourished at the highest level, cementing his place in United’s starting eleven with a series of selfless, energetic displays. On numerous occasions, Basham’s willingness to charge forward has wreaked havoc among opposition defences used to pitting their wits against sides with more rigid formations.
John Egan: Like Basham, the anchor point of United’s rearguard is selfless and embodies all of the qualities which have made Wilder’s team so effective. Strong, brave and powerful, Egan’s performances have enabled the manager to persist with the expansive system which helped deliver promotion from the Championship in the Premier League. Albeit, admittedly, with a few tweaks. If Egan had struggled to take the step up, United would almost certainly have been forced to change their system until drafting in a replacement during the January transfer window. But he has got better and better.
John Fleck: Can count himself unlucky not to have been crowned United’s Player of the Year. Indeed, many fans still argue he should have been. The fact it is difficult to disagree with any of the reasons they give confirms just how effective the Glaswegian has been. Fleck brings a touch of ‘Playground football’ to the Premier League, darting about with almost childlike enthusiasm. In past seasons, a poor goal scoring record is the only real criticism you could level at Fleck. But now he has found the back of the net five times since August. With Wilder acknowledging his team might struggle in this department at the beginning of the campaign, this has been vital.
Oliver Norwood: A metronome, Norwood dictates the tempo and direction of United's play. He likes a tackle too, as plenty of top-flight opponents have discovered this season. Remarkably, despite being promoted to the top-flight twice before joining United, the 29-year-old had never been given a chance to showcase his talents on one of football’s greatest stages until this term. He has grasped the opportunity Wilder has given him with both hands, impressing with his intelligence and technical qualities.
John Lundstram: The Liverpudlian’s Premier League experience has mirrored that of United as a whole. Written off as a no-hoper at the start of the campaign - many suspected he was heading for the exit door - Lundstram has flown instead. United’s coaching staff wanted someone with a physical presence to front their midfield at the beginning of the season. Lundstram has performed that role superbly, scoring three times in his first 11 outings this term. If the award had been handed out in October, Lundstram may well have won. A slight downturn in form as Christmas approached prevented him from mounting an even stronger claim.
Jack O’Connell: It speaks volumes about just how good O’Connell is that, despite maturing into one of the Premier League’s most effective centre-halves, he is still being described as underrated. With United’s rearguard fuelling their march into European contention, it seems only right that a member of their defence should be named Player of the Year. Never outmuscled, only 12 top-flight centre-backs have made more passes than O’Connell this term, which proves he is also a threat going forward. The only problem he has given Wilder is that clubs with deep pockets are now starting to realise just how good the former Brentford man is.