Sheffield United's midfield metronome rediscovers his rhythm during important FA Cup win
For most of the season, indeed ever since football emerged from the first national lockdown, Oliver Norwood’s form has been a concern for Sheffield United as Chris Wilder and his coaching staff struggle to fathom how a team which proved so irresistible last term could suddenly lose both its potency and confidence.
Once a metronomic presence at the heart of midfield, the catalyst for so many of the attacks which used to overwhelm opponents, Norwood’s waning influence has coincided with a troubling downturn in form which saw United enter this FA Cup tie searching for only their third victory of what has been a morale-sapping campaign.
For precisely that reason, Wilder viewed their meeting with Plymouth Argyle not only as an opportunity to reach the fifth round of a competition which can provide some respite from the rigors of the Premier League, but also as a chance to restore self-belief behind the scenes.
“All I could ask of them,” he said afterwards, “Other than going through of course, was to go out there and try to play themselves into better shape; to try and make sure they were in a better place than before.”
Norwood obliged, producing a simply exquisite pass to create the second of the two goals United scored as they moved to within 90 minutes of the quarter-finals. An anxious five minutes apart, when a hat-trick of defensive errors allowed the League One side to reduce the deficit, Wilder’s men went about their business with a minimum of fuss, alarm and drama.
A WELCOME BLAST FROM THE PAST
Already leading courtesy of Chris Basham’s first-half goal, the centre-half heading home at the far post just before the break following a patient, well-constructed build-up, United appeared set to piece together another intricate move when John Lundstram handed possession to Norwood just beyond the centre circle, But as Argyle retreated back into position, showing the tactical discipline which had prevented United from establishing the type of healthy advantage their dominance warranted, the 29-year-old was alive to the possibilities. Taking a moment to assess his options, and then spotting Billy Sharp peeling away from his marker 30 yards upfield, Norwood took a moment to compose himself before threading a perfectly weighted through ball between two defenders. Sharp, whose partnership with his colleague had already threatened to bear fruit during the early skirmishes, did the rest; taking a touch and rounding Michael Cooper before finding the back of the net.
“We’ve got, and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever, to remember what division they are in,” Wilder reminded following the final whistle. “But it was a lovely pass and a great conversion too. With them packing the areas, we knew we had to be really precise with our work. And that was definitely precise, wasn’t it.”
A MAGICIAN REMEMBERS HIS TRICKS
As Wilder recognised, Argyle do not have the same calibre of talent at their disposal as those United face on a regular basis. Six days earlier, Norwood had endured a torrid afternoon against Tottenham Hotspur, as Jose Mourinho’s men left their counterparts from South Yorkshire 12 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table. But while out-maneuvering Tyrese Fornah, Luke Jephcott and Pautche Camara is not quite the same as nullifying Tanguy Ndombele and Harry Kane, the sight of Norwood looking to play forward and take a risk rather than simply rolling the ball backwards or square was a welcome one. If United can get their most imaginative midfielder firing again, coupled with the club’s most clinical finisher, there is still a liver of hope the season might not finish in relegation after all.
“The form is welcome,” Wilder said, after watching Norwood twice create openings for Sharp at the beginning of the contest. “Hopefully, this will enable us to find a little bit of form to take into our league matches too. That’s why there’s never a bad game of football to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kick-about with your mates, a training ground five-a-side or an actual first team match. It’s important to always try and do the right things.”
A BRIEF SCARE
United’s performance was far from perfect, with Camara missing a glorious chance to hand Plymouth a shock lead before Basham nodded Sharp’s centre beyond Cooper. But it was dominant, with the hosts enjoying 65 percent of the possession when Danny Mayor and Jephcott combined to find the African six yards or so from goal.
Urging United to up their tempo and press higher upfield, Wilder admitted he was “baffled” when a VAR review failed to punish Kelland Watts for handling an Ethan Ampadu shot inside the box. But his frustration subsided when Basham, who had taken part in the last contest between these two clubs seven years ago, pounced.
A SELF-INFLICTED SET BACK
Rhian Brewster, making a rare start following his record-breaking transfer from Liverpool, had already twice gone close before Sharp stretched United’s advantage and then prodded wide again.
Determined, resolute and on occasion enterprising, Plymouth were then handed a lifeline when Lundstram dithered on the ball, Basham dangled a leg as he attempted to clear up the mess and then Aaron Ramsdale allowed Camara’s shot to slide beneath his body. All three should have done better. But, as Wilder reminded afterwards, United were able to “get the job done.”
“The level we play at week in and week out is incredibly tough,” he said, reminding Bristol City will pose a “big challenge” in the next phase of the tournament. “So any opportunity to get that win, you take it. There really is no downside to getting a result and playing well.”