The step Sheffield United could take in order to solve the problem caused by Jack O'Connell's absence
There is a room, located next door to the open plan office suite which houses the rest of Sheffield United’s coaching staff whenever they aren’t overseeing a training session at the Steelphalt Academy, where Chris Wilder has built a sort of nerve centre for the club’s footballing operations.
Spartanly furnished but affording the occupants an uninterrupted view of the first team pitches, the manager and his most trusted lieutenants, including assistant Alan Knill and Matt Prestridge, a sports science graduate from Loughborough University, use it to plot their way through the course of a season - something, after twice delivering promotion and then a ninth placed finish in the Premier League, the trio have done with great success since arriving in 2016. When he isn’t scrolling through data collected on potential new signings, head of recruitment Paul Mitchell frequently joins them in there too.
This week, the quartet have been ruminating over a problem which could yet define the rest of United’s campaign: How to best limit the damage caused by Jack O’Connell’s absence, after the centre-half was forced to undergo knee surgery?
Initially, Wilder suggested that returning to the transfer market was the most sensible solution, with Huddersfield Town’s Terence Kongolo his preferred option. But following their defeat by Arsenal, which saw United enter this month’s international break still searching for their first points of the new campaign, he began talking about “in house” solutions. Those comments suggest, after paying more than £20m to sign striker Rhian Brewster, that it is proving difficult - with Kongolo’s own fitness status now proving a cause for concern - to reach a consensus on how best to proceed, with Bramall Lane’s board of directors looking to protect United’s financial position during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although Jack Robinson has shown himself to be an able deputy for O’Connell since Wilder, having grown increasingly concerned about the player’s welfare, chose to withdraw him “from the firing line”, the 53-year-old is aware that, should the former Nottingham Forest man ever become unavailable for selection, it could force United to ditch the 3-5-2 system which has become their trademark. Having told United’s own in-house media channel following last week’s match at Arsenal that is not something he wants to do - “We’re not taking a wrecking ball to anything” - Wilder is now trying to identify how he should respond if Robinson, now the only naturally left-footed centre-half at his disposal, is either suspended or injured.
One idea which has almost certainly been floated would be to move wing-back Enda Stevens inside and deploy Max Lowe, a summer signing from Derby County, along the flank. Stevens has briefly operated as a central defender before, albeit only briefly, and Lowe demonstrated an excellent grasp of his brief during United’s recent Carabao Cup tie at Burnley.
With goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale recently outlining the importance of cultivating a telepathic understanding between defenders, explaining how the actions of those around them affect a goalkeeper’s decision making process, Wilder is understandably reluctant to compensate for the loss of one player by moving two others.
“We’re giving information to each other all the time,” Ramsdale said. “But there’s certain things you don’t want to have to be saying, because the action moves so fast. You’re making split second decisions out there. Actually, probably less than that.”
United’s best case scenario is that Robinson passes his crash course in the art of being an overlapping centre-half in double quick time. He has made commendable progress, particularly given it is a role he has never performed before either at the City Ground, Queens Park Rangers or Liverpool where he began his career. But it is impossible to underestimate the importance of O’Connell - or a fully fit O’Connell as Wilder noted when he confirmed he would be undergoing a procedure in London - to United. Spending nearly as much time in the opposition’s half as he did his own as United finished ninth in the tableau last term, O’Connell tasted defeat in only 26 per cent of the fixtures he featured in during the previous campaign. United were undefeated in 68 per cent overall, but conceded an average of 1.8 goals per game without O’Connell during their outings when football returned to action following lockdown, compared to 0.75 when he took part.
Robinson might not yet possess the same attacking threat O’Connell provided as United mounted an unlikely challenge for Europe, but he is clearly moving in the right direction - completing 100 per cent of his dribbles forward since competition resumed last month. Aerially, he has also been strong, winning more than three quarters of his headers and 63 per cent of his total duels. With Stevens returning an aerial duels success rate of 66.7 per cent - and not forgetting the fact he stands six feet tall - the Republic of Ireland international could turn out to be the best alternative to Robinson if Kongolo remains in West Yorkshire or moves elsewhere.
Despite seemingly being destined to join United before last Monday’s deadline for inter-Premier League and trans-European signings, Kongolo’s hopes of completing a switch to Bramall Lane are now being complicated by a number of factors largely beyond his control. Concerns have been expressed about the fact he had metalwork inserted into his foot after suffering an injury during a spell on loan with Fulham, who visit United on Sunday, last season. Despite informing Kongolo he can leave, Town are also adamant that any fee received must at least cover the remainder of the balance they still owe his former club AS Monaco before approving a deal. When United first approached officials at The John Smith’s Stadium, The Star understands they were quoted a figure of around £8m.