Strikers, physicality, Fleck, signings (again): Sheffield United talking points from Luton Town draw

Slavisa Jokanović has work to do in the international break after his Sheffield United side extended their wait for a first league win of the season to five matches, following a goalless draw at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road.

Monday, 30th August 2021, 2:00 pm
Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie of Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

But the scoreline fails to tell the full story of a game United could easily have lost, with Harry Cornick smashing a shot against the bar. United’s best effort was a header from George Baldock which went over the bar inside the first minute, and the full-back later went off with a foot injury.

Here are some of the key talking points from the goalless draw…

Rinse and repeat

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Sheffield United need fresh blood. It’s been apparent for a long time, long before Jokanović joined the Blades, and to anyone who has even a modicum of football knowledge.

So it is baffling why, with the transfer window now only a few days away, United have only managed to get one through the door – and even Ben Davies is a player that was available in January, and for cheaper than his loan fee could end up costing United, when the Blades closed ranks in the transfer market and effectively admitted they were already relegated.

One of the reasons offered up for that is that the Blades were keeping their powder dry and saving the money to spend in the summer instead. Where is it, then? Countless targets have gone elsewhere, players that would have been ideal for United now playing for rival clubs.

To take things this close to the window is, to be kind, less than ideal. What other club would part with one of their key players so close to deadline, knowing the difficulties of finding a replacement?

The alternative is to search for players not in their parent clubs’ plans, which throws up different issues. Will they be fit? Will they be in form? Will they, considering they aren’t playing elsewhere, actually be any good?

Four or five new faces may not be enough on their own to transform Jokanović’s embattled Blades into instant promotion contenders. But the alternative seems to simply drift through the Championship season with players we know have ability, but are so low on confidence and belief after being beaten week after week last season that they badly need a helping hand.

The only way to do that is in the transfer market. And time is very rapidly running out.

The front two

When was the last time the partnership up front of Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp worked particularly fruitfully from the start? It’s no slight on the individual players, more the combination of them.

McBurnie likes to drop deep and get on the ball in midfield, which then leaves Sharp terribly isolated on his own up front if the ball is then retained. Even more bafflingly, United continued to cross the ball at head height to Sharp after McBurnie went off at Luton, leaving the United skipper to try and win headers against Luton’s two giant centre-halves.

Both players have showed in the past that they can score goals in the Championship. But they have started together in 14 of the 81 league games United have played since McBurnie’s arrival and scored twice between them, with Sharp notching both.

Let’s get physical

This contest was not very old at all when Kai Naismith, the Luton captain, scythed down McBurnie with a pretty poor challenge somewhere near the centre-circle.

It was the type of tackle that may have warranted a thought of something more serious later in the game, but a yellow card was fair and subsequently handed out.

What was noticeable was, first of all, the lack of any kind of response from anyone in black shirts after their striker, by all accounts a popular figure in the dressing room, was wiped out.

There was also nothing of a similar nature the other way for almost the entire game. Or nothing that stands out in the memory, either. Not even a poor foul but a thunderous challenge of any kind.

Instead, for large parts of this game, United were bullied. Luton were in their faces from minute one and it almost paid dividends when Elijah Adebayo closed down Wes Foderingham and Harry Cornick rattled the Blades’ crossbar with his effort.

In recent years, and especially last season, United have been beaten before, and sometimes soundly. But even when things got really bad, and despite how some will try and convince you otherwise, they were rarely outfought and outbattled as they were at times here.

Has that ‘band of brothers’ approach lost some of its effect with the departure of Chris Wilder, or is it an unconscious by-product of the lack of confidence? Either way, it’s another possible area of concern to work on before things can likely get much better…

John Fleck

Or should that be Jimmy? It was former boss Wilder who invented the Scot’s alter-ego, who takes the midfielder’s place when he is out of form, and there has certainly been more Jimmy than John in red and white so far this season.

Anyone who has seen United at close quarters since Fleck signed for the Blades what seems a lifetime ago now, will recognise that he often starts seasons slowly. For whatever reason. But this one seems to be slower than the rest; which is possibly a tad understandable when you dig beneath the surface, considering the effects contracting Covid-19 and then representing Scotland on Euro 2020 duty may have had, in addition to the usual slow start.

The trouble is that United are second-bottom of the Championship with two points from five games and one goal to their names, and so any patience and understanding is in short supply. Fleck was again struggling here – his first-time balls through to Billy Sharp, their connection once almost telepathic, were easily cut out by the Luton defence and the driving forward from midfield, once such a hallmark of his play, was virtually non-existent.

This is a player who was being linked with a £25m move to Arsenal when he was in full flight in the Premier League less than two years ago, so to write him off as a busted flush seems very premature. But because of the heights he hit, because we know what he can produce, it makes Fleck’s current struggles so noticeable.

Goalie troubles

Another game, another talking point about Sheffield United’s goalkeeper. Neither Wes Foderingham or Michael Verrips have convinced anyone that they should be the man to replace Aaron Ramsdale in their two-game auditions since the former Blade left for Arsenal, and the former Rangers man can be a very relieved man indeed to be travelling back north with a clean sheet tonight.

Visiting press to Kenilworth Road were spared a full view of exactly how it happened by an unfortunately-placed pole in the main stand which blocked the entirety of one of the goals. But Foderingham disappeared from view behind it with the ball at his feet and with Adebayo in hot pursuit; when the ball reappeared again, it was at the feet of Cornick and Foderingham will have been a mightily relieved man when his shot rattled against the crossbar and away to safety.