The big talking points to emerge from Sheffield United's defeat at West Bromwich Albion, as Chris Wilder's side remain without a win this season

Several years ago, Slaven Bilic predicted the next major development within footballing circles would be “the death of the system.”

Sunday, 29th November 2020, 1:09 pm

Coaches, the Croat concluded, are in danger of thinking each other into submission if they continue to obsess over formations and tactics. Players, particularly those with magic in their boots, will eventually use ability and imagination to escape the suffocating constraints being placed upon them by folk determined to choreograph every move they make. A battle, pitting poets against pragmatists, is inevitable West Bromwich Albion’s manager opined, as he peered into the future.

The most oppressive thing about this confrontation, however, was the pressure on both team’s shoulders. It weighed heavy at times, as Bilic’s men stumbled towards their first victory of the Premier League season against a Sheffield United side still languishing at the foot of the table after suffering its ninth defeat in 10 outings.

Chris Wilder, Bilic’s opposite number, was visibly upset as he surveyed the damage this result had caused to the visitors’ survival hopes. And, not for the first time during a confidence sapping run punctuated by a solitary draw, much of it was self-inflicted.

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“I feel like it’s Groundhog Day again, because we’ve had enough chances to win more than one match out there and not taken one,” Wilder protested after watching Conor Gallagher’s early goal settle the contest. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. It keeps on happening. And we know it’s got to stop.”


Wilder is so determined to preserve the 3-5-2 system which has become United’s motif under his stewardship that, after seeing two more defenders join Jack O’Connell on the treatment table, a centre-half many people had forgotten was still on the books found himself being handed a rare outing on the left hand side of defence. Making his first appearance for the visitors since January, and also his top-flight debut, Kean Bryan owed his selection more to Wilder’s desire not to sacrifice United’s shape than anything he has particularly done in a red and white jersey. With Enda Stevens and Ethan Ampadu both ruled-out through injury, the former Manchester City youngster inevitably found himself targeted by West Brom’s centre-forwards before being withdrawn when United were eventually forced to change tact.

Bryan was not culpable for any of the mistakes which presented Gallagher with the opportunity to score the only goal of the contest. He did everything expected of him and, at times, a little more. But his presence did reveal why Wilder views a new centre-half as being a necessity, not a luxury, when the transfer window reopens.

Sheffield United's Lys Mousset kicks his shot at goal over the crossbar during the closing stages of tyhe Premier League match at West Bromwich Albion: Andrew Boyers/Pool via AP


Although it has been a major factor behind United’s success under his stewardship, Wilder’s reluctance to ditch their three man rearguard despite O’Connell’s absence is born out of necessity rather than inflexibility. With no natural wingers at his disposal, Wilder is almost compelled to continue hammering round pegs into square holes until either the Liverpudlian returns to fitness or a replacement is identified. United’s remaining centre-halves are also more effective in a trio, which is hardly surprising given most have been selected with this strategy in mind. Youngster Rhys Norrington-Davies, now a Wales international after making excellent progress during a spell on loan at Luton Town, has been told he will remain at Kenilworth Road as he is groomed as O’Connell’s long-term successor. But serious consideration must now be given to recalling him in January; particularly if an experienced alternative can not be sourced.

“I don’t think the game was decided on systems or shape,” Wilder said. “Not when you create the number of chances we did.”

Speaking before a predictably fractious battle settled by a scruffy and wholly preventable strike, Wilder refuted suggestions United were failing to live up to expectations after finishing ninth and flirting with a place in Europe last term. Languishing in League One when he was appointed four years ago and now labouring through only their third top-flight campaign in more than a quarter-of-a-century, the 53-year-old had reminded on Thursday they were simply meeting them instead. But perspective is a scarce commodity in the modern game and the scrutiny United are now under will only grow ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Leicester City.

Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder shakes hands with the match officials following the English Premier League soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United at The Hawthorns: Jason Cairnduff/Pool via AP


In order to realise Bilic’s vision of a game governed by inspiration rather than drill sheets, individuals with carefree personalities and the confidence to keep pushing boundaries, even when things go wrong are a prerequisite. Given the financial resources at their disposal, those are in short supply at both United and West Brom as folk with those characteristics gravitate towards richer clubs.

Introduced as a substitute during the closing stages after recovering from surgery, Wilder does possess one in Lys Mousset but the centre-forward, rusty following nearly three months on the treatment table, blazed over from close range as United pressed for an equaliser.


Frustration for John Fleck of Sheffield United following the final whistle: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

By the time Gallagher pounced on Sander Berge’s poor clearance from a corner, sending a scuffed finish past Aaron Ramsdale when those supposed to be marshalling him also failed to react, United could easily have found themselves in a commanding lead. Oliver Burke, selected in attack against his former club, was unfortunate to lose his footing as he primed to shoot following a flick-on by Oli McBurnie. But both John Fleck and George Baldock should have done better as West Brom’s defence creaked.

Bilic’s men could have extended their lead, with Karlan Grant seeing a shot smothered at the near post and United looking vulnerable at set-piece situations. But neither Rhian Brewster nor his fellow substitute Mousset could convert when presented with openings during a late scramble.

“We pinned them in, and created not even half chances,” Wilder lamented. “That hurts, to not even score one. We can’t say we were unlucky because we’ve had chances to put a team to bed.”

West Bromwich Albion: Johnstone, Furlong, Ajayi, Bartley, Robinson (Robson-Kanu 65), Pereira, Townsend (Phillips 74), Gallagher, Sawyers, Ivanovic, Grant (Krivinovic 75): Not used: Button, Diangana, Harper, Krovinovic, O’Shea.

Sheffield United: Ramsdale, Basham, Egan, Bryan (Lundstram 64), Baldock, Lowe, Norwood (Brewster 54), Fleck, Berge, Burke (Mousset 74), McBurnie. Not used: Verrips, Jagielka, McGoldrick, Osborn.

Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral). VAR: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).

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