The seemingly impossible puzzle Sheffield United must solve against Liverpool

The numbers made pretty terrifying reading, particularly for a manager without all of his first choice centre-halves.

Saturday, 27th February 2021, 6:00 am

So, as he prepares his Sheffield United side to face a Liverpool’s three pronged strikeforce - which has delivered 76 Premier League goals since the beginning of last season - Chris Wilder could be forgiven for focusing on something completely different ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with the reigning champions.

Unfortunately, ignoring the catalogue of injuries which have ripped the heart out of his squad isn’t a luxury the 53-year-old can enjoy as he fathoms how best to nullify the threat Sadio Madio, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah will pose at Bramall Lane. It would be a mind-boggling proposition at the best of times. But with Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and John Egan among those sidelined, Wilder’s brain is being tested to its absolute limits.

“There’s not a lot of room for flexibility as you can imagine,” Wilder said last night, revealing Jayden Bogle’s name has now been added to a casualty list so long it could fill a sheet of A1 paper. “We’ll try and get over it and pick a team. These boys understand, whoever is out there and plays, that they need to be competitive and that it’s a chance to face Liverpool, who have got some fabulous individuals.”

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Injuries have been a feature of both clubs seasons, with the visitors also lamenting the absence of key names such as Jordan Henderson, Joel Matip and of course Vurgil van Dijk. The difference is, as Wilder reminded during his latest pre-match media briefing, that although their loss has coincided with a marked downturn in results - Jurgen Klopp’s side can still call upon some world class talents.

Bottom of the table and seemingly destined for relegation two seasons after being promoted, United were always going to be vulnerable to these types of selection issues at this stage of their development. But it will not help Wilder’s mood, as his squad languishes 14 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table, that one of those Klopp could use to plug some pretty big gaps is a former United target. Had Ben Davies moved to South Yorkshire rather than Anfield during the recent transfer window, before United’s board of directors prohibited him from making any new signings, Wilder would not find himself contemplating something that was previously considered off the agenda - a change of formation. Previously of Preston North End, Davies was viewed as the ideal replacement for O’Connell, whose failure to appear since September has been a major factor behind United’s struggles this term.

“It’s reaching a stage where I might be forced to change it, the system,” Wilder said, acknowledging the dangers of trying to preserve United’s usual 3-5-2 by sticking round pegs in square holes. “We don’t have wingers, even though I’ve played them before. You bring players in to fit the system. We have got flexible players and versatile players.

“You just don’t expect the amount of injuries we have had. Our squad is there to play and play in the Premier League. From a defensive point of view, we have been massively smashed.”

Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane could all feature for Liverpool against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

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Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp shakes hands with Sheffield United's Chris Wilder at the final whistle during October's Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Chris Wilder is missing his three first choice centre-halves against Liverpool: David Klein/Sportimage
Liverpool's English defender Ben Davies (L) warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on February 3, 2021: PHIL NOBLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images