The tactical battle which promises to settle Sheffield United's game against Leeds

It promises to be fast, furious and something of a goal fest if Chris Wilder is to be believed.

Friday, 25th September 2020, 5:25 pm

Sheffield United might still be waiting for their first of the new Premier League season but, as the 53-year-old noted ahead of Sunday’s derby at Bramall Lane, neither his team nor Leeds know when they are beaten or are set-up to grind out nil nil draws.

The battle of wits inside the technical area, however, promises to be equally as fierce as the one out on the pitch, where the likes of Billy Sharp, Liam Cooper, John Fleck and Jack Harrison will be looking to impose themselves physically on the opposition. Possibly more influential too, given the reputations Wilder and his opposite number Marcelo Bielsa have established for their tactical innovations and insights into team shape.

“I’m expecting a competitive game and a game that will be interesting tactically,” Wilder said. “It’s two teams with a great deal of energy. It’s two teams who will go for a win. It’s two teams, who in that sense, will never ever change.”

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Wilder, the United manager, made no secret of his admiration for Bielsa during the club’s pre-match briefing this morning - describing the Argentine’s CV, which includes spells in charge of Chile, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille and of course La Albiceleste as “amazing.” The respect is mutual, with Bielsa, who led the visitors to promotion last term, labelling United’s take on the 3-5-2 system, pioneered by his compatriot Carlos Bilardo, as “worthy of study” before their meeting in the Championship 18 months ago.

“I think he (Bielsa) speaks better English than what he makes out,” Wilder joked. “I don’t speak great English. Look at his record and he’s certainly a character and an improver of players. I won’t put my record up against his. He’s an outstanding figure in world football and has managed two national sides.”

Without the suspended John Egan and Lys Mousset, who recently underwent surgery on a toe injury, Wilder has raised the possibility that United could choose to change formation as well as personnel as they look to bounce back from defeats by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa. But he is unlikely to carry out that threat, despite Egan’s absence, following his red card in the Midlands, leaving a huge hole to fill at the heart of defence. So it will be fascinating to see how Bielsa chooses to set his team up for the visit to South Yorkshire. Does he change to a back three, which Leeds often do when playing against teams with a two-pronged attack? Or stick with his preferred back four, and risk not having a spare centre-half? His decision, and United’s ability to iron out the individual errors which have cost them dear of late, will influence the outcome of a contest between two bitter rivals who went toe to toe in the Championship two seasons ago.

“I believe we were the better side when they won here, at our ground,” Wilder said, reflecting on a campaign which saw United pip Leeds to a place in the top-flight. “And I’m sure their fans will say the same about them when we won at Elland Road. But they were both really hard fought matches and I’m expecting exactly the same this time around.”

Marcelo Bielsa greets Chris Wilder before Sheffield United's win over Leeds two seasons ago: Bruce Rollinson

United finished ninth in the table last term, while Leeds have marked their return to the highest level by beating Fulham after running Liverpool close at Anfield – scoring seven and conceding seven in the process.

“We haven’t changed our philosophy since we came in. Leeds haven’t and won’t,” Wilder continued. “There’s your answer. Leeds won’t either. It’s early days, in terms of the points tally. These are challenges we have to come through. It’s easy when the sun is shining. So it’s a test when things aren’t going as well.”

While Wilder must decide whether Ethan Ampadu’s mobility or Phil Jagielka’s experience best fill the void created by Egan’s absence, Bielsa is wrestling with the dilemma of who should deputise for Pablo Hernandez - Leeds’ Spanish playmaker, who is recovering from a groin strain. Rodrigo, one of Bielsa’s headline summer signings, was handed the role against Fulham but found himself being withdrawn at half-time after struggling to cope with the pressing side of the game. Tyler Roberts is being tipped to get the nod against United, as Yorkshire’s two top-flight representatives prepare to renew a rivalry dating back to 1924.

“We’ve had some fabulous games over the years, they used to nick our best players back in the day, Mick Jones and TC (Tony Currie),” Wilder said, expressing his disappointment that the Covid-19 pandemic means fixtures are still being staged behind closed doors. “They’re a brilliant addition to the Premier League. It’s great for us to be battling it out here but it’s just such a shame there’s no fans.”

“There’s history between the two but I look at it through the eyes of my club, what Sheffield United should be about.”

If United win, it will see Wilder complete a century of victories in charge of his hometown club. Although lapses in concentration were responsible for their loss to Wolves during the opening round of games before another allowed Villa to the only goal of Monday’s match from a set piece, he is convinced a chaotic pre-season, which saw a number of United players spirited away on international duty, has contributed to their slow start.

“It would mean that we’ve won a game of football but I’d love to be celebrating that,” Wilder replied, when asked about the prospect of reaching that landmark. “They’ve come in quick time at Sheffield United. We are disappointed in the start. But everybody in football is about the next points.

“We are looking at everything, all the cornerstones of the game. Technically, tactically and picking the right team. We need to be more clinical in both boxes but my lads don’t give up.”

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