The vitally important message Chris Wilder has delivered to Sheffield United's players as they gear-up for European push
Seven days ago, as their preparations for next week’s visit to Aston Villa began to gather pace, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder ordered his players to gather around him in a circle on the first team training pitch at Shirecliffe.
Having only just been granted permission to resume full contact training sessions, the majority of those summoned to what they initially believed was an impromptu meeting wanted to be contesting tackles, headers and races rather than listening to the 52-year-old speak.
But as he detailed the agenda, before delivering a speech which actually had been drafted 24 hours earlier, it dawned on United’s squad that this was the moment Wilder wanted to set the tone for the first of 10 Premier League games which will decide if the club is competing in Europe next term.
“The gaffer gathered us all around and gave us a message,” midfielder Ben Osborn remembered. “He told us we had given ourselves a huge opportunity and, if we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of taking it, then everyone had to be ready. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’ and no exceptions whatsoever.
“It didn’t matter if you’d made one appearance this season or 28. You had to be in a position where you could go out there and do your job if called upon.”
Seventh in the table and only five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea when the season was suspended because of Covid-19 in March, Wilder’s side needed little encouragement to follow their fitness programmes to the letter during nearly three months in lockdown. A win at Villa Park will see them climb to fifth, and within touching distance of Frank Lampard’s men, ahead of the visit to Newcastle four days later.
But even though United pride themselves on their conditioning - Osborn’s team mate Oliver Norwood recently describing them as “the fittest team” in the division - Wilder and his staff acknowledge injuries are inevitable given the demands of the fixture schedule. In the Bundesliga, which returned to action last month, researchers from the Jena Institute of Sports Science identified an increase in the number reported on the opening weekend (0.88 per game) compared to pre-lockdown average (0.27). Although this has since fallen, to around 0.55 every match, one of those tasked with overseeing the study has predicted a second wave as “fatigue” and “congestion” begin to kick in.
At Bramall Lane, where only Leicester City, Burnley and Wolverhampton Wanderers have used fewer players since August, this means Wilder must make plans to abandon his policy of selecting settled starting eleven and ditch his aversion to rotation. Which also puts even greater responsibility on those who have not seen as much action as they might have liked since United were promoted last season, to stay focused and in shape.
“It’s something we’ve all spoken about,” Osborn, who has made 12 appearances this term, said. “He (Wilder) really hammered that home and we’ve talked among ourselves, as a group in the dressing room, too.”
“The circumstances, with so many games being squeezed into such a short space of time, could lead to some chances for those of us who haven’t been regular starters to get out there a bit more. But equally, that means we’ve all got to be ready as well, because you never know when you are going to be called upon.”
United’s experiences during their march into the top-flight should serve them well between now and the end of the campaign. In the Championship, they competed an average of once every 5.7 days during the first seven months of the campaign. Two years earlier, as they plotted a course out of the third tier, this figure fell to once every five. When the PL took the decision to mothball the present campaign, most of its members had taken to the pitch once every 6.4 days.
Still, although the likes of Jack O’Connell, John Fleck, Chris Basham and Billy Sharp are veterans of that League One title winning squad, Wilder recognises the need to remain vigilant. Given the complexities of their 3-5-2 system, which United have spent hours choreographing perfectly behind the scenes, losing members of a defence which has conceded fewer goals than all but one of their top-flight rivals, could prove particularly challenging.
It explains why Osborn, who deputised for Enda Stevens at wing-back when the Republic of Ireland international was nursing a calf complaint, described the situation as mentally as well as physically challenging.
“A lot of hard work goes into what the lads do,” he said. “It’s not just happened by accident but the way we play is part of the culture of our club now. So when you come in, as I did, you’ve got to learn that pretty quickly. It’s not easy, but it’s really enjoyable and you’ve seen the results.
“That’s why we’re always watching and learning, taking everything in that’s going on around us.”
United’s schedule will become even more demanding if they progress into the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where they are set to meet Arsenal in the last eight later this month.
“We want games, playing football is what we do,” Osborn said. “If it means we’ve got to mix things up a bit, then that’s what we’ll do. The gaffer has always made it clear that nothing here is about individuals. Whatever we achieve is achieved by the group.”