The words of encouragement from Liverpool supporters inspiring Sheffield United ahead of their meeting with Manchester City
Moments before his team went into battle against Liverpool last weekend, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder received a reminder not only about the gruelling relentlessness of Premier League football, but also its inequalities.
“A few of the stewards there wished us good luck next time out,” he admitted yesterday. “They told us to go out there and win it, which of course we’ll be trying to do, but we’ll be trying to win it for ourselves. Still, the thought was nice.”
Tomorrow lunchtime, seven days after narrowly being beaten at the home of the reigning champions, United face Manchester City; holders of the crown in two the past three seasons and clearly, according to those working at Anfield, the only side capable of wrestling the title from their employers’ grasp.
Wilder shares that sentiment, describing the squads assembled by Pep Guardiola and his rival Jurgen Klopp as far superior to those elsewhere in the division. The German’s finished first at a canter last season, despite City spending more than £1bn in the transfer market since being bought by Abu Dhabi 12 years ago.
In order to secure their first win of the new campaign, United’s players must not only perform to their absolute maximum but also be equipped with an intelligent gameplan. If City, who can call upon the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Rihad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker can turn their visit to Bramall Lane into a footballing talent contest, it is difficult to see beyond an away victory. But using the one they devised ahead of their trip to Merseyside as a template, United’s coaching staff have spent the past 48 hours perfecting the moves, choreography and positional tweaks they believe can help them make this a battle of wit as well as pure skill.
In order to make the right calls, Wilder must try and get inside the mind of Guardiola; a man who, after studying under Johan Cruyff during his career as a player with Barcelona, has since been credited with how people think about the game. It will be easier said than done, given Guardiola’s desire to keep a polite distance from his managerial rivals. But, with the Catalan paying tribute to Wilder’s tactics before the corresponding fixture last term, something the 53-year-old who was brought up on a council estate in Sheffield is clearly capable of.
“I haven;t really met him to be honest,” Wilder said, referring to Guardiola. “He might come in for a drink with other people but not with the boy from Arbouthorne. I’ve got no problem with that though, none whatsoever. He’s always amicable - a shake of the hand before and then a shake of the hand after - everyone has the right to act in the manner they are most comfortable with. They want to win and they’ve done that for a number of years, which shows you what a talent he is.”
With three of his most influential players out injured and a fourth embroiled in a dispute over a new contract, Wilder is expected to field largely the same starting eleven which produced an impressive shift against Liverpool. Sander Berge, whose penalty gave United the lead over Klopp’s men before goals from Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota condemned them to a fifth defeat in six outings, is likely to partner Ethan Ampadu in midfield although John Lundstram, who appears destined to leave Bramall Lane in January after failing to agree a new deal, could be replaced by Oliver Norwood. Oli McBurnie, David McGoldrick, Billy Sharp and Oliver Burke are vying for a place alongside Rhian Brewster in attack.
“City move you around, like Liverpool do, and it’s not like it was 15 years ago when it was 4-4-2 versus 4-4-2 every week,” Wilder said, noting how intelligence has supplanted industry as the most desirable quality a footballer can possess in recent years. “The video analysts do their work, we look at the heat maps of where they are when they have the ball and where they want it. They’ll be doing exactly the same on us.”
“When you’re up against really good players doing it to the best of their ability, it’s always difficult.” Wilder continued. “You might feel like you’ve come up with all the answers but, in the cold light of day when the bullets are firing, you also need players who are capable of thinking for themselves and reacting. To carry things out and nullify certain situations before they happen. It’s an intelligent game now. They tactical part of it is as big as it’s ever been.”
United have prepared for the contest in 19th, six places behind City who despite impressing in Champions League competition, have been in chequered form by their own high standards on the domestic front. However, noting how they pushed Guardiola’s men hard in their two most recent meetings, Wilder is convinced his charges can cause an upset. After losing 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium just after Christmas - Lys Mousset having an effort disallowed by VAR before a refereeing mistake gifted City the lead - it required a late winner from Sergio Aguero to propel City to victory less than four weeks later.
“People will be fools if they think we don’t need a few things to go our way if we’re to get a result,” Wilder acknowledged. “People will be expecting Manchester City to come here and roll us over but for me, there’s no reasons why we can’t replicate the performance we put in at Liverpool and get something. We understand the challenge that’s in front of us but, first and foremost, we want to go out there and show what we’re all about.”