Two big winners... But Derby victory throws up more questions than answers for Sheffield United ahead of Premier League kick-off

The penultimate friendly of Sheffield United’s pre-season programme would ordinarily have provided a plethora of clues about how Chris Wilder and his players plan to approach the new Premier League campaign.

By James Shield
Wednesday, 2nd September 2020, 6:00 am
Billy Sharp of Sheffield United celebrates scoring the second goal against Derby County: Darren Staples/Sportimage
Billy Sharp of Sheffield United celebrates scoring the second goal against Derby County: Darren Staples/Sportimage

But instead, with the shadow of Covid-19 still looming large over football and wreaking havoc with its fixture schedule, this match at Pride Park proved to be an exercise in everything but the business of preparing for this month’s curtain-raiser against Wolverhampton Wanderers and beyond.

Well, almost everything. The meeting with Derby County, which finished 2-0 in the visitors’ favour, confirmed Wilder’s tactical strategy is likely to remain unchanged.

“The shape is pretty much set,” he admitted afterwards. “We know how we like to go about things and that’s going to stay the same.”

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Billy Sharp of Sheffield United reacts after missing a chance: Darren Staples/Sportimage

But it also revealed why, with less than a fortnight to go until the big kick-off at Bramall Lane, United’s manager is also desperate to add some depth to his squad, although he revealed John Lundstram and Jack O’Connell should both be available at Preston North End on Friday.

With six of its most influential members away on international duty and another forced to withdraw through injury - albeit it before raising eyebrows by featuring on the bench, Wilder beefed-up his roster with youngsters from the Steelphalt Academy.

Big things are expected of Rhys Norrington-Davies while Regan Slater has already appeared in the first team. But more experience will be required if United are to build on the progress they made last term, finishing 10th in the top-flight and mounting an unlikely challenge for Europe having only just been promoted from the Championship.

Despite the absence of so many key names and funereal atmosphere - with supporters still prohibited from attending, Wilder’s bellowed instructions provided an intriguing yet low key soundtrack to the game - this was still a hugely significant occasion for a number of those within the travelling party.

Phil Jagielka should benefit from the minutes. Jack Robinson, handed the unenviable task of deputising for Jack O’Connell, used it as another opportunity to master the craft of being an overlapping centre-half. But it was Lys Mousset who had arguably the most to gain - and also lose - ahead of kick-off, given the continuing uncertainty about his fitness and conditioning levels since United reported back for training.

The question marks surrounding the Frenchman’s future in South Yorkshire will not have been erased by a display which saw him show flashes of the ability Wilder believes should make him the first name he scribbles onto United’s team sheets but also plenty of the faults which ensures he isn’t.

One first-half run, which saw him wrong foot three opponents and create room in the penalty area with the most delicate of delicate feints, was positively bursting with promise. It ended with Mousset falling over his own feet as he looked set to squeeze the trigger. It was the past three months of his career condensed into five or so seconds. Perhaps more disappointing, however, was the fact he seems to have lost a yard of pace.

Mousset should actually take it as a compliment when folk get frustrated with him because they know what he is capable of.

“I thought Lys did well,” Wilder said, picking up a carrot rather than a stick. “You saw little bit of what he was about out there. If we can get him properly up to speed then, really, we all know what he can do on the pitch.”

The biggest talking point of the evening, though, came after Ben Osborn had edged United in front during the closing stages of the opening period. Forty-eight hours after being withdrawn from the Scotland squad for their forthcoming meetings with Israel and the Czech Republic, Oli McBurnie replaced Mousset at the start of the second.

Steve Clarke, Wilder’s counterpart north of the border, had been notified of the striker’s involvement. But it will be fascinating to see if the Tartan Army is so forgiving. Even if, given he is clearly being nursed back towards full fitness, it would be unfair to accuse McBurnie of putting club before country. There is a world of difference between negotiating your way through 45 minutes of a warm-up contest and starting a Nations League match against Israel.

“With here Oli is at, it was better he stayed here with us,” Wilder said afterwards, confirming Steve Clarke, his counterpart at Hampden Park, had been fully briefed on United’s plans. “He’s still a little bit short and, although he could get through this, there’s no way he’s in a position yet to start for his country and have people expecting him to put it all in.”

United, who after initially struggling to find their rhythm discovered it following the break, finished the evening with two big winners. They were Norrington-Davies, who impressed with his maturity and positional sense before being replaced by Kean Bryan just after the hour mark. The other was Slater, who was also encouraged and cajoled by United’s bench throughout, but stayed on until the whistle.

“It was invaluable experience for them,” Wilder said, after seeing Billy Sharp seal the victory by converting Kean Bryan’s cross. “We’ve still got things we need to work on but I was pleased with what I saw out there. The lads kept going, they didn’t peter out as often happens in games like this, and fitness wise, the sports science guys are telling me they’re where they need to be.”

“We’ll look to move it on now in the last one,” he added, looking ahead of the trip to Deepdale. “We’re moving, I feel, in the right direction.”