Why Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder believes this will be a Premier League season like no other
By rights it should already be over. After losing 10 of their last 11 matches and slipping to the foot of the table, Sheffield United would, in normal circumstances, have already been bracing themselves for a return to the Championship.
But as Chris Wilder has had cause to reflect numerous times over the past nine months, as Premier League clubs and their counterparts from the EFL attempt to negotiate safe passage through the Covid-19 pandemic, these are strange times indeed. So rather than heading to Southampton effectively already relegated, his team are only six points from safety - a gap which, despite being concerning, is far from irretrievable.
Although he concedes United must start gnawing away at it soon, preferably starting when they face Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men on Sunday, Wilder remains convinced survival remains an achievable and realistic target for a squad of players with a habit of surpassing expectations. Yes, he admits, results en route to Hampshire do not make for pleasant reading. But given the disruption the national health situation has caused to the fixture calendars, and the havoc it wreaked to preparations for the present campaign, Wilder believes it would be a mistake to read too much into statistics which reveal no top-flight side has ever escaped the drop after entering December with only a point to its name.
“That’s a good way of looking at things and it’s definitely something I agree with,” the United manager replied when asked, because of the chaotic summer schedule, if this term would follow a more complicated pattern to those previous, with players hitting peaks and troughs at a variety of different stages. “We always try and get stronger through the season and, clearly, that’s something we are clearly aiming to do again with regards to how we are doing right now..
“Conditioning-wise, my lads are covering the distances I would expect and they are working as hard as ever; possibly even more so than last year going by some of the figures we’re looking at.
“Basically I just think they need a couple of breaks, which they haven’t been getting recently. And, perhaps more than ever, I don’t think you’re really going to have a picture of how the whole division is until January.”
Until then, United’s task is to ensure they have not slipped even deeper into trouble than they are right now. A draw with Fulham eight weeks ago when Billy Sharp, one of two former Southampton players likely to be at Wilder’s disposal, cancelled-out Ademola Lookman’s strike for the Londoners is the only time United have avoided defeat since finishing ninth last season. By contrast, their latest opponents are fifth after registering six wins; the latest coming when Danny Ings’ late penalty secured a hard-fought victory over Brighton and Hove Albion.
Like Wilder, however, Hassenhuttl is aware that recent events make predicting how the remainder of the season is likely to unfold impossible. There were only 50 days between United’s trip to St Mary’s on the final day of the 2019/20 campaign and their return to action against Wolverhampton Wanderers in September. Many of Wilder’s senior professionals were also unavailable for selection during the four friendlies his employers staged during the summer recess. That, the 53-year-old insisted earlier this week, makes previous measures, comparisons and performance indicators redundant.
“Right the way through from lockdown, different teams have gone about it in different ways,” Wilder said. “Shall we have a week off or make it another week? Everyone came up with different things.
“We were just happy to get back playing again. Players put in the hard work and the yards and they just want games. For me, being honest, a usual pre-season is about 10 days too long anyway but sometimes you have to roll with it.”
“Usually,” he continued, “There’s some sort of uniformity. There hasn;t been of late though, even though everyone has tried to go through the process.
“Every year, you see teams have fantastic starts and then slip. There’s also plenty who have had poor starts and then come good. I think it’s going to be even more up and down than usual now, though, and hopefully that’s the case for us - that we’ll start picking up after a bad start.”
In order to do so, United must address issues at both ends of the pitch although, with all but two of the defeats they have suffered this season coming by a single goal, their inability to convert more of the numerous chances being created it arguably the most pressing. Oli McBurnie’s effort against Leicester City last weekend, before Jamie Vardy’s 90th minute winner, was only the sixth time Wilder’s men have found the back of the net in all competitions. David McGoldrick, who like Sharp represented Southampton earlier in his career, is their most prolific marksman this term on three. Despite forcing a combined total of 25 opportunities during that contest and one at West Bromwich Albion a week earlier, United took only one.
“It’s difficult to teach composure,” Wilder said. “It’s like a penalty shoot out in the World Cup and how do you replicate that? You can take shots all day long but then it’s pressure time, and obviously that has been building.
“I don’t think defensively we’ve been all over the place. We’ve just not taken enough of our big moments. That’s not just down to the strikers, there’s other bits and pieces too because we expect our wing-backs and our midfielders to help them out more.
“Composure is just about practising and practising. When one goes in, that can open the floodgates.”