Why Sheffield United should take heart from criticism - however unwarranted - as they prepare for Manchester United
It is a measure of just how far Sheffield United have come in recent seasons, both in terms of producing results and exhilarating performances, that you almost feel ungrateful picking apart a disappointing display.
But to excel in the Premier League, clubs must adhere to an exacting set of standards. Scrutiny - forensic examination of every pass, tackle and interception - comes with the territory.
Although much of the criticism they received following Sunday’s defeat at Newcastle was unwarranted, particularly when one applies a degree of perspective, Chris Wilder and his players should take encouragement from the fact they are now under the same type of microscope as, say, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United - their next top-flight opponents. Because, despite failing to acknowledge the fact his squad have exceeded all expectations this term, it serves as a reminder about the company they are now keeping.
“I’ll let supporters discuss if we are a disgrace, diabolical and have let everybody down,” Wilder said earlier today, clearly irritated by some of the shriller inquests into his team’s performance in the North-East posted on social media. “Or if we are allowed a performance, once every three years, that isn’t up to par. I’ll let them discuss that and I’ll get on with what we do.”
Less than 24 hours after United’s return from St James’ Park, where United suffered their heaviest loss of the present campaign, Wilder was understandably still feeling a little raw when he sat down in front of his laptop to discuss Wedneday’s visit to Old Trafford with regional and national journalists.
Yes, the United manager admitted, there were aspects of that match which still grated - not least the response and body language which followed, after Newcastle had capitalised on John Egan’s contentious dismissal, the hosts’ second goal of a frustrating afternoon.
But acknowledging it is his job to “set the tone” ahead of the meeting with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side - “or decide the temperature of the greenhouse as an old pal of mine likes to put it” - he also chose to fling a protective arm around a squad which, despite taking only a point from two outings since football returned to action following a three month break last week, remains seventh in the table and within touching distance of the 20 time champions of England.
“It’s nine o’clock in the morning, they’re not in yet, and I’ve not seen them - I don‘t want to see them and they probably don’t want to see me after what I said to them yesterday,” Wilder said, breaking into a smile to emphasise he was only joking.
“I’m not going to mug supporters off and spin it. We’ve had a few things go against us but the same goes for other teams. Nobody is going to give us a helping hand - we have to do it. That’s been the players make-up and this team’s make-up through its career.
“In our first back, at Aston Villa, we weren’t at our free-flowing best. That was understandable to be honest. I wasn’t expecting us to be.
“We were in the game at Newcastle and then had a bad second-half. So we’ve had four halves of football, three have been okay, and one wasn’t. That’s what we’re looking at. We know we have to improve and get better. And we know we’ve got to do that ourselves, because nobody gives you a helping hand. But it’s very rare that anyone has it all their own way all the time and, the one thing these lads have done, is bounce back from disappointment. That tells you something about them, doesn’t it. Because, despite everything they’ve done, they’ve had set-backs and difficult moments along the way.”
United’s preparations for their latest assignment have been complicated by the knowledge that, with Egan suspended, his fellow centre-half Jack O’Connell nursing an unspecified injury and on-loan goalkeeper Dean Henderson ineligible for selection against his parent club, they must tear-up a defence which has been a driving force behind their climb into the European conversation.
Phil Jagielka, Egan’s natural replacement, is also receiving treatment for a knock which meant, even though he was named on the bench at Newcastle, he could only have featured for 10 minutes at most.
Bramall Lane’s medical staff are confident the former England international will be able to start a contest which, because of social distancing measures introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19, will take place behind closed doors. Simon Moore, who faced Manchester United in November, is set to deputise for Henderson.
United’s rearguard might be unrecognisable from the one which has already caused the likes of runaway leaders Liverpool and reigning title-holders Manchester City problems this season. But, Wilder revealed, the attitude they will take into the contest is set to be reassuringly familiar. Despite their selection issues, United plan to be combative rather than compliant.
“I’m one of those managers, I think we can beat the best team in the world on our day,” Wilder said. “People might look at me a little bit strange at times. But we went into that mindset with Liverpool, who are the world champions, and that’s how we’ll be going into this one.”
“Manchester City have spent a billion pounds, yes a billion pounds,” he continued. “They have the best of everything - manager, training ground, academy and players. We didn’t go there thinking ‘let’s just keep the score down’. And we won’t do that in this one either.”
United drew 3-3 when they faced Solskjaer’s men seven months ago, with Oli McBurnie scoring a late but deserved equaliser after Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford had cancelled-out earlier strikes from John Fleck and Lys Mousset.
It was a performance which encapsulated all of the qualities which have made United a force to be reckoned with at the highest level - scintillating football, a bold attack-minded approach and, after falling behind, the courage to dust themselves down and refuse to accept they were beaten.
“I said after the 3-3, for the people who had sat through some rough times, some lacklustre performances and some really poor years - that game, Manchester United at Bramall Lane live on television, was a reward for them,” Wilder reminded. “We possibly got a bit too comfortable and then their superstars turned it on after Brandon scored.
“But it wasn’t Simon making saves all the time. And we came roaring back again. That’s what I’m looking for again - that attitude. At Newcastle, they accepted the result a little bit too easy for me.”