Why Sheffield United's win over Crystal Palace was so revealing
It seemed strange, almost perverse even, that after showcasing their tactical discipline, Sheffield United prevailed thanks to calamitous goalkeeping mistake.
But then again, even though Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson later insisted Vicente Guaita had been undone by the weather rather than the visitors’ powers of concentration, perhaps not.
As a swirling wind swept across the pitch inside Selhurst Park, United’s rigid adherence to the gameplan Chris Wilder had devised helped ensure this match was still balanced on a knife edge when the Spaniard, miscalculating the flight of Oliver Norwood’s corner, gathered the ball and then dropped it back across his line.
By Wilder’s own admission, United “didn’t produce” their “most free flowing performance” of the season against opponents who, for long periods of the first-half, threatened through Jordan Ayew and Wilfried Zaha.
However, with new record signing Sander Berge making his debut in midfield, they demonstrated a pragmatism which, with the race for a top six finish so delicately poised, should serve them well over the coming months.
It certainly served United well here as, after stifling Palace’s enthusiasm, they grew in stature as the afternoon progressed. Events in south London confirmed, having only been promoted from the Championship last term, Wilder’s squad has quickly matured into a seasoned top-flight outfit.
Guaita’s error came early in the second period when Norwood swept a set-piece across the area and, having elected not to punch clear, the 33-year-old seemed to panic after losing his balance.
It proved to be the defining moment of a contest where chances, until the action inevitably became stretched during the closing stages, were at a premium.
Berge, parachuted straight into United’s starting eleven following his £22m move from Genk, failed to connect with a delightful John Fleck centre at the beginning of the game before Christian Benteke twice fluffed his lines following interchanges between Ayew and Zaha.
George Baldock found himself walking a disciplinary tightrope after being cautioned for a foul on the latter but, with the Ivory Coast international seeking him out at every opportunity, negotiated safe passage through the game.
Palace’s Joel Ward did see red later on, after catching Enda Stevens, but referee Andy Madley overturned his own decision after consulting the pitchside monitor.
Guaita went someway towards redeeming himself by denying Stevens, after a superb interchange with substitute Lys Mousset had prised apart Palace’s defence, as United, who finished the afternoon fifth in the Premier League table, began to exploit the hosts’ desperate search for an equaliser. Palace, meanwhile, dropped to 13th.
Crystal Palace: Guaita, Ward, van Aanholt, Milivojevic, Tomkins, Ayew, Zaha, Benteke (Townsend 74), McArthur (Kouyate 85), McCarthy (Meyer 79), Cahill. Not used: Hennessey, Dann, Kouyate, Kelly, Riedewald.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Baldock. Stevens, O’Connell, Egan, Basham, Norwood, Fleck, Berge (Lundstram 67), Sharp (Mousset 62), McBurnie (Osborn 90). Not used: Verrips, L Freeman, Jagielka, Robinson.
Referee: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire).