From Premier League poster boys to unwanted record breakers - Where did it all go wrong for Sheffield United?

What a difference a year makes.

Monday, 19th April 2021, 5:30 pm

A tweet from Blades fan Matt Casbolt, posted shortly after Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Wolves officially relegated Sheffield United to the Championship, perhaps summed it up best.

"This time last year the club was united on and off the pitch, on the verge of qualifying for Europe and had our best league position in decades," it read.

"Fast forward a year and we have no manager or chairman and are the first side in the country to go down.

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"The Sheff Utd Way."

It's probably true that no-one saw this coming a year ago, but also that it is a remarkably Sheffield United way to go about things.

United still haven't spent longer than two consecutive seasons at the top table of English football since the mid-1990s days of Dave Bassett and Co., and have spurned a chance to really establish themselves as a top-flight force.

Sheffield United were relegated on Saturday (Photo by JASON CAIRNDUFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, they are gearing up for an unwelcome return to the Championship and aside from the lack of VAR in the second tier, even a possible relegation for city rivals Wednesday will only serve to temper United's own woes.

United, last season the poster boys of the Premier League in many eyes, have now equalled the record for its earliest-ever promotion.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Goals and clean sheets

Ollie Norwood sank to his haunches after relegation was confirmed (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Or, in United's case, a lack of them.

Contrary to what some observers believe, United have never been huge creators of chances. They finished ninth last season on the strength of their defence, rather than their attack - their 39 goals conceded last season has never been bettered by a promoted team in the history of the Premier League, but only four teams scored fewer than the 39 goals United managed to score. And two of those were relegated.

That allowed them to eke out crucial wins, beating clubs such as Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Brighton, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Norwich and Wolves by 1-0 margins.

John Egan, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham were integral to United's success last season, but have played 83 minutes together this: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

This season, United's lack of goals has turned their fortunes around completely. Seventeen of their 26 Premier League defeats this campaign have been by a one-goal margin, and a goal difference of -39, with just 17 goals scored, tells its own story.

Compared to 2019/20, United have scored fewer goals this season, had an inferior expected goals metric, taken fewer shots on the opposition's goal, had less average possession in games and made fewer passes.

Added together, it's no surprise United struggled.

Injuries

It's easy to see them as an excuse, but there is no doubt that injuries have played a significant part in the story of United's season to forget.

In 2019/20 their injury record was largely remarkable. United's goalkeepers, defence and midfield picked itself, with the only real headache coming in what combination of strikers to choose.

Aaron Ramsdale has impressed in recent months (Photo by CATHERINE IVILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Four players featured in all 38 league games, while John Egan, Dean Henderson and Oli McBurnie played in 36 and only Jack O'Connell's post-lockdown knee injury broke up the successful defensive triumvirate of him, Egan and Chris Basham.

This season, those three have played a grand total of 83 minutes together and former manager Chris Wilder described losing O'Connell for most of the season as a bigger relative loss to United than Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool.

Basham and Egan have also had their injury issues, as have the likes of George Baldock and Oli McBurnie.

Sander Berge has been missing since December, meaning contract rebel John Lundstram played more than anyone probably wanted, and only a handful of United's 25-man squad have not suffered injury issues at one stage or another during a season to forget.

Recruitment

One of the main issues behind the irretrievable breakdown in the relationship between Wilder and the Bramall Lane board. Since Wilder's exit, owner Prince Abdullah has publicly questioned his signings; Wilder was frustrated that the owner went back on his promise of loan signings in January to strengthen United's relegation bid.

As is often the case when two sides blame the other, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Wilder was backed with funds unheard of in United's long history, but was still hamstrung by being able to offer fees and wages that were piffling by Premier League standards and missed out on many of his first-choice targets as a result.

The signing of Rhian Brewster has not worked out and in hindsight, the £23.5m spent on another striker may have been useful to strengthen in defence or midfield.

But Brewster is a player who should shine in the Championship this season, while other summer signings such as Jayden Bogle and Aaron Ramsdale have come good.

Wilder made a decision to invest in young players for the future of the football club, and despite relegation they have a number of assets either worth more than they were signed for, or who will play in red and white for seasons to come.

The only shame is that he won't be in the dugout to see it happen.

Burnout

Paul Heckingbottom, who succeeded Wilder as United boss on a temporary basis when he departed last month, put forward an interesting theory as to the drop-off in United's performances and results since the Premier League was halted and then restarted because of the coronavirus crisis last season.

With United on the brink of a historic place in Europe when the season was postponed, United's medical staff devised an intensive programme for the players to follow - with the aim of ensuring they were in peak shape when the season resumed.

But as talks over how that would happen dragged on and on, the date United were working to got further and further away and it was, in the end, three months before United kicked off Project Restart away at Aston Villa in mid-June.

“Different clubs did lockdown differently,” Heckingbottom said. “Here, we kept training and pushing because we were in such a great position. Others just relaxed and took a step back. But here, I think it always had to be that way.

“The only problem was that nobody knew how long [lockdown] was going to last. In the end, it really dragged on and that made it a very long season for everyone here.

“It’s made this one a very long one as well, when you think the two effectively just morphed into each other.”

Just 50 days separated United's last game of 2019/20 and their first of 2020/21, with a truncated pre-season cut even shorter by the postponement of one of their friendlies in Scotland and the loss of several key players to international duty shortly before the start of the campaign.

Fans

Far and away one of the biggest factors in the disaster that has been United's 2020/21 season. No Blades fan has seen their side in action since March 2020 and the extra percentages that a full, vociferous Bramall Lane gave their players has been lost.

Instead, Premier League clashes have become glorified training games and sides who would ordinarily fear coming to Sheffield were able to breeze through games because of their superior quality.

There is a glimmer of hope, with the success of the country's vaccination programme, that fans will be back at Bramall Lane in time for the Championship promotion push, with around 10,000 hoping to be allowed in to the final game of this season against Burnley.

Whenever that day comes, it can't come soon enough for Sheffield United.

Paul Heckingbottom consoles Kean Bryan (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)