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Sheffield United: How the words of the late, great Brian Clough can help The Blades return to winning ways

Brian Clough believed players, not systems, win games of football
Brian Clough believed players, not systems, win games of football
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"Players lose you games, not tactics. There's so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes."

The words of the late, great Brian Clough, who Chris Wilder once described as England's greatest ever manager, hold as true today as when he uttered them nearly 30 years ago. So it was fitting the match which exposed the flaws in Sheffield United's starting eleven, and revealed how they should proceed at Queens Park Rangers this weekend, took place only a short walk away from his childhood home in Valley Road, Middlesbrough.

Asked to explain Tuesday night's defeat at the Riverside Stadium, where a catalogue of defensive errors saw them concede three times inside the opening 25 minutes, Wilder delivered a succinct and brutally honest assessment of United's failings.

"They took their early chances and we didn't," he responded with an air of resignation rather than anger. "Then, we gifted them a couple and ended-up chasing the game."

It was telling however, as United's manager continued his monologue inside the ground's well-appointed media suite, that he spoke of personnel rather than strategic blueprints. There was nothing wrong with how the visitors set-up on Teesside. Or, for that matter, against Swansea City 72 hours earlier when they were narrowly edged-out in a much tighter encounter. The trouble was, as Wilder correctly reminded, too many individuals made costly mistakes. A situation compounded by the fact that, on reflection, perhaps those pressed into action were not best-suited to carrying out his game-plan.

Although Martin Braithwaite and Aiden Flint both scored criminally simple goals, or "absolute gifts" as Wilder called them, United's defending of set-pieces was arguably, bizarrely even, not the most disappointing aspect of their performance in the North-East. It was in midfield, where Tony Pulis' side poured forward with impunity, where the contest was effectively won and lost.

John Fleck, Lee Evans and John Lundstram, who have started both United's outings so far this term, are fine talents in their own right. Collectively, though, they have been largely ineffective. Because, as events on Teesside demonstrated, they want to take up the same positions, play at the same tempo and make the same runs. The result was a stodgy, pedestrian performance far removed from the dynamic, purposeful football of last term. It was telling that Middlesbrough, who had previously been able to dig themselves in defensively whenever United had the ball, found themselves being dragged out of position when first Ben Woodburn and then Mark Duffy were introduced after the interval. A place for one, or possibly both, must surely be found in United's first choice eleven at Loftus Road, where the hosts will also be searching for their first points of the season after losing to Preston North End six days ago.

"We picked the best team (for Middlesbrough), just as we did against Swansea and just as we will for QPR," Wilder acknowledged. "It's up to the players who aren't in there to push."

"We gave them a hand-out," he added. "You've got to be spot on and, with the set-plays, that wasn't the case. If you give good players gifts, and bear in mind they had a £7m player and Paddy McNair on the bench and a World Cup striker out there, then you'll get punished."

Wilder's point is valid but United's troubles at the back against Middlesbrough stemmed from a lack of concentration and focus, not the financial disparity between two clubs at different stages of their development. Record signing John Egan, like Richard Stearman last season, requires time to adjust to the demands of marshalling a back three while those around him must shoulder greater personal responsibility in the meantime. At the other end of the pitch, David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke appear to be suffering from the same paralysis as their midfield colleagues and for exactly the same reason too, although they have suffered from a lack of quality service. Wilder and his staff could introduce a different dynamic by partnering one with Woodburn or, more obviously, recalling Billy Sharp. Because, as Clough would say, when results go south selections, not systems, are probably the cause. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering United lost two of their opening three games en route to a 10th placed finish last season. And, despite producing a case study in how not to defend set-pieces at Middlesbrough, their meeting with Swansea was a close-run affair.

"We know what we've got to do the redress the balance," Wilder said. "Yes, in money terms there is a difference between us and many of those in the division but we've shown in the past you can make that up."