Chris Wilder has told his Sheffield United players not to look at the Premier League table and no wonder.
The Blades, so extraordinary back in the top flight last season, prop up the pack having made one of the worst starts to a Premier League campaign – only four other teams have taken a single point from their first eight games in the competition’s history.
It was the manner of defeat against Chelsea before the international break that stung for many supporters.
Frank Lampard’s expensively-assembled crop were merciless in the end, yet a tepid second-half performance from the visitors told the story of a side sapped of confidence, too easily settling for the mismatch.
As frustration echoed around social media, recriminations began; scrutiny on signings, systems – even, unfathomably, Wilder himself, enduring a prolonged period of adversity for the first time in four transformative years at Bramall Lane.
Why are Sheffield United struggling right now? Does the table really tell the whole story? And what might be key to an upturn?
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In a rut after a tough run
In a compressed season that is already proving unforgiving, the fixture list has offered little solace.
Last season, the Blades faced three sides who had finished in the top eight the previous term in their opening tranche of games but Chelsea, while talented, were in transition and Everton had made a stuttering start to 2019/20, losing five of their own first eight fixtures.
This season’s schedule has been undoubtedly more challenging – and exacerbated by a recent run against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Sheff Utd’s opening fixtures – 19/20 vs 20/21
Early results belied performances of merit but after fine margins and contentious decisions – Patrick Bamford’s late winner for Leeds, John Egan’s dismissal against Aston Villa, David Luiz’s unpunished shirt-pull on Oliver Burke at Arsenal – that formidable cluster of fixtures has Wilder’s wounded side suddenly in a rut.
West Ham’s visit on Sunday represents a new kind of project restart, with games against West Brom, Brighton and Burnley to come before the end of the year. Taking points from those likely to still be around them could significantly shift the narrative by the time Wilder’s side travel to Crystal Palace at the start of 2021.
“I’m glad this little period is done,” Wilder has said. “It’s now down to us to affect this next group of games.”
West Ham United
The injury that’s a ‘bigger loss than Van Dijk’
Only Sean Dyche at Burnley made fewer changes to his starting XI than Wilder’s 51 last season – with a significant number of those after the enforced break when injuries within a small squad finally started to bite.
Wilder has made 17 already this term, to the considerable detriment of his side’s rhythm. That formidable back three of John Egan, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell has only been on the pitch together this term for 83 minutes.
O’Connell’s absence with a knee injury was keenly felt when the 2019/20 season belatedly resumed but losing him for most of the new season when it became clear surgery was required was, in Wilder’s words, “a bigger loss relatively than [Liverpool] losing [Virgil] van Dijk”.
His influence is clear – not only in repelling attacks but building them too. He has been a chief proponent of aggressive forward passing, crisp diagonals and low deliveries fizzed in from and around the byline.
Jack Robinson was signed as cover last season and is a solid left-footer who has still only played a handful of games, but he has not yet provided the same kind of thrust on the overlap, nor threat in distribution. Shifting Enda Stevens inside from wing-back instead has shorn the backline of height – the Blades have conceded a league-high six headed goals – and disrupted a second position in the process. Funds were focused up front in the summer but addressing the dynamic on the left flank remains vital.
John Fleck’s expected return from a back problem after the international break will help. Like O’Connell, he endured a stop-start end to 2019/20 but the Scot, irresistible with his ball carries and line-breaking passes, should be key to reigniting chemistry and combinations.
Wilder will hope, too, that Lys Mousset can swiftly stir memories of the player who finished last season at times with such aplomb. The Frenchman has been frustratingly erratic – inspired, sluggish and back again – but possesses the clever movement and natural instinct that makes him, when fit and in the mood, the most dangerous forward in Wilder’s ranks.
Frailty at the back – and Ramsdale exposed
No promoted side in Premier League history had conceded as few goals as Sheffield United’s 39 last term; with goals at a premium, defensive solidity laid the foundation for their remarkable first season back in the top flight.
But the Blades have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 11 Premier League games, conceding 20 goals over those fixtures. As many were shipped over 21 previous matches.
Last season’s robustness has been in stark contrast to displays pockmarked by poor positioning or lapses in concentration, individual errors giving way to collective nerves.
It is probably no surprise that Aaron Ramsdale has found himself under scrutiny in goal after taking the place of Dean Henderson. By expected goals data, the Manchester United loanee – supremely confident and undeniably gifted – should have conceded eight more goals than he actually did last season.
But Ramsdale, for his nervy performance against Chelsea, is only narrowly underperforming what might be reasonably expected of him right now and while the numbers suggest Wilder’s side will not benefit as strikingly as from Henderson’s heroics over a full term, there is a pertinent issue of protection.
The Blades are in the red when it comes to several key defensive metrics, conceding more shots on target – 48 to 30 in the respective first eight games of 20/21 and 19/20 – and more shots of a higher quality, in dangerous areas. In fact, Sheffield United top the rankings when it comes to high turnovers that end in shots; looseness in possession is proving costly.
O’Connell’s absence is biting but there has been a collective struggle to replicate the in-your-face style that made them such awkward opponents last term. There has been a significant drop-off in ball recoveries in areas key to chance creation, as well as dips in Opta’s advanced metrics around pressing (PPDA – passes afforded per defensive action) and opposition movement upfield. In short, the Blades are allowing teams more time and space to build attacks – and hindering their own progression.
Lack of goals putting pressure on defence
How different the table might have looked had chances in dominant first halves against Leeds and Fulham been taken, or had John Lundstram not seen his penalty saved at Aston Villa. ‘What-ifs’ carry little weight at this level but repeated failure to turn dominance into reward has heaped pressure on an increasingly unsure defence.
Only Burnley have managed fewer goals and only Newcastle have taken fewer shots, and while that is little surprise for a side that has focused on quality over quantity under Wilder, the Blades have the biggest negative difference between expected goals (7.7) and goals scored (4) in the division so far.
The hope is that Rhian Brewster will be able to apply the finishing touch to so many promising moves but telepathy takes time and the Liverpool youngster, who had just nine touches against Chelsea, needs the right service. The same applies to Oli McBurnie, who has spurned good chances against Leeds, Fulham and Liverpool but, for his aerial ability in duels, remains a team player smart with the ball at his feet, linking play on the half-turn.
Wilder sacrificed a No 10 last season for a flatter midfield three to ward off the counter-attack. That was vindicated but with a defence suddenly vulnerable and an attack profligate, the issue of creativity is back under the spotlight.
While adding variety remains vital – only Burnley have attempted fewer dribbles, for example – the Blades are still getting into good areas.
There has been a relative drop-off in early productivity but they have still created more big chances so far than Newcastle, West Ham, Fulham, West Brom and Burnley; had more touches in the opposition box than six teams in the division; made more successful passes into the final third than 12 other sides.
It is the quality that has been lacking where it matters, most starkly from wide areas.
The Blades’ open cross success rate stands at just 11 per cent and while the number is only 20 per cent across the league, United managed that figure on average last term and small margins matter.
Too often have balls been floated towards set defences and yet frequent joy last season – against Bournemouth, Chelsea, Burnley, Aston Villa for example – came from those sent low into the area or cut back for midfield runners; a fine chance in the narrow defeat to Manchester City fell to Lundstram from that type of delivery.
Lundstram could legitimately be left on the sidelines after rejecting a new deal and yet, with Fleck absent and on-loan Ethan Ampadu shuffling between positions to plug holes, Wilder’s contract rebel – despite not reaching the heights of last autumn – has created more chances (11) than any of his team-mates.
Sander Berge instead impressed on the right towards the end of 2019/20 but he has been used more frequently in the centre and while the Norwegian has been a standout performer, he does not stretch the play and prompt overlaps in the way Oliver Norwood’s passing range does.
Norwood’s mobility in transition has been questioned but his recent omission points to Wilder’s challenge not just in patching up his side right now but in evolving it while retaining its essence.
Mindset, missing fans and expectations
There is the intangible, too, of course.
Wilder spoke of “anxiety” among his players after a nervous home draw with Fulham; the sort that he believes is the root of risk-averse play or hurried decision-making during this troubling run.
The Blades boss has turned back to sports psychology for answers but somewhat reluctantly; as he told Sky Sports in June as he braced himself for football without fans: “You can put the best manager in the world in but mentality has to come from within.”
Wilder is right but how a packed Bramall Lane last season roused a group of players hungry to upset the order, how it cajoled an extra sprint or thunderous block, how it helped bridge at times the technical gulf.
Such has been the extraordinary bond forged between players and fans, it is no surprise the Blades are bottom of another table, one showing points gained since lockdown. Striking wins against Wolves, Tottenham and Chelsea in an empty stadium were, in truth, squeezed from a team in the final throes of physical and mental exhaustion.
But it really should be no surprise that their current predicament presents itself at all.
They have achieved success under Wilder to far outstrip their finances and infrastructure; the sort of success that is perhaps proving an unfair burden. It would have been a remarkable story just to survive last season; it will be again in each campaign at this level, for now at least.
Wilder, who drew some criticism for suggesting his side could not go “toe to toe” with the likes of City, spent more than £50m in the summer but could not compete with Fulham and Aston Villa for two of his targets, nor with Newcastle for a proven striker like Callum Wilson. On each occasion, wages were prohibitive.
That has meant gambles in the present on potential – but not with the club’s future in uncertain times; sensibly lifting the wage bill, accruing assets, lowering the squad’s average age.
Realism is required but so too is renewed belief.
The Blades might have gained unwanted entry to the one-point club but two sides – Southampton in 1998-99 and Sunderland in 2013-14 – did survive with that haul at this stage.
There is further inspiration in their own archive: the remarkable recoveries of 1990/91 – when Wilder himself was part of a team whose first win did not come until the 17th game of the season – and the following term, when they spent another Christmas in the drop zone.
That is a distinct possibility this December but returning players raise hope of re-established rhythms and only after the next run of fixtures might Sheffield United more fairly be judged. It is time not for system changes that may prove even more disruptive but to re-focus on the familiar – re-integrating key players, rehearsing trusted patterns of play, reviving old levels of intensity.
Togetherness has brought the Blades here and Wilder, who has faced ample adversity in his rise up the pyramid, knows just what a precious commodity that remains. His challenge is to preserve that spirit, to project confidence in his processes, and perhaps too, with onlookers sealing his side’s fate early for a second season, to pin the predictions back on the wall.
A tough season lies ahead but Norwood put it on social media after that chastening Chelsea evening: Tough times don’t last, tough people do.
The real tests start now.
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