Full Match - Aston Villa 6-1 BrightonSep 30
This season, Sheffield United fit the bill perfectly. The Blades earned promotion in 2019, following just two seasons in the Championship, with a squad largely made up of players who’d featured in League One.
They confounded expectations, occupying the European places for much of the 2019/20 campaign, before ultimately slipping to ninth in the table. It was only Jurgen Klopp’s outstanding season with Liverpool that denied Chris Wilder receiving individual honours.
Their success was built on an unorthodox 3-5-2 system which drew attention for using overlapping centre backs. Many felt Wilder’s tactics caught Premier League opponents off guard in United’s first season back in the big time.
As for explaining their struggles this campaign, it’s been predictably suggested that teams have ‘worked out’ the Blades or that they’ve been ‘found out’. A Google search for ‘worked out Sheffield United this season’ returns 21,000,000 results for example.
“Oh I love that one, don’t I love that one!” Wilder jokes, in an exclusive interview with BT Sport’s Des Kelly. “The only thing they don’t tell me is the reasons we’ve been worked out.”
Wilder acknowledges that teams analyse United’s performances and adjust accordingly. But the boyhood Blades fan insists that analysis works both ways and his own team are making their own tweaks to counteract that.
“There’s a lot of video analysis that goes on and people know how people play and are trying to affect that,” Wilder adds.
“We certainly understand how teams play because of the video analysis, thought and tactical approach that goes into everything – but it’s another thing stopping it.
“People will recognise that about us. If they feel that we overload out wide, then we’ve got to find a different way of being better at playing centrally.
“So I don’t think we’re daft as football managers. I don’t think we get to this position in our careers as coaches and managers without understanding we might have to tweak certain things. We tweaked certain things when we first came into the division and we’ve got to keep improving.
“We’ve got to keep improving tactically but I’m not so sure about that [people working us out] that’s a really bland, obvious thing people can easily come out with.
“We’ve got to go along and believe in the system we play – there’s not going to be a wrecking ball to it – for me we’ve just got to find better solutions, especially in both boxes, to determine and affect results.”
United’s lack of success in both boxes has defined their results so far.
Four of their five losses this season have come by just one goal, the other a 2-0 opening-day defeat to Wolves. They boast one of the better defensive records in the division but have scored the joint-fewest goals.
We’ve got to believe in the system we play – there’s not going to be a wrecking ball to it
- Chris Wilder
Wilder feels there’s not been a significant drop off in performance levels from last season to this season, but instead points to the fine margins that have cost his team in their opening six matches.
“We are obviously always looking at what we can do better as a team but the performances from last year to this year have not changed greatly,” adds the 53-year-old.
“We’ve been punished for a couple of mistakes that we’ve made and we’ve not taken our chances when they come up.
“The bit in between you need to get right but it’s what happens in both boxes that decides games of football and we’ve not been good enough in both boxes to get the results our performances should’ve got.”
In a league where fine margins matter so much, injuries to key players John Fleck, Lys Mousset and Jack O’Connell – the latter out for the season – have been a huge blow.
Since Project Restart, one of the variables that’s been taken away has been supporters in stadiums and it appears to have cost th Yorkshire side dearly.
If the table started when fans were first banned from grounds, United would be bottom. Saturday’s opponents Manchester City? They’d be top.
“I’m not a ‘spin manager’ and I find it difficult to spin things – I don’t think I’ve ever done it,” Wilder says. “But [the lack of fans] it's hurting us, yeah, without a shadow of a doubt. How can it not be?
“It’s hurt us more than anyone in the division because the newly-promoted sides need the support. You saw the games last season and the effect it had on opposition players.
Four of Sheffield United's five losses this season have come by a solitary goal.
“[Bramall Lane] is a tough place to come and we want to make it hostile. We want to make it difficult, we want it to rain, we want it to blow, we want it to be cold – and it usually is!
“And we want our supporters, which they have done fabulously well, to really give our players that little bit of extra into the game and maybe affect the opposition a little bit more.
“But it’s something we have to get over… We’ve got to find a way [to get results], find it from within.”
The clash with City on Saturday lunchtime continues a difficult run for the hosts that has seen them face Arsenal, Fulham and Liverpool already, with Chelsea still to come before the international break. But despite the lack of points on the board, Wilder isn’t worried about the ultimate price of Second Season Syndrome – relegation.
Asked if United will beat the drop, he was unequivocal. “One hundred percent yeah, it’s a long old season…
“The challenge is to show we’re good enough to be part of the Premier League for the next two, three or four years. It’s a huge challenge.
“But we’re still punching and there’s still a long way to go,” the former Northampton Town boss continues. “It’s going to be a tough season, we understand that, and it’s going to be a different season to last year.
“We all understand the challenges of the second season and what they pose. I didn’t ever think as soon as the season was finished we were cemented in the Premier League for the next five years – it’s a moving division.
“It’s an incredible division, it’s ruthless, it’s tough but it’s the only place you want to be and we want to be here.”
Watch Sheffield United v Manchester City live on BT Sport 1 HD and BT Sport Ultimate from 11.30am on Saturday 31 October.