The Blades Have Lost Their Edge
After a glittering first season back in the Premier League that had Blades fans dreaming of a European tour, the 2020/21 season has brought Sheffield United crashing back down to Earth, with the club winless, propping up the rest of the table at the very bottom. Cameron Wanstall takes a look at what’s gone wrong for the Blades this season, with relegation becoming an all too real possibility.
Rewind to January 2020, and the Premier League is living up to its immense reputation. As difficult as it is to remember, there was a time before empty stadiums, global pandemics and lockdowns. Liverpool are quietly confident of ending thirty years of title heartbreak, Leicester City are the Reds’ closest challengers and a rotten Arsenal are languishing in the middle of the table. Yet, the largest story is newly promoted Sheffield United.
The Blades rightly received plaudits from just about every major footballing outlet in their first top flight campaign in twelve years. Journalists, pundits and opposition managers were full of support and admiration for hometown hero Chris Wilder, his rag-tag squad and their unique tactical setup. The concept of ‘overlapping centre backs’ replaced the mezzala as a footballing hipster’s favourite fad, while Billy Sharp’s Roy of the Rovers fairytale warmed hearts. A year on, however, it seems as though the combination of a club legend, high-flying centre backs and a volatile tactical system was just a smokescreen for some deep-rooted problems.
There were some early signs that a turn in fortunes was on the cards in the most recent campaign – United’s bubble had already burst by the end of the longest season in English football history. The (very) late-season collapse has carried on into this season. One year on from being pressed for answers on the potential of European football, Wilder is now fielding questions about his job security and an impending relegation. The club is on course for the worst points total in English top flight history – zero wins, two draws and fifteen losses would have any other manager in the world swiftly handed his P45, but not Wilder. Perhaps he, and his tactics, are not to blame.
January 2nd, 2021: Crystal Palace 2, Sheffield United 0. Roy Hodgson’s Eagles were five games without a win themselves but eased to victory against a team they failed to defeat last season. Over twenty league games have now passed since United last picked up three points. This performance was potentially the most damning of them all. It took just four minutes for everything to go wrong at Selhurst Park for the Blades. Andros Townsend launched a long pass up the left wing towards Wilfried Zaha, who is played onside by John Egan – the Irish international is inexcusably several years behind his centre back partners Ethan Ampadu and Enda Stevens. With no defensive line being held, Zaha proceeds to outpace Egan and United are suddenly under attack in their own box. Players rush back but there is no structure, no marking, no plan. The ball finds Christian Benteke, who slips in Jeffrey Schlupp to open the scoring. Just a few minutes into the game and the visitors have the structure of an amateur side chasing a last-minute equaliser. It is obvious why Wilder’s formerly compact defence has zero clean sheets this season.
The lack of authority in defence is down to the absence of Chris Basham, who started in centre midfield, and Jack O’Connell, who remains sidelined with a knee injury. As Ampadu is still developing and Stevens is a converted full back, neither can fully replicate Basham or O’Connell’s aerial presence, defensive capabilities and unorthodox attacking duties. George Baldock was also sorely missed at wing-back and his replacement, summer signing Jayden Bogle, could be held accountable for Palace’s second goal. That being said, Eberechi Eze’s delightful solo effort to double Palace’s lead could also be blamed on the man between the sticks.
After Dean Henderson returned to Manchester United following a very impressive season on loan, the Blades turned to former youth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale to replace Henderson, with the club parting with a hefty £18.5 million to secure his services from Bournemouth. It was going to take a lot for Ramsdale to replicate the form and performances that Henderson put in last season, but to say that the 22-year-old has been disappointing would be an understatement. On numerous occasions this season, Ramsdale’s mistakes have cost his team crucial points. Wilder has defended his number one, citing him as a signing ‘for the future,’ not just for now – that’s all well and good, but the sentiment doesn’t hold much value in a relegation battle. Additionally, back-to-back relegations won’t exactly do wonders for Ramsdale’s confidence or development.
Following the loss to Palace, captain Oliver Norwood slammed the Blades’ attack and defence for the situation that the club finds itself in, claiming that the players are “killing themselves.” With that statement, Norwood conveniently relieves himself and his midfield colleagues of Basham and John Fleck of any blame, but the men in the middle struggled to make any impact whatsoever during Sunday’s defeat – in fact, it would be hard to pinpoint any occasion that the Blades’ midfield has impacted performances positively this season. Of course, things could be completely different if Wilder had Sander Berge at his disposal, but the Norwegian midfielder remains sidelined with injury. Despite initially struggling to settle into life in England, United’s former all-time record signing is clearly a much needed presence in the Blades’ midfield and could potentially help a case for survival, should he return to action as soon as possible.
Berge is just one of numerous Sheffield United players currently occupying the medical centre in Shirecliffe, highlighting another problem that the club have been facing for months. The selection pool for players available to Wilder is one of the smallest in the league, with only six substitutes from a possible nine being named in the match-day squad to face Palace, with one of the six being 16-year-old Antwoine Hackford. Having been denied many of the riches that English football has had to offer until very recently, Wilder has described his squad as “Championship and League One players playing in the Premier League.” By and large, Sheffield United’s squad – in terms of quality and depth – is one of the worst in the top flight, but this season saw the club try to work towards improving this. Eight-figure sums became fairly common to see at the club over the last two transfer windows, with the likes of Berge and Ramsdale arriving, and Derby duo Bogle and Max Lowe both costing a fair sum. All of these signings, alongside club record signing Rhian Brewster, have been scrutinised for their underwhelming impact, but Wilder has defended his transfer policy, saying: “We have gone down the road of signing young players and I am not embarrassed about that.” His staunch defence of his novice talents is admirable but serious questions do have to be asked of United’s recent forward line acquisitions.
The six forwards available to Wilder are as follows:
- Rhian Brewster (£23.5 million): Zero goals in eleven league appearances. Current record club signing.
- Oli McBurnie (£20 million): One goal in thirteen league appearances. One penalty scored for his country.
- Lys Mousset (£10 million): Zero goals in six league appearances. One Lamborghini crashed – allegedly.
- Oliver Burke (Callum Robinson swap deal): Zero goals in ten league appearances. Robinson has two goals for West Brom.
- David McGoldrick (Free, signed in 2018): Four goals in thirteen league appearances. Has scored half of the team’s league goals this season.
- Billy Sharp (Undisclosed, signed in 2015): One goal in five league appearances. Club icon.
Over £50 million spent on four players who have combined for one league goal, whereas five goals have been scored by two lower league transfers who are both on the wrong side of 30 and yet, McGoldrick still receives criticism for his performances despite being the only player to score more than one goal. A prodigy like Brewster may get a pass despite his large fee, but the misfiring trio of Burke, McBurnie, and Mousset will not get such passes.
Scottish duo Burke and McBurnie have been incredibly underwhelming and neither one of the two played any part on Saturday. Mousset started alongside McGoldrick after weeks of heavy rotation between the six main attacking options. The frustration in attack was both audible and visible to viewers. McGoldrick often found himself in promising offensive positions with zero support around him, while Mousset let out a high pitch screech after not receiving a cut back from Bogle. Sadly, it felt all too familiar. Another toothless showing has United destined for Championship football before the season’s halfway point.
After the game Wilder said, “It is difficult, it is a struggle, it is the Premier League. It is relentless and ruthless.” Defeated and unenthused, he continued: “You have to dust yourself down and go again. We go to work again next week to set ourselves up for the next game, to see if we can address the situation we are in.” Not quite the rousing rally the fans would have hoped for. The same problems remain but there is not any mention of a plan B to stop the rot.
The only good news for Sheffield United is that there is a perfect opportunity to get on the right track this weekend. It is expected United will have a near-full squad available for their FA Cup third round trip to Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Stadium. Wilder has accepted that the club “have to find a win from somewhere,” and a first competitive win of the season would set the Yorkshire-men up for Tuesday’s league fixture against Newcastle United.
The Blades are almost certain to go down this season. Whether the coach, the players or the recruitment is to blame, there is still pride to be restored and plenty of time to do it. The exhilarating highs Bramall Lane witnessed last season are now distant memories. It is time for Wilder and his men to fight for the fans now cowering behind the couch watching the excruciating lows from home.