Not one of us predicted Sheffield United to be relegated: we were too scared. The potential for being right isn’t worth the possibility of a bloody nose and Chris Wilder’s public, brutal condemnation of our prognoses; he will absolutely have read them. But despite our hesitation to damn Dem Blades, a sense lingers in the Football365 basement (stemming particularly from our resident fan) that they may well struggle…
Wilder led his unique side to ninth in the Premier League last season, playing a nuanced style of football never before seen in the top flight. It was a remarkable campaign: one which saw them take four points off Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Wolves. They would have secured a place in Europe has it not been for three defeats in their last three games.
The business this summer has been solid and smart, if not spectacular, as is their wont.
Sheffield United’s system requires specialists, not just a right-back or even a right wing-back, but a specialist right wing-back. Whoever plays in those wide ‘defensive’ roles must be able to perform those classic lung-busting runs up and down the wing, but also be able to dovetail with the overlapping centre-backs, who require a very specific skill set of their own.
Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe – signed for a combined £15million from Derby – will provide competition for George Baldock and Enda Stevens in those expert wing-back roles, typically positions requiring competent back-ups given the effort they require.
They fit the lively youngster mould Wilder favours, as does Ethan Ampadu. The 19-year-old – signed on loan from Chelsea – will be hoping for game time this season. He has more caps for Wales than senior starts for his parent club and featured in just three Bundesliga games for RB Leipzig last season. But again, crucially, he has the ability to play the specialist role required. Comfortable on the ball with no small amount of technical ability, he’s been brought in with overlapping in mind.
Oliver Burke, despite his own relative youth, fits more snugly in Wilder’s other primary transfer category: the passion project. Punts on Ravel Morrison and Jack Rodwell may not have paid off, but the likes of David McGoldrick and Jack O’Connell are bit-part Football League players turned Premier League regulars.
If Burke is to resurrect what has so far been a bizarre career that’s seen him start just 28 games in four different countries in the last four seasons, Bramall Lane is the place to do it.
Astute signings then, all of which fit the tried-and-tested Sheffield United framework. So, what’s the problem?
Something could be said for teams working them out – ten points in nine games after Project Restart may suggest as much. But they were hampered by key injuries through that period and Wilder was ever-eager to point out that the poor results were due to their own failings rather than a change of approach from the opposition.
But that points to perhaps the big concern: they struggled to drag themselves out of a rut. Other teams, even relegation candidates, have X factor players – Wilfried Zaha, Jack Grealish – while the Blades are lacking someone (anyone) who can create something out of nothing.
Those sorts of players can be problematic and disrupt the delicate balance in an egoless dressing room like Sheffield United’s. And more simply, they are too expensive – unless you happen to find one in your Academy.
But it could be their downfall this season. And perhaps – to some extent – explains the lingering feeling of negativity, that we’re not brave enough to admit, but will probably evaporate as teams continue to be befuddled by a now old-fangled, but no less perplexing, eccentric form of football.
Will Ford is on Twitter