Starting the season in the manner Sheffield United (SHU) started 2019/20 would have only excited a lot of neutrals and their fans of the endless possibilities.
However, since the interruption to football by COVID-19, Sheffield United’s form has suffered a massive dip. Since the resumption of football in June, Sheffield United has recorded only 3 wins (Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur) all at home. Coincidentally, SHU has failed to win in 15 matches (across two different football seasons) since football resumed.
In terms of goalscoring, SHU has found the net 14 times whilst conceding 27 times. This raises the issue of whether Chris Wilder’s tactics are limiting SHU in offensive play or exposing them to opponents’ attacks.
As at 25 November 2020, SHU is rock bottom of the table with only 4 goals to their name this season. Only two other teams (Man City (95/96) and Sheffield Wednesday (99/00)) have performed similarly.
SHU has offered glimpses of their attacking brilliance and show pieces of their brilliant wing play that took them as high as 7th last season. Nevertheless, this has proved to fall short of standards set by themselves last season and EPL general standards.
This season, SHU looks a shadow of themselves. The intensity seems to have dropped, there have been injuries to key players, the fixture list has not been kind to them, poor transfer market activity and crucially, their defence remains porous whilst their attack keeps misfiring.
Chris Wilder has approached every single game the same since returning to the EPL. He has relied on the 3-5-2/5-3-2 that worked a treat for his team. His side was consistent and hard to penetrate.
They did not score as many goals but prevented opponents from scoring. SHU had conceded only 7 and scored 8 at this same point last season. The introduction of overlapping centre-backs was an exciting addition to the EPL and was a tactical feat most teams struggled to contain.
The approach offered a solid block for SHU to attack whilst being protected at the back. This approach has not yielded the same results owing to some key players being missing. However, their wing play has been poorer this season. A cross accuracy of 22% (866 crosses) has declined to 15% (176 crosses=743 crosses annualized). One of their key attacking outlets has been subdued and needs reviving.
Chris Wilder needs to revert to playing the same players he had at the start of 2019/20 season in the same positions. It will yield results. The tactic is solid.
The issues SHU are facing could be mental as they took their feet off the pedal as soon as it was mathematically impossible to qualify for European competition. It is likely the effect of the disappointment has dragged on too long.
A key player in SHU’s back 3, Jack O’Connell’s absence has also affected the midfield and defence’s link-up play. In the 35 games Jack O’Connell has played, SHU has won 37% of them and only won 8% (12 matches) without him.
Chris Wilder will need to find an alternative, maybe return another Liverpudlian John Lundstram to the set up to offer his back 3 some balance.
Starting off any football season facing Arsenal, Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea in quick succession is never good for any team’s mental health.
Albeit SHU challenging these opponents to the final whistle last season, it was always going to be difficult to get any result in a successive season.
SHU would be glad these tough opponents are out of the way and can focus on playing teams in their league as they seek to pick a good run of results before the dreaded December fixtures come along.
After securing promotion after 12 years out of the big leagues, the excitement and adrenaline of playing in the top tier of the league had its own effect on the SHU players, coach, fans and all associated to the club. The club wanted to prove they belonged there.
For much of the 2019/20 season, they proved that. They were causing upsets and showing they belonged to the big stage.
The break-in football must have slowed their momentum and rhythm. It is that dip in form and a bad run of results to end the season that affected the player’s mental fortitude and approach to this season.
The approach tactically has not changed but the extra drive that we saw early last season seems to have disappeared and if the player’s body language after the West Ham loss only confirmed that.
Chris Wilder has already started to reassure the team and its fans of brighter days but the first win needs to come sooner rather than later or else it could spell another run of more bad results.
A win against winless West Brom is a must or Leicester, Southampton and Man Utd will have them for dinner.
Any promoted team that survives relegation after a season in the big leagues always needs strengthening.
Hence, Chris Wilder only choosing to add the likes of Ethan Ampadu (CB), Ramsdale (GK), Max Lowe (LB), Burke (RW), Coulibaly (CM) and Rhian Brewster(FW), who all have combined EPL appearances of 53 shows that the team has been poorly strengthened. With defenders yet to play in the EPL and forwards yet to score in the EPL, SHU would struggle to get any results with these calibres of players in their squad at the moment.
When a team fails to find the net in 5 out of 9 matches, with only 4 goals scored in other matches, there is a cause for concern. Of the goals scored, as well, only 2 are from open play and the other two are penalties. The team’s defensive shape limits their attacking opportunities but the inability to convert any chances that presents a challenge Chris Wilder needs to solve.
Nevertheless, SHU knows the impact Chris Wilder has had on the team and are glad to have him as manager but results need to improve in the interim, or he may himself sacked for the first time in his coaching career.
A strengthening in their attacking department with EPL established strikers like Josh King, Junior Stanislas, Fraizer Campbell or Teemu Pukki could solve some of their attacking deficiencies.