Sheffield United's stunning rise rooted in the success of Chris Wilder's system
Blades were among the favourites to be relegated on their return to the Premier League. Instead, they are firmly in the hunt for a Champions League place
Chris Wilder has printouts of some of the predictions on the walls of the training ground. Sheffield United were tipped for the drop. They are rather nearer the top, savouring the sight from fifth place.
For the first time since Leeds United reached the semi-finals in 2001, Yorkshire may have a presence in next season’s Champions League. For the first time since 1975, when they came fifth, Sheffield United may finish as English football’s top United.
Their lofty status reflects on the underachievement of Manchester United, not to mention Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. With games against Brighton & Hove Albion, Norwich City and Newcastle United coming up, they could overhaul a stuttering Chelsea side to go fourth. It would further highlight the plight of the established order.
And yet this is essentially the success story of a system, a style of play and a manager who has gone from the ninth tier to the top five. It is made all the more illogical as Wilder’s most used striker, David McGoldrick, is yet to open his account for the season. A non-scoring forward and a team whose opening-day starting XI boasted just 34 previous Premier League appearances and a solitary top-flight goal? It looked a recipe for relegation. They have proved everyone wrong.
Wilder’s has been an inspired blend of old and new. The traditional values of team spirit from a seemingly anachronistic squad, overwhelmingly British and Irish and forged from the school of hard knocks in the lower leagues, have been allied with genuine tactical innovation. A 3-5-2 system is not new; one with overlapping centre-backs is.
Aston Villa goalkeeper Tom Heaton described the positions they took up as “random”. It is exactly the opposite, unusual but planned, unsettling opponents. United work overloads, enjoy numerical advantages and ensure they invariably have a man free for short passes because Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell are the wild cards, surging forward unmarked. They then switch play intelligently with cross-field passes, particularly from Oliver Norwood.
And, four years into something genuinely novel, no one has really found an answer to Wilder – and, in particular, his assistant Alan Knill’s – gameplan. “Sheffield United’s head coach is someone with new ideas and I have seen very few people with these ideas,” said Marcelo Bielsa, himself regarded as a tactical innovator, last season. Some opponents tried to match up in the Championship, but their three centre-backs did not overlap.
While Norwood drops in to cover for O’Connell and Basham, it remains a surprise United are not caught more on the break, with supposed stoppers actually in the final third. Yet they have only conceded one goal on the counter-attack this season. Only Liverpool have let in fewer in total.
Along with Liverpool, United are the best coached team. It makes Wilder Jurgen Klopp’s major rival for the managerial honours. Another common denominator is a capacity to get exponential improvement from players. Five of Sunday’s starting XI, plus the substitute and scorer John Lundstram, played in League One three seasons ago. Two more appeared in League Two that year.
Lundstram is emblematic in other respects. His winner against Bournemouth was United’s sixth goal from a substitute this season. Three others were equalisers. Wilder is showing an ability to change games from the bench which, as his team have scored fewer goals than 18th-place West Ham, is proving decisive in close contests.
It is altering United’s fortunes and could change their fortunes. Logically, of course, they will not qualify for the Europa League, let alone the Champions League. But the last promoted team to overperform so much, individually and collectively, in an astonishing outlier of a season were Ipswich. They came fifth in 2001. United could emulate them.
Updated: February 11, 2020 04:59 AM