FootballPremier League

How do Sheffield United kick on from here? Do they even need to kick on at all?

December 31, 2019

ELEVEN more points. That, at least initially, will be the target for Sheffield United in the second half of the season.

That would take them to 40, which remains the notional land of safety for teams in the Premier League, although 37 points would have been enough to keep teams up in 16 of the 24 seasons since the Premier League was cut to 20 sides.

Survival remains the first target, although given how well they have performed in their first five months back in the top flight, United must be wondering what else might be possible. Could there be a Cup run? Might they qualify for the Europa League? At the very least, they should be thinking about finishing above Arsenal, who are currently five points below them. 

There are precedents that would inspire caution, most notably that of Hull City, who lay third at the beginning of November 2008, were sixth a week before Christmas, then found themselves getting beaten 4-1 by Sunderland and 5-1 by Manchester City either side of Christmas Day, the latter sparking Phil Brown’s notorious team-talk on the pitch, after which they went into a tailspin, eventually picking up only two points from their final nine games of the season. Although they survived by a point, the mood was ruined and they were relegated the following season.

In 1994-95, Norwich went into New Year seventh in the (22-team) table, like Sheffield United now 11 points clear of the relegation zone. They won just one of their final 20 games, though, and they were relegated. Nothing is secure until it is actually secure.

The most apt warning, though, perhaps comes from even longer ago. Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich were promoted in 1960-61 playing with a withdrawn left-winger in Jimmy Leadbitter. In their first season in the top flight, opponents had no idea how to combat the tactic. If their right-back pushed up, the centre-forward Ted Crawford pulled into the space behind him, but if he didn’t Leadbitter controlled the game.

Ipswich, to widespread amazement, won the league. With extremely limited television coverage (even Match of the Day didn’t start until 1964) and no video analysis, other teams couldn’t work them out. But in the following season’s Charity Shield, Tottenham had worked out a way to counter Leadbitter’s threat and won 5-1. By the time Ramsey was appointed England manager the following March, they were in a relegation battle.

When Sheffield United were promoted, much was made of their overlapping centre-backs, the way Chris Wilder had members of his back three push high up the pitch at times to operate as wingers. That, though, was only the most eye-catching aspect of a wider strategy. Sheffield United’s centre-backs have only occasionally broken forward this season but what has been clear is how well structured and how well-drilled the team is from a positional point of view. The movement of the two centre-forwards is key to how they play, forever dropping deep or pulling wide, creating space for runners from midfield. That’s why David McGoldrick’s lack of goals is not a particular concern.

It may not be quite so unusual as the overlapping centre-backs but the principles are the same: the game is seen as being primarily about shape and balance and manipulating the opposition, rather than being about players fulfilling specific tasks against a specific opponent to fulfil preconceived notions of what it is to be, say, a right-back, or a central midfielder.

Opposing teams will get used to that. With modern analysis and with everything televised, there will not be the year of grace Ipswich enjoyed. But then Sheffield United’s way of playing is not one tweak to a basic formation; it’s an entire way of thinking about the game. It should be flexible enough to adapt, as Wilder (and his assistant Alan Knill) have consistently adapted over the past three and half years.

There will be concerns over the size of the squad – five players have started every game so far and a further four have started 17 or more. That, perhaps, will militate against a Cup run if Wilder makes significant changes (although even the side that lost to Sunderland in the League Cup should beat Fylde on Saturday). But it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a need for a great influx in January. Sheffield United have signed exceptionally well recently, but the need to maintain squad harmony is probably greater at this stage than fear of fatigue.

In a world that us always demanding progress, is always looking for expansion, it’s not a fashionable thing to say but, while nobody should think the job is done just yet, for now Sheffield United look pretty good as they are.