Sheffield United haven’t been halted in their tracks too many times this season but on Wednesday night Birmingham found a way to nullify them almost in perfect fashion.
Had it not been for Dean Henderson then the Blues may have claimed victory, rather than settling for a 1-1 draw.
But their approach to the game meant that United struggled, particularly in midfield. Oliver Norwood still showed positive signs but his midfield partner in John Fleck was almost a passenger as Birmingham overran them in that area of the pitch.
Their willingness to sit deep meant that the vast majority of passing lanes and routes to goal was blocked off. As such, the Blades’ three top assisters in the middle of the park; Norwood, Mark Duffy and Fleck were stifled.
The latter in particular found himself coming deep to get the ball and therefore couldn’t get into the pockets of space Chris Wilder would have liked him too.
John Fleck (Birmingham vs Sheffield United)
81% pass accuracy
0 key passes
(Stats courtesy of WhoScored)
Evidence of how Birmingham prevented him from getting into the game can be seen with the stats he finished the match with.
The number of touches Fleck had was the fourth-worst amount of any United outfield player, emphasising just how little impact he had. The same goes for his pass success percentage. He wasn’t terrible by any means, but it will have been concerning how easily he was stopped.
A lack of key passes and dribbles for the player shows how compact the Birmingham system was too, as the 27-year-old failed to provide his side with the impetus they needed. In a game where the Blades could have regained their advantage in the race for automatic promotion, it was not timely.
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Uncharacteristically he also lost the ball once. If any further evidence was needed of his below average display, that was it.
Fleck is still vital to this Sheffield United side but with every game between now and the end of the season proving vital, Wilder will have to ensure one of his key men isn’t marked out of the game again as he was this week.