When assessing what the top flight teams can expect to encounter next term from the newly promoted Blades, it is impossible not to begin with their overlapping centre-backs that took the Championship by storm in 2018/19.
Chris Wilder’s innovative variation on three at the back – that often saw the right and left sided defenders rampage forward and join up with their respective wing-backs – worked like a charm more times than not. With an industrious midfield also working in tandem, it resulted in opponents having to put out several fires at once and failing to do so. When it worked the system could be devastating and on 39 occasions in the league alone led to either Billy Sharp or David McGoldrick adding to their impressive combined tally. When it didn’t it should not be under-estimated how well organised United’s rear-guard was and will be again as they prepare for big tests ahead at Anfield and the Etihad. Nobody conceded fewer goals in the second tier last season.
Even so, the temptation is to believe that affording such adventure to a third of the defence will be curtailed from August onwards because surely a more conservative approach will be undertaken as each weekend presents another elite challenge.
That, though, would be fundamentally misinterpreting Wilder’s strategy that can change quickly from 3-4-1-2 in possession to a 5-3-2 out of it. It is not uncommon either for the three midfield players in the latter formation to go man-for-man and so in short what we have is a fluid, flexible game-plan that can be very hard to break down when necessary.
That necessity will increase ten-fold in the months to come as the limitations on individual quality within the Sheffield United ranks becomes ever more acute.
Only four members of the squad have Premier League experience – Chris Basham, Billy Sharp, Enda Stevens and Gary Madine – and truthfully none of the quartet made too much of an impact while elsewhere the stand-out stars at Bramall Lane were brought in as free transfers and rejects.
They have been transformed via the impressive coaching of Wilder – a south Yorkshireman born and bred who has forged such a close affinity with the fans that he refers to them as his ‘mates’ – and more so collectively through a philosophy that sees them go into games as if they are a goal down.
It is a group mentality that we know from past examples can take any team far, but with the leftover champagne barely flat from their celebrations United do have concerns going into the summer. The future of loanee keeper Dean Henderson remains uncertain, with the 22 year old likely to return to Old Trafford. Up front, meanwhile, the departure of fellow loanees Scott Hogan and Gary Madine leaves United with only two – admittedly prolific – strikers and cover needed.
Whether Wilder is given a suitable budget to address this is unclear given the bitter ownership battle that is taking place behind the scenes, but he has shown impressive form in recruiting from the bargain bin so perhaps that matters less than to other teams.
He too has a system that is Sheffield United’s twelfth man and a roaring, passionate home crowd that makes it thirteen.
That is going to prove unlucky next year for many heading to the Premier League new boys.