Blades season preview on The FootbalLab

This post is an excerpt from an interview I did for The FootbalLab. To read the full piece, head here.

After boyhood Blade Chris Wilder led you to the League One title in 2016-17, you achieved your highest finish in eight years last term. It must be a good time to be a Sheffield United fan?

It really is. We endured a truly miserable period between 2010-2016, where it really felt as though the universe was conspiring to see how it could make things worse every single season. That might sound melodramatic and I won’t bore you with the details, but the outpouring of fan anger during the “lap of shame” after Nigel Adkins’ last home game was emblematic of six awful years for the club. Wilder changed all that almost immediately as we stormed to the League One title, playing the best football I’ve ever seen from a United side, and bringing the buzz back to the Lane.

Your game last season appeared to be about holding onto the ball in good areas and waiting for runners from deep to provide overloads. Did that approach enable you to sustain pressure?

It did, although to an extent it was also a weakness. Our game was based on pinning the opposition in and picking our way through them / wearing them down. The trend for our season was that we focussed on creating high-quality chances rather than shooting on sight – we’d look for an extra pass if a good shot wasn’t on. In the main our style was very successful (not to mention pleasing on the eye) but on occasion we couldn’t move the ball quickly enough and so were held at arm’s length.

Equally, Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp are both in their 30s and neither look especially quick. Would you like to see Wilder bring in a younger striker capable of threatening in the transitional phases?

Clarke is actually much more athletic than I think many fans (including some of ours!) would give him credit for – he’s certainly “quick enough”. But yes, I’m 99% sure we’ll be signing at least one new forward in the next few weeks, it has to be a priority area for the team given Clarke and Sharp’s advancing years. We were pretty thin in that regard last season and at the time of writing we’re now even thinner, having let some fringe players move out on loan.

Although Mark Duffy isn’t quick in the obvious sense, he seems to be a fraction quicker than his opponents in terms of his awareness. Is that part of what allows him to get into those pockets of space in front of defences?

Duffy is simply one of the best footballers I’ve had the pleasure of watching play for us. His touch, control and skill are like a dream compared to some of our midfielders of recent years. He’s been an incredible creative force for us the last couple of seasons. Sadly he can only manage about 60-70 minutes at that level, but I suppose if he could go the full 90 we wouldn’t have been able to get him for free a few seasons ago.

Blades aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

The EFL can be a nightmare to predict, although as it happens the “big” teams all generally took care of business last season as the bookies had forecast. Outside of the obvious prediction that the relegated teams will likely do well (none of them look likely to do a Sunderland), Forest have tooled up and must fancy themselves for promotion with that outlay. Derby look a bit of a wildcard – some intriguing loan signings and it remains to be seen what Frank Lampard is like as a manager (hopefully good; I like Lampard). Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa should be anything but dull. And then there’s Brentford who were a football analyst’s dream last season for their attacking numbers, but couldn’t seem to finish their chances. Bookmakers have Stoke and West Brom as favourites and it’s hard to argue with that.

Where will you finish?

Boring answer: probably similar to last season, where we’re in and around the playoffs for a good chunk of the season (I imagine you can copy and paste that for most clubs’ expectations).

What encourages me is that we were very close to being an upper-echelon Championship team last season, and the vast majority of that team is still here. There were a lot of “if only” moments, particularly in games where we dominated and threw away points. In March/April alone we were leading late on in five straight matches and ended up with a measly five points when it could easily have been double or triple that – and that was the difference between 10th and, say, 5th.

The only teams to truly outclass us were Wolves and Fulham (and even then we beat Wolves at home, and pushed Fulham hard in a ridiculous 5-4 defeat) – we looked comfortably on a level if not better than all the other playoff teams during our matches with them, and made a mockery of most pre-season predictions (particularly those coming from our neighbours).

On the flip side – we don’t know if Coutts will return fully from his injury. We don’t know if Clarke can carry on banging in the goals like he did last season. We’re lacking a truly creative player beyond Duffy (David Brooks, our brightest youth prospect for years – possibly decades – just signed for Bournemouth).

There’s an ongoing boardroom situation which, if not catastrophic, is a messy and unwanted distraction from a club that otherwise feels as though it’s going places for the first time in a long time – although that being said, we’ve just broke our transfer record for John Egan, so it’s clearly not affecting the day-to-day running.

There was a strong sense of an opportunity missed last season. In theory we have the players and the management to build on that and take another step forward – but I guess you never know, and I prefer to remain slightly conservative in my predictions/expectations until the transfer window is over and we’ve seen how the team shapes up.

Read the full article here on FootbalLab.

Ben MeakinComment