Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

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Preview: Sheffield United

We’re properly crap at the moment. We lost 3-1 to Southend at the weekend and it wasn’t even suprising. We’re heading into a game against one of the most in-form sides in the division, who also happen to be Sheffield United, it’s also going to be on a Thursday night for some reason, so no-one’s going to be there and we have a manager who doesn’t want to be there either.

The attempt to appoint Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink this week has signalled that we are actively looking for a new manager, which is something. How much we should be concerned that the talks ultimately fell through is probably something we’ll only really know when we finally know the identity of our next manager and how long it takes to get to that point.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This upcoming game against Sheffield United feels more like an obligation than it is an opportunity to give our season a shot in the arm. With the focus having shifted from Mark Venus salvaging his managerial hopes to ensnaring the next chump, the excuse for the players mentally not turning up for this game is already there. Something crazy would have to happen for Sheffield United not to win this game.

As for what team we’ll play, that continues to be anyone’s guess. If James Sterry is unavailable at right-back, Dion Kelly-Evans will continue in the side and will inevitably be targeted by a physical and experienced Sheffield United side. Dan Agyei’s consolation goal against Southend will probably see him continue in the side with Marvin Sordell out wide. Jodi Jones’ assist for Agyei’s goal seems like it will be enough for him to start this game. Lee Burge’s injury on Saturday could well see Reice Charles-Cook return in goal.

Last Time We Met

Following a sloppy away performance at Doncaster towards the end of last season, we headed into our previous meeting with Sheffield United knowing that the unlikely prospect of salvaging a play-off spot was past us. Against a Sheffield United side still harbouring their own faint play-off hopes we played an experimental 3-4-3 system featuring a front three of Fortuné, Lameiras and George Thomas with Stephen Hunt at wing-back, which somehow saw us fly out of the blocks to take an early 2-0 lead. A cumbersome Blades side laboured to get a goal back in the second-half, only for a swift counter-attacking move involving Jodi Jones and Aaron Phillips, finished by Ruben Lameiras, see us take a decisive 3-1 lead in the final minutes.

How Are They Doing?

As always seems to be the case at Bramall Lane, a disappointing season at this level saw a summer change in manager and most of the squad with the promise that this would be the year that they sorted it all out. Unlike the past five seasons though, this iteration of Sheffield United actually looks they’ve sorted it all out.

After a difficult start to the season, former Northampton manager and ex-Blades player Chris Wilder has turned Sheffield United into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. It hasn’t been that they’ve just lost one of their past 17 games and scored 37 goals in the process, it’s that they’ve absolutely dominated almost every game they’ve played during that period.

The early season jitters Sheffield United suffered came from a series of sloppy defensive errors which saw Chris Wilder act decisively in jettisoning left-back Chris Hussey and keeper George Long for the squad, bringing in the towering centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell from Wolves and keeper Simon Moore from Cardiff City and switching to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Not only have the changes seem to have eradicated the defensive weaknesses but they have made the Blades a more effective, dominant and attacking team overall.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty in the two wing-back positions have supplied energy, width and excellent delivery from wide areas. John Fleck and Paul Coutts have offered composure and penetration on the ball from the centre of the park to allow Mark Duffy, who has played almost his entire career as a winger, to flourish as a roving, in-your-face number 10.

Up front, Sheffield United have an array of options but have generally stuck with the energy of Matt Done alongside the pure finishing instincts of Billy Sharp. However, with Leon Clarke’s physicality and link-up play and the pace of Caolan Lavery to bring on from the bench, Chris Wilder has several ways in which he can change the game up should Plan A somehow fail to work.

Prediction

I cannot envision which circumstances would lead to victory for us in this fixture. Sheffield United are by far a better team than us in every area of the pitch and they are in excellent form. This game has a 4-0 loss written all over it.

Preview: Sheffield United

The remote chance that we had of making the play-offs was surrendered with a meek performance at Doncaster. A predictably soft goal given from a set-piece with a second almost as soft goal following not too soon after and no response for the final 60 minutes and that was it for the season. It only served to confirm that we weren’t going to pull a rabbit out of the hat in these final few games but it’s disappointing nonetheless that we couldn’t keep the illusion alive ahead of a long summer.

As bad as we’ve been over the second half of the season, we’re guaranteed our highest league position in a decade and four points from these final two games would be our highest points tally since relegation from the Premier League. I wouldn’t regard this season as one of progress considering we’ve gotten worse as it’s progressed but it just goes to show that the mediocrity we’ve descended into is an improvement on the ineptitude of the years before.

Not that these kind of records really matter when there’s nothing tangible to achieve and there is a temptation now to just play the youngsters. There are legitimate reasons to do so, Steven Pressley did so when he first arrived and saw enough from Callum Wilson – who would probably have been released otherwise – to earn him a starting spot for the following campaign where he exploded on the scene. It doesn’t always work, but I don’t think it’s the type of opposition that has an impact on the performance you get from an untried youngster, it’s the youngster themselves. If you don’t play them, you’ll only find out when you’re forced to play them when things really matter.

Possible Line-Up

The most open spot in the team for experimentation is at left-back where Sam Ricketts is now out for the remainder of the season but we don’t really have a natural left-back waiting to step up. Ryan Haynes hasn’t been recalled and is injured, Jordan Willis could slot in but is still recovering from injury, the same could be said for Chris Stokes. Devon Kelly-Evans played some games as a left wing-back in pre-season the year before last but has matured into more of an attacking player, his twin brother Dion is more naturally right-sided and both appear to lack the frame to be thrown into first-team action out of position. Cian Harries might be able to do a job but seemingly is seen as a centre-back. The only genuine alternative to Stephen Hunt is the right-footed Martin Lorentzson, which is slightly more preferable for me. but sounds like it isn’t going to happen

Last Time We Met

It was a memorable game, in a negative sense as it transpired, when we last faced Sheffield United. The game, front of the Sky cameras, came not too soon after we’d gone top of the league and with Sheffield United in indifferent form, it looked like we were set to continue a good run of results against our frequent tormentors.

A first-half performance where we eased into the game was livened up by Ruben Lameiras creating danger on the right wing. Lameiras’ level of skill befuddled a cumbersome Sheffield United side, eventually leading to some crude challenges from Dean Hammond and Jay McEveley, both of whom should have been sent off for a series of fouls on Lameiras. When Jacob Murphy’s cross was deflected over the line and not awarded as a goal, it looked like it just wasn’t going to be our day. A late Billy Sharp goal, from a set-piece unsurprisingly, and a red card to Sam Ricketts only served to further emphasise the point.

How Are They Doing?

It hasn’t been a vintage year at Sheffield United by any stretch of the imagination. In replacing Nigel Clough with Nigel Adkins in the summer after a frustratingly inconsistent campaign which nonetheless finished with a play-off semi-final, Sheffield United thought they finally had the man to secure a long overdue return to the Championship. Only for this season to prove to be one of the worst of their current five-year stint in League One.

Although the Blades retain hope of making the play-offs, they have been obdurate and uninspiring for much of the campaign. In fairness to Nigel Adkins, he was left a bloated and unbalanced squad by his predecessor with little freedom to re-jig the team to his liking. Although the signings Adkins has made have been experienced campaigners who have done little to add dynamism to a squad desperately in need of it.

One of the few bright spots of the season in terms of players has been Che Adams, a former youth-team player with the Sky Blues. Operating either out wide or as a striker, Adams is the kind of raw, pacey attacker that can get bums off seats. The more experienced Matt Done is Sheffield United’s other main source of dynamism, but for his work-rate rather than his pace.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The rest of this Sheffield United side is packed full of experienced, robust campaigners who, as we saw in our last meeting, will look to impose themselves on the game physically. The main aggressors of that game at Bramall Lane, Jay McEveley and Dean Hammond, remain key although have been much maligned this season by Sheffield United fans for their lack of mobility. With Chris Basham (by name and by nature) in midfield too, there is going to be a tough, physical block for us to navigate around.

Finally, there’s Billy Sharp up front, Sheffield United’s top-scorer on 20 for the season. Now in his third spell at Bramall Lane, this has been by far his most successful one at his boyhood club. Synonymous with goalscoring in the Football League, Sharp endured a patchy start to the season but has generally been a reliable presence in front of goal when chances have fallen his way.

Prediction

Not really based on anything rational at all, I’m leaning towards us getting the win here. Sheffield United haven’t been great this season but find themselves in a position of having to win this game to maintain a faint hope of the play-offs, there is no pressure at all on us to do anything here. That lack of pressure can manifest itself either way but I’ve just got a feeling that we’ll get the win here, for all that it matters.

3-1 win for the Sky Blues, why not?

Preview: Sheffield United

Thanks to our premature cup exit at the hands of Northampton Town, we have been ‘punished’ with a 15-day break. Given the slightly lethargic display against Doncaster when last we saw our Sky Blues, it would seem that this early winter interlude might actually have been most timely. For us fans though, we had to resort to such extreme measures as spending time with our families to keep us entertained during this bleak period for us all.

We can abandon such nonsense now as the Sky Blues return to league action away to Sheffield United, which our Sky TV overlords have conveniently placed on a Sunday lunchtime. Tony Mowbray has had ample time to prepare for this game and his squad has been bolstered by the returns of James Maddison and Joe Cole to fitness, alongside the new signing of Swedish right-back Martin Lorentzson.

In the attacking midfield positions especially, the mouth waters at the quality and quantity of our current options. There has been a slight backlash against Joe Cole after he has been left out of recent squads for fitness issues but if he is close to his full fitness now, that hype around his arrival could prove to be justified. Given that Tony Mowbray has focused several of his press briefings around Joe Cole’s return to fitness, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start in this game.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

But what of the trifecta of Ryan Kent, Jim O’Brien & Jacob Murphy that has performed so well of late? Well, perhaps we saw against Doncaster how it might not always be the best option to play Murphy through the middle. Donny packed the centre of the park and denied Murphy the space to thrive in. Now that we have two high-calibre central attacking midfielders in the team, Murphy’s explosiveness may best be deployed on the wings where he can be sprung through with a pinpoint pass.

If I am right in assuming Joe Cole is set to start, it will be interesting to see which of Ryan Kent and Jim O’Brien will be dropped to make way. Given that it’s an away game up north in December, my money’s on Jim O’Brien starting over Ryan Kent. Which would leave Tony Mowbray the option of bringing either or both of James Maddison and Ryan Kent on the bench, heady days indeed.

There’s no real need to change things at the back really. This is an important game for Reice Charles-Cook to demonstrate that he has simultaneously learned his lessons from the Doncaster game while also retaining his characteristic confidence that makes him a potential star in the making.

Last Time We Met

As much as we always tend to view Sheffield United as one of the toughest fixtures it’s possible to have. If memories of that FA Cup replay under Strachan have passed, then those of Richard Cresswell scoring in every bloody game against us haven’t quite and even that’s been a fairly long time ago now. We do though have a fairly good recent record against the Blades, somehow avoiding defeat to them in both of our league encounters last season.

In the penultimate game at Sixfields, Jim O’Brien’s scuffed effort deflected in past the unwitting Bob Harris to secure victory in a scrappy game where the Sky Blues defended pretty admirably. Our most recent meeting became Steven Pressley’s last game in charge of the club as he saw his charges take a two-goal lead against a Sheffield United team reduced to ten men early on. The Blades mustered two quick-fire goals late-ish in the second half which epitomised just how mentally brittle we were as a team at that time and was enough to require a swift change in management at the club.

How Are They Doing?

Sheffield United may have made the play-offs last season but they underperformed by their own standards and the money that was invested in the team. That, combined with the often dull football doled out by Nigel Clough was enough to see the now-Burton boss relieved of his duties in the summer. In came Nigel Adkins, a man who had won promotion three times in the past from this division, and it seemed like this time round, the Blades were adequately equipped to secure a long overdue return to the Championship.

Despite getting hammered by Gillingham on the opening day, it was actually a fair good start for Sheffield United who have been in the promotion frame for much of the season. More recently they have been on an abject run of form in the league, having not won since October 24th and fans growing increasingly frustrated and perplexed as to just why this time isn’t performing.

Part of the blame has to go down to the imbalanced squad Nigel Adkins had to work with following Nigel Clough’s departure. Despite at one point possessing around 30 first-team players, the side lacked a genuine goalscorer, a convincing presence in goal and a commanding central defender. With much of the squad on big long-term contracts too, Adkins was left with little room to manoeuvre in the summer to address some of those gaping holes.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Adkins went for experienced heads in his recruitment drive, bringing in the man mountain Conor Sammon to partner the proven Billy Sharp in attack and loaning in central midfielder Dean Hammond from Leicester, a man who helped Adkins take Southampton from this division to the top-flight. Despite Sharp leading Sheffield United’s scoring charts this season, none of those key three signings has convinced and it seems like in Sharp and Hammond’s cases at least, that their best days are appear to be in the past.

It would be foolhardy to write-off this Sheffield United team though as there are still plenty of high-standard performers who will be looking to prove that they are still up for the fight. The recent return from injury of right-back John Brayford, a £2 million signing last January, will be a massive shot in the arm given the defender’s undoubted class and desire. Winger/striker Matty Done is alongside Brayford, one of the few Sheffield United players the fans can see are working for the team at the moment.

Prediction

As bad as Sheffield United have been at late, I would still regard them as a dangerous prospect especially as a win now would stand them in good stead to get themselves back into promotion contention come the new year. Given their experience, there is the potential that they could really do a number on us, taking advantage of our tendency towards naivety.

It’s hard though not to feel very confident heading into this game, despite the prospect of Sheffield United finally flickering into life. It would be an indication of the progress of this side were we able to win this game against an ailing giant with a minimum of fuss. I’m backing us to do something like that, winning 3-2.