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.

Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – The Promotion Challengers

Top Scorer: Billy Sharp (16) Most Assists: John Fleck & Mark Duffy (6)

Top Scorer: Billy Sharp (16)
Most Assists: John Fleck & Mark Duffy (6)

Sheffield United (1st Place)

Anyone with even a passing interest in League One knows the drill, Sheffield United start the season as promotion favourites and spend the next 46 games finding new ways to fall short despite having the biggest budget and crowds in the division. After a poor first few games, it looked like Chris Wilder’s Blades were going to be like Nigel Adkins’, Nigel Clough’s and Danny Wilson’s Blades in failing to discover that gritty, winning mentality that was once the club’s hallmark. However, three crucial changes to the side towards the end of August now sees this Sheffield United side looking ready to deliver on their perennial promise of a return to the Championship.

The signings of goalkeeper Simon Moore, centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell and a switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation have seen Sheffield United not just shoot up the league but absolutely dominate their opponents in almost every game they’ve played since the start of September. If there has been one criticism of the Blades this season, it’s that they’ve perhaps been overly reliant on Billy Sharp’s form in front of goal, with summer signings Leon Clarke and Caolan Lavery struggling to find form. Nonetheless, they are top of the division and are in a position to further strengthen their squads. The title favourites by some distance.

Top Scorer: Zach Clough (8) Most Assists: Jay Spearing (3)

Top Scorer: Zach Clough (8)
Most Assists: Jay Spearing (3)

Bolton Wanderers (2nd Place)

The appointment of Phil Parkinson as manager in the summer has proven to be just what Bolton needed to avoid a difficult first season in the third-tier. Not famed for playing a particularly progressive style of football, Phil Parkinson’s no-nonsense football has seen Bolton overpower many opponents with brute force from what is a squad mostly made up of experienced and proven Championship-level performers, with Zach Clough and the now-departed Sammy Ameobi providing a small dashing of flair in the final third.

Although Bolton currently occupy a top-two position and have probably the division’s strongest squad, they haven’t been entirely convincing and have produced some pretty poor showings on occasion this season. It feels like Bolton under Parkinson will rely upon taking fewer risks than anyone else and hope that no-one below them find form to secure promotion. In this division this season, it could well be enough.

Top Scorer: Josh Morris (15) Most Assists: Josh Morris (10)

Top Scorer: Josh Morris (15)
Most Assists: Josh Morris (10)

Scunthorpe United (3rd Place)

Having finished last season in excellent form, it wasn’t a massive surprise that Scunthorpe United were this season’s pace-setters. However, the main surprise with Scunthorpe this season is that they’ve much of their success has not been based around the goalscoring exploits of Paddy Madden, who’s played a relatively cameo role in the Iron’s impressive first half of the campaign. Instead, manager Graham Alexander has gotten the best out of forwards Tom Hopper and Kevin van Veen, who were already on the books, while his summer additions of Duane Holmes and particularly Josh Morris have added another dimension to what was already a strong squad.

Scunthorpe have a strong spine in central midfield and defence and have based much of their success this season on working hard and capitalising on mistakes or Josh Morris producing a moment of magic. However, they’ve won just once in their past six games and it’s looking like Graham Alexander is going to have to change things up a little to set them back on their way. The next month is going to be crucial for the Iron in restoring that lost momentum.

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: Northampton Town

It’s hard to know what to make of Tuesday night. On the plus side, we secured a routine win and scored four goals without having to produce an especially brilliant performance. On the down side, we conceded three and even if one should perhaps have been disallowed and the other an utterly stupid, aberrant mistake, the fact that all our goals were scored by loan players has me a little worried that things are little unsustainable at the moment.

We’ll get a vision of our possible future during this FA Cup clash with Northampton Town. With Adam Armstrong and Ryan Kent unavailable for selection due to the wishes of their parent clubs, we’ll lose that ability to stretch defences with the pace and penetration they both provide. Given that none of our other strikers, or Joe Cole, have the ability to run in behind, there’ll be pressure on the likes of Jacob Murphy, Ruben Lameiras and Jim O’Brien to provide a goal threat, which they can offer but only on an inconsistent basis thus far.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It is slightly extreme to use this match as a barometer of our future hopes this season, not only will Armstrong and Kent be replaced if they don’t stay but we’re also missing Romain Vincelot who you suspect will further increase his importance to the side as the season wears on. His replacement Conor Thomas, may be able to replace that assertive role in midfield which has always been the best feature of his game. What Thomas seems less likely to be able to replace is that ability to cover gaps in the defence which Vincelot does so well. It will put extra defensive strain on John Fleck and will offer Northampton Town the hope that they can hit our slow defence on the break.

This game will be an important one too for Aaron Phillips given that a loan defender may soon be arriving. The greatest shame about his mistake for the penalty against Barnsley was that he had actually played rather well for the 90 minutes prior, both in getting forward and in being fairly solid defensively. Over the past few games, I’ve noticed he’s been much more disciplined in timing when he dives into tackles which is a sign that he’s learning. A strong performance in this game could go a long way to exorcising the memories of the three penalties he has given away this season.

Last Time We Met

Our last competitive meeting with Northampton Town came in this same competition back in 1990. We lost 1-0.

The last game between these two teams that I know you’re all thinking about is the Jackson Grundy Cup back in 2009. Leon Best gave City the lead before Billy McKay levelled late on for the Cobblers. Things were tense at Sixfields as this classic appeared to be heading for extra time before club legend Sean Jeffers secured the Sky Blues the prestigious cup. No word yet on whether Jackson Grundy are handing out another trophy for this game.

How Are They Doing?

When Chris Wilder, once in the frame for the job here, arrived at Northampton nearly two years ago, the team looking likely to be relegated into non-league for the first time in their history. After pulling off a miraculous survival attempt in the second-half of his first season, Northampton finished unremarkably outside of the League Two play-offs last season.

King of the slow build in League Two, having done a similar job at Oxford, Wilder made sensible improvements to the squad at Northampton in the summer and they’re right in the mix for promotion from the fourth-tier this season. The only problem is, they are broke thanks to the mysterious dealings of chairman David Cardoza who had previously done so much good for the club. There is a chance now that this could be Northampton Town’s final game with their fate set to be decided in the courts on Tuesday.

On the pitch, Northampton’s main danger looks to be coming from the productive strike pairing of Marc Richards and Sam Hoskins. Richards is a journeyman League Two goal poacher, aside from one decent season with Barnsley in League One, he’s never really cut it when given an opportunity at a higher level. Hoskins, a former Southampton youth-teamer, has really come into his own this season and is a more mobile, pacey forward player.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

There is plenty of attacking support in midfield with Nicky Adams and John-Joe O’Toole both goal threats from that area. O’Toole is exceptionally tall for a midfielder but likes to play a more attacking role than his frame would suggest. Adams was an important player last season in Bury’s promotion push from League Two and has previously been a strong performer in the third-tier, he’s the main source of creativity, either out wide or pushing forward from a central position.

Northampton’s defence is likely to be marshalled by Ryan Cresswell and Zander Diamond in the centre who are both uncompromising, grizzly lower-league centre-backs. David Buchanan at left-back was a fairly important player at Preston before being surprisingly released in the summer. They could also include Brendan Moloney at right-back if he is fit, he being another player in this team capable of playing at a higher level.

Prediction

This is going to be a massive game for Northampton Town, not only is this a fairly local derby and there is that bit of needle between some of our fans and their club about our exile there, but this is also potentially the club’s final ever game. They are clearly going to be incredibly fired-up for this game and if one or two of our players don’t take this game seriously, Northampton could really put us to the sword.

What with us losing our biggest goal threat due to the preference of his parent club and our key holding midfield player also being out and our defence having been so leaky of late, I’m not feeling positive heading into this game. I’m going to predict a grim old 2-0 defeat.