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: Burton Albion

It’s only been in the days since Tuesday night’s dropped points against Walsall that I’ve really come to terms with how much of a missed opportunity that really was. For at least the first 60 minutes or so, we were the better team and reduced a really good Walsall side to mere scraps going forward, creating several excellent chances to score a decisive second goal.

I have noticed in some quarters there has been a desperation to scapegoat a whole range of individuals for that failure to take all three points on Tuesday night. From my point of view, it really was a collective dropping-off, in position and mentally, that cost us the points rather than any noticeably poor individual performance. We tried going defensive but without making specific tweaks to make us more secure.

Walsall could not breach us down the centre but eventually used the width of the pitch by bringing on a right-sided attacking full-back to complement their left-sided one and had the ability to quickly switch the play. It’s something that’s been Walsall’s strength all season and Mowbray really should have been more aware of that, instead he set us up to defend narrowly and deeply which played into Walsall’s hands.

Despite that, it was only one really golden opportunity that Walsall created but we are at the stage of the season where the old ‘on another day…’ excuse cannot be used when points are dropped. Thanks to a few too many ‘on another day…’ performances recently, we have lost ground on our promotion rivals and not beating Walsall means that this is as close to a must-win game in January as you’re going to get.

The challenge for Mowbray is for the first time this season, to find a way to produce two high-intensity performances in a week. Whereas in the past he has rotated his squad to navigate these pesky two-game weeks, he has to make sure that the strongest team is on the pitch rather than being saved for other games, this is the game you save your best players for.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

James Maddison‘s exclusion from the starting line-up against Walsall was clearly with this game in mind though and there is no way he doesn’t start this game with Joe Cole dropping out of the team. With Mowbray’s predilection for rotation in mind, I can see either Jim O’Brien or Jacob Murphy being dropped. Stephen Hunt has been talked up pre-match making him the most likely candidate to replace O’Brien or Murphy.

In defence, it’s been finally confirmed (by Romain Vincelot in this interview) what’s up with Aaron Martin and that he is out for around 4 weeks. After another convincing Chris Stokes showing in central defence, Mowbray might keep things as is but could also hand Peter Ramage his debut with Aaron Phillips dropping to the bench.

Last Time We Met

Our one and only league meeting against Burton Albion witnessed our grittiest win of the season. After starting sluggishly, handing an organised Burton side the ascendancy, Aaron Martin scored an unfortunate own goal before we got any kind of foothold in the game. Our equaliser was a goal of genuine quality with Fleck making a defence splitting pass, Ruben Lameiras with a rabona pass to Jacob Murphy, who then squared it to Marcus Tudgay who slotted it into the bottom corner.

The winner came in initially controversial circumstances when it appeared that an offside Romain Vincelot got the final touch on Aaron Martin’s header from a set-piece. As it transpired, Vincelot was behind the ball after Martin’s header making the goal completely legitimate, to the confusion of most watching the game. Despite a few nervy moments at the back, the Sky Blues saw out the win, the first since losing James Maddison to injury.

How Are They Doing?

For much of the season it’s been a case of waiting for Burton to regress back to the mean. It’s not just that they’re Burton Albion that they’re perceived to be massively overachieving, but they have a squad made up of League Two stalwarts and have generally struggled to score, mustering just 32 from 24 games thus far. Added to that, they lost the influential Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink from the managerial dug-out just over a month ago, their resilience at the top of the league is genuinely befuddling.

What they do have is an absolutely rock solid foundation to the team, having conceded just 19 goals all season. Without having any particularly outstanding individuals, Burton are incredibly organised and hard-working in how they’re set up. Generally sticking to at least two banks of four, they are hard to break down and their forwards do tireless work closing down opponents which can make it tough to even get in a position to attempt to break them down.

BurtonhomeBur

Possible Line-Up

If there are stars in this Burton side, they are Mark Duffy (on loan from Birmingham) and Nasser El Khayati. Duffy has been influential this season with his directness down either wing and delivery from both open play and set-pieces. El Khayati is a languid presence who can play either out wide or behind the striker but is the kind of player who can produce a moment of magic out of nowhere. The pacey Lucas Akins is a threat too but it’s really Duffy and El Khayati who are the individual mavericks in a solid team-unit at Burton.

The recent appointment of Nigel Clough as manager adds an unknown quantity to the sturdiness of Burton, although they have yet to lose in the three games since his arrival. In contrast to Hasselbaink, Nigel Clough prefers a more open style of football and absolutely loves making tactical tweaks involving playing players out of position. Thus far though, Clough has resisted the temptation to change things, resulting in two wins and a draw since taking over.

Prediction

The situation of having the nominal advantage of fitness over our opponents has been reversed with Burton not having played since January 2nd. Burton should be heading into this game fitter and much better prepared for the contest than we are. Furthermore, this is probably the club’s biggest day out in a league game in terms of away following, stature of opponent and gravity of fixture in their history. Don’t be surprised to see an ultra-motivated Burton side race out of the traps, looking to play up to the occasion.

Really though, I think we have a better team than they do and the fact that they are currently top of the division is driving me a little crazy. Tuesday night’s dropped points can be forgiven somewhat if we not only show Burton what the best side in the division plays like but then put together a series of victories over the ensuing games. This has to be the week where we stop messing around and assume the mantle that the quality of this side deserves.

As ever, I’m feeling uncertain as to whether we have that killer instinct to take advantage of this opportunity that awaits us. But I’m going to remain positive and predict a 2-0 victory.

Preview: Burton Albion

A frustrating yet somehow positive showing against Southend on Monday night where we looked very exposed defensively but managed to salvage a point and had the chances to win the game. Looking at individual games in isolation tends to produce ambiguous outcomes depending on your outlook. This upcoming meeting with Burton then will help guide our thoughts as to whether we should be concerned about that Southend performance or take it as a sign of a good team getting a result when playing badly.

There is of course the caveat that will obscure the analysis of this Burton game in that we are now missing George Thomas, Bryn Morris and Adam Armstrong through international duty to add to the injury losses of Jordan Willis and James Maddison. Whilst Armstrong has had less touches in recent games without Maddison in the team, alongside Jacob Murphy, he benefited from Marcus Tudgay’s presence in the second-half against Southend and Tony Mowbray is unable to put that developing understanding to the test for this game.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Losing Adam Armstrong as an option from the squad means that Tony Mowbray will have to alter the shape of the team more dramatically than he may have liked. First and foremost, it takes the threat of pace away from the team which seems to lead the team into playing with far less incisiveness meaning we’re in danger of forcing our slow defence to play further up the pitch and making the opposition counter-attack more of a risk. The new signing of Marc-Antoine Fortuné should provide us with a greater presence in the final third meaning that when we are playing that bit slower, we have more of a threat when crossing the ball into the box.

As tends to be the case with signing players at the start of September, it is unlikely that Fortuné will be fully match-fit for this game. That should lead to a line of three of Ruben Lameiras, Jacob Murphy and Jim O’Brien playing behind Marcus Tudgay, which could be pretty threatening if Tudgay can open up room for the three behind him to operate in.

Last Time We Met

It’s almost three years to the day that we faced Burton for the first and only time in a competitive fixture. It was 90 minutes of utterly turgid Johnstone’s Paint Trophy football between a Coventry City side being managed by Richard Shaw and a League Two Burton side yet to really discover their mojo under Gary Rowett. It led into a remarkable penalty shoot-out involving all 11 players from each team with Joe Murphy scoring the winner for the Sky Blues.

How Are They Doing?

Burton have recently won promotion to League One after winning League Two last season under the managership of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. A surprise choice as replacement for Gary Rowett last season after the latter moved on up to Birmingham City, Hasselbaink has managed to maintain continuity with the previous era whilst slowly adding little touches of flair to the mix. Burton are currently 3rd in the division having lost just one of their first five games, although that one loss came in their only game thus far against a side currently in the top half.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The formula for Burton’s great start has been based around having a solid defensive shape off-the-ball and being clinical when they do have possession of the ball. The squad is defined by the work-rate and solidity of players such as John Mousinho and Phil Edwards who were instrumental in leading the club to promotion last season. There is not going to be much space either between the lines of midfield and defence for us to exploit and Burton are intelligent enough with their pressing to restrict the ball over the top too.

Burton do seem to lack a natural goalscorer in attack with the hard-working duo of Stuart Beavon and Timmy Thiele mainly there to close defenders down or maintain a good defensive shape. The attacking flair will come from the two wingers Mark Duffy and Nasser El-Khayati. Duffy, on loan from Birmingham, is the team’s set-piece taker but also has good delivery in open play. El-Khayati is big and physical but can pick a pass and is a threat with his long-range shooting.

Prediction

This game carries the threat that it could be a very frustrating afternoon for us, not only are we going to be trying to play a slightly different style of football to what we are used to but Burton are a very solid defensive unit who’ll be okay with a draw and confident right now to be patient enough to nick something at the other end. The signing of Marc-Antoine Fortuné though may just raise the spirits a little and at least offers something like a plan B should we fail to click into gear in this game.

I can see this game finishing as a 1-1 draw.