When Sheffield United were last in the topflight they were innovators and entertainers. Chris Wilder’s overlapping centre-backs took the league by storm, with the likes of John Egan and David McGoldrick becoming household names overnight. The plucky underdog’s tag was almost a disservice as this was a team playing with purpose and personality.
Ultimately, though, the Blades fell privy to second-season syndrome, their fall from grace just as abrupt as their rise, and with Wilder’s departure, their fate was sealed. Sheffield United’s return to the Premier League felt like a pandemic-induced malaise, one of those fascinating quirks. So, to see the Blades back in the first division just two years after their relegation took many by surprise, not least the club itself.
Whereas Wilder’s class of 2019 were propelled through the football league by the collective will of a team greater than the sum of its parts. Paul Heckingbottom, who had initially replaced Wilder on an interim basis before being brought back permanently in November 2021, was handed two aces in the pack in the form of Sander Berge and Iliman Ndiaye. Ndiaye’s goals and Berge’s talismanic displays saw Sheffield United comfortably finish second to secure promotion with three games to spare.
But it meant their departure so soon into this year’s summer transfer window gave Heckingbottom an almost insurmountable challenge before a ball had even been kicked. Whilst the additions of Cameron Archer and Gustavo Hamer, one of the standout performers on Coventry City’s road to the play-off final, restored some faith in the club’s direction, the murmurs of discontent have continued to grow.
This is a club that has been up for sale since the beginning of the year and posted £15.2m worth of losses. Promotion is all about timing and whereas in 2019, it felt like a full circle moment – a culmination of good practices, clear messaging, and direction. This time around, it feels as though talent has elevated its surroundings rather than the surroundings elevating the talent.
Heckingbottom was always going to be the fall guy. Any semblance of a message falling on deaf ears with all the noise engulfing the club. Wilder’s return felt predictable. He too has struggled following the departure from his boyhood club. So, with both parties at an impasse, there was a collective longing for the structure and control with which Sheffield United and Wilder navigated that first heady season in the Premier League.
Victory against Brentford at Bramall Lane, just Sheffield United’s second of the season, handed Wilder the perfect homecoming. Whilst narrow defeats to Liverpool and Chelsea have provided glimpses of the courage and compactness which became staples under his stewardship. But with a young and malleable yet unpredictable core of players – the squad has an average of 26 years old; this is a far cry from the team Wilder led to two promotions in three years.
England U-21 international Archer, an £18m signing from Aston Villa, looks like shrewd business, however. The young striker lacks finesse, but his bold character and belief in his ability allow him to lead the line with authority. Archer possesses a varied shot selection and an awareness of his surroundings that allows him to cause keepers a problem whenever he’s in range.
Fellow summer acquisition Hamer has hardly missed a minute this season, and that looks set to continue under Wilder. An all-action midfielder, capable of linking defence to attack in an instant, Hamer provides the answer to Sheffield United becoming more potent in transitions. Only Luton are averaging fewer passes per sequence than Sheffield United this season, a sign of their direct style of play, and yet no team has had fewer shots than the Blades.
This means that whilst Sheffield United look to play the ball from defence to attack almost instantaneously they are rarely generating shots and chances from this approach. Hamer, who routinely ranked amongst the top 10 players for shot-creating actions, through balls, and progressive passes in the Championship for a transition-orientated Coventry side, is the perfect player to help Sheffield United remedy their problems in possession.
Even in Hamer’s match-winning assist against Brentford, a deft pass into the path of Manchester City loanee James McAtee, you can understand his thought process – he faints to shoot and instead finds a teammate. Constantly surveying his options, he provides the platform, through his unselfishness and weight of pass, for Sheffield United’s young, hungry match winners to take a chance and bet on their ability.
Confidence is a fragile thing, especially in a squad languishing at the bottom of the table, and personal responsibility can become a daunting prospect. But in Hamer, Sheffield United have a player constantly willing to show up for 50/50s, show for the ball and show up for his team. That sort of character rubs off on people, and Wilder will do well to harness that energy going forward.
For Sheffield United, it’s all about staying alive in games. As a team, they can collapse in on themselves, as showcased by their defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle. So, the longer they can frustrate their opposition, the more chance they’ll have of catching them cold on the break.
The winter schedule often sets the foundations for what’s to be, come May, as Wilder found out to own his detriment. So, with home games against Luton and West Ham sandwiched between away trips to high-flying Aston Villa and Manchester City, there’s little time to reflect. It’s sink or swim for Sheffield United.
By: Sam Tabuteau / @TabuteauS
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Clive Rose – Getty Images