As the Premier League gears up for a return to normalcy, we equip you with an in-depth view of everything about Sheffield United and their season so far.
If you were asked to predict the Premier League teams that would have the chance to qualify for either the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League by the time the season ended, Sheffield United would have probably been everyone’s last pick. After all, they were the odds on favourites to drop right back down to the Championship after just one campaign when the season started.
They are not a club that are seeped in history, at least not for the better part of the last 100 years. Indeed, the last time Sheffield United won a major honour, Margaret Thatcher was not even born, Adolf Hitler was about to publish Mein Kampf and the year was to end with the release of the iconic and infamous Ben-Hur.
After winning the FA Cup in 1925, the club, hailing from the Steel City Sheffield, has been going up and down the English league football ladder. They are, however, one of the founding members of the Premier League. In fact, Sheffield United even scored the first ever goal in the competition, beating eventual champions Manchester United 2-1.
However, the Blades have managed to spend just four years, including the current season, in the top-flight during the Premier League era. In this period, they have endured their fair share of plundering lows, experiencing financial difficulties and falling down to the third division in 2011.
Having said that, they are also one of only four clubs to have the league title in all four tiers of English football. Over the last few years, though, Sheffield United have been in the ascendancy, particularly since the advent of their current Saudi Arabian ownership in 2013.
They first won the League One title in 2017, which helped them achieve the aforementioned feat and be promoted to the Championship. After just two years in the second division, Chris Wilder & co. reached the promised land and returned to the Premier League.
The rest, as they say, has been history, with Sheffield United dazzling us with a fairytale 2019/20 campaign, which could possibly end with European qualification. Let’s take a look back at their season so far and everything else you need to know about the Blades.
Sheffield United’s 2019/20 Season So Far…
When Sheffield United’s current Saudi Arabian owners completed their takeover in 2013, they had hoped that in five years’ time they would be back in the Premier League. Twelve months on from their target, the Blades achieved their second automatic promotion in three years, returning to the top-flight after over a decade.
However, many predicted that this return would be short-lived, with both Norwich City and Aston Villa being given the nod over them for avoiding the drop zone. But, Norwich have had a baptism of fire and are destined to drop right back down to the Championship, while Villa cannot breathe easy either. Sheffield United, though, have surprised one and all with their exploits.
Their season started on a surprisingly strong note, as they held Bournemouth to a 1-1 draw before beating Crystal Palace a week later. The loss to Leicester City in Gameweek 3 was an early vindication for each one of those who were fancying the Blades to be relegated. Then came the shock 2-2 draw at Chelsea and Chris Wilder’s men have not looked back since.
Sheffield United might have lost six further games, but it is important to note that four of those defeats have come against the top two sides in the Premier League – Liverpool and Manchester City. More often than not, though, they have held their own against clubs far bigger and much more fancied than them.
Some of their notable results include draws against the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, whom they also beat at home back in October. Add to those results the victories over their rivals for a top half finish, Everton, Burnley and Crystal Palace, and it is no wonder that the Blades are currently seventh on the Premier League table and even in with a slim chance of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.
Having said that, the Premier League is not the only competition where they have impressed. Wilder’s charges are also in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, where they will take on Arsenal later this month. Given their ability to go toe-to-toe with the best of sides this season, one cannot rule out the possibility of an upset, if we can even call it that.
The Manager: Chris Wilder
Like the team he manages, Chris Wilder was a largely unheralded name. A Sheffield native and a former Sheffield United player, he did not play a lot of top-flight football during his playing days and was what you call a journeyman. Similarly, his managerial career had been entirely spent in the lower leagues before the Blades were promoted to the Premier League.
In the lower divisions of English football, however, Wilder is quite renowned for being spellbinding as a manager, having overseen five promotions with three clubs over the last decade or so. Two of those have come with Sheffield United, where he is now well and truly a local hero.
Having taken over at Bramall Lane in 2016, Wilder made an immediate impact. The Blades won the League One title in his first season in-charge, amassing a whopping 100 points. Two years later, the lifelong Sheffield United fan had overseen another promotion, this time fulfilling this ambitions of the Saudi Arabian owners.
Wilder, though, has not been resting on his laurels, which can be perfectly seen by the way he has evolved his methods despite retaining the old school charm that has formed the base of his success over the years. And despite the riches on offer from the club’s owners, it is his meticulous nature and careful planning that has helped him create an efficient squad that fit in his system perfectly.
Indeed, one look at the squad at Wilder’s disposal and you can see how little the core unit cost the Blades, with many key players even joining on free transfers. More on those players later. First, let’s move on to how the Sheffield United uses them in his system.
Tactics & Style of Play
An oft used saying by Sir Alex Ferguson goes something like this: “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Sheffield United are not winning the Premier League title anytime soon, but Chris Wilder has certainly applied the thought process of a man he regularly seeks advice from to pave the way for his side’s unprecedented success this term.
His team has conceded a mere 25 goals so far in the season, which is the second best record in the Premier League and the 12th best in Europe’s top five leagues. That is mighty impressive, wouldn’t you say? But, how have the Blades achieved such a feat under the tutelage of their manager?
United’s natural shape is the 3-5-2, a formation in which Wilder primarily lines them up in. In the defensive phase, however, they morph into a 5-3-2, with the central defenders and wing-backs sitting back for the most part and letting the opponents have the ball.
However, the manager ensures that the opposition does not have it easy when trying to progress into their half, as the two box-to-box midfielders veer towards the touchline to block passing options higher up the pitch. The two strikers, meanwhile, try to block the passing lanes instead of pressing the defenders, thereby making sure that holes do not open up around them and the shape remains intact.
This forces the opponents to play the ball long to advance forward, which plays into the strengths of the side, with three centre-backs pinned back to deal with such passes. Having said that, Wilder is dynamic when it comes to his defensive approach to the game. His men do tend to press aggressively against teams whose defenders are not necessarily adept with the ball at their feet, yet attempt to play out from the back.
The strikers target their opposing centre-backs while the defensive midfielder – usually Oliver Norwood – picks his counterpart. As for the other two midfielders and the two wing-backs, they attempt to create overloads out wide, using the touchline to their aid and forcing their opponents’ full-backs into making a mistake, thereby winning the ball high up the pitch.
Their excellent cohesion while defending, coupled with extreme discipline is the reason why Sheffield United have an xGA (Expected Goals Against) differential of 11.88 (their xGA is 36.88), a tally bettered by no other side in the division.
Their attack might not have set the stage on fire, but it is going forward where Wilder and his no. 2, Alan Knill have shown a lot of inventiveness and ingenuity. The concept of overlapping centre-backs has been adapted in a quite a stellar fashion by the Sheffield United manager. And so, while John Egan remains fixed at the back in the sweeper role, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell push up during transitions, going past the midfielders to create overloads.
This, in turn, pulls the opposition attackers into their defensive half, alleviating a lot of pressure that they can potentially create. Meanwhile, the wing-backs are the primary source of creativity, with both Enda Stevens and George Baldock being proficient in providing crosses deep into the box. Another key aspect of their offensive output is the long shot prowess of their central midfielders.
John Fleck, with 5 goals, is the leading goalscorer for a goal-shy Sheffield United side, with John Lundstram also contributing towards goals in handy fashion. Finally, their strength in the air (they win 25 aerial duels per game and have let in just two goals from corners) means they also pose a lot of threat in set-piece situations. All in all, Wilder and Knill have created a fluid system going forward complete with solid output at the back, all thanks to discipline in both phases of the game.
A key component of the Sheffield United squad is the familiarity of the players among themselves. After all, the nucleus of the squad has largely been assembled after Wilder was appointed at the helm at Bramall Lane, that too on a miserly budget, starting with goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
On loan from Manchester United, the 23-year-old has enjoyed another excellent campaign in goal for the Blades. He also has 10 clean sheets this season, with only Nick Pope keeping more shut outs over the course of the Premier League campaign.
Henderson is covered expertly by Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell, with Panagiotis Retsos and Phil Jagielka, who returned to the club last summer, being the backup options for the first-choice trio. Enda Stevens and George Baldock make for one of the best full-back/wing-back duos in the Premier League, providing a lot of threat going forward while being solid at the back.
In midfield, Oliver Norwood is an ever-present, with the former Manchester United man featuring in every single league game this term. The 29-year-old, who also often dons the armband for Sheffield United, is also a set-piece expert, delivering balls from corner and free-kicks precisely in sublime fashion.
Norwood has usually had John Fleck and John Lundstram – an FPL god this season due to a bizarre mix-up in his position – for company in the middle of the park. Fleck, as iterated earlier, is the joint-top scorer for Sheffield United this season and primarily looks to test the opposition goalkeeper from range when he has the ball.
Lundstram, on the other hand, is known for his ghosting runs off the ball and work-rate in both phases of the game. Of late, however, he has been displaced from the side following the arrival of club-record signing Sander Berge in the January transfer window. Muhamed Besic is the fallback option in midfield for Wilder.
As for his forwards, the Blades’ boss has usually preferred to rotate the four strikers he has at his disposal, with summer signing Lys Mousset featuring the most. The other strikers who go in and out of the side are captain Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick and summer signing Oliver McBurnie.
Marquee Player: Dean Henderson
In a team that gets talked about being more than the sum of its parts and revels in not having many big names, it is hard to pinpoint one marquee name. The likes of Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell have done wonders in defence, while Oliver Norwood, John Lundstram and John Fleck have been top class in midfield. But, we have gone for Dean Henderson.
The 23-year-old, on loan from Manchester United, has been in a league of his own if we consider his two seasons with Sheffield United. Henderson had already been a part of the PFA Team of the Year for League One (from his spell at Shrewsbury Town) before he made his way to Bramall Lane.
In his first season with the Blades, Henderson was up to the task from the word go and finished the campaign with the most clean sheets in the Championship, comfortably ahead of his competition. His exploits not only earned him the Golden Glove but also made his Sheffield United’s Young Player of the Year.
Back at Bramall Lane after signing another loan deal, Henderson has only continued from where he left off last season, this time seeking to win the Premier League Golden Glove. Only Nick Pope with 11 shut-outs is ahead of Henderson, who has 10 clean sheets.
Having let in just 22 goals past him, the 23-year-old has also improved his Goals Against per game ratio, going from 0.89 last season to 0.81 this term. All while having an excellent save percentage of 75.8 while barely making any errors – the one against Liverpool earlier in the season stands out (he would be furious about that).
Another mighty impressive aspect of Henderson’s performances this season is the fact that his xGA based on the shots on target he faced was 28.4 – he has conceded only 22 goals and a differential of +6.4 is sensational.
His importance to the side can also be seen from the fact that Simon Moore let in 3 goals in the only game Henderson did not play, from an xGA of just 1.7. Henderson is undoubtedly a player who just keeps on growing in stature with every passing week at Sheffield United. and someone they should try to sign permanently. For now, his focus will be fixed on winning the Golden Glove.
One For The Future: Marcus Dewhurst
They might already have one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. But, Sheffield United really need to have their options open in the event that Manchester United decide to keep Dean Henderson in their squad from next season.
At the moment, Michael Verrips and Simon Moore are the two other goalkeepers at the disposal of Chris Wilder. However, with Henderson going strong in goal, the duo have managed a mere four appearances between them. That Moore was preferred to him means Verrips is unlikely to become the first-choice if Sheffield United are unable to retain Henderson.
In such a scenario, Wilder would be in good stead to have another option to consider, especially seeing as Moore is 35. Here’s where Marcus Dewhurst comes into the picture. Now, we might be talking about a goalkeeper here, but do not be surprised once you see Dewhurst’s trajectory in his youth footballing days.
The 19-year-old started out as a striker before slowly transitioning towards the opposite end of the pitch. Dewhurst spent a year on loan at Guiseley, where he impressed a great deal before being sent out to Carlisle United.
A safe pair of hands, he also stands out for his ability on the ball, thanks to his days as a striker several years ago. Judging by his progress over the last 18 months or so, it will be foolhardy to rule out Dewhurst being an option that Wilder ponders on at the end of the season, at least with the aim of beginning his integration with the first-team if nothing else. A bright future awaits the teenager.
Sheffield United are a team that have captured the imagination of just about every Premier League fan, if not beyond. Fancied for the drop early in the season, the fact that they could be playing in Europe next season has certainly left me impressed and I tend to root for them when my favourite team is not featuring.
The Blades have a game in hand to their other top six rivals and with that game being against Aston Villa, they do have a bit of an advantage ahead of the Premier League’s return. Having said that, Chris Wilder & co. face a tricky end to the season, with games against Leicester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Wolves and Manchester United – they won’t have Dean Henderson playing – still left.
Of course, judging by the exploits so far this season, nobody can rule out the possibility of them winning quite a few of those “daunting” matches. Wilder, though, will likely be looking to take one step at a time while being optimistic about his side’s chances.
Wherever they end up at the end of the season, there is no denying the fact that Sheffield United have impressed every Premier League watcher, who will only wish the best for them (while hoping everyone’s favourite FPL asset John Lundstram keeps getting 90 minutes every week).