With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Sheffield United and their prospects in the upcoming campaign.
Let’s head back one year. We are just one month into the 2019/20 season. The unheralded Sheffield United are touted to be the favourites to drop down to the Championship just one year after being promoted to the Premier League. However, four games into their return to the English top-flight and they are already making waves.
The Blades have suffered just one loss from their first four games, as club football takes a pause for the first international break of the season. One of their impressive results includes a 2-2 draw with Chelsea, a game in which they came from two goals down to salvage a point at Stamford Bridge.
Sheffield United would go on to enjoy quite a special season in the ten months that followed. More on that later. Heading into that campaign, the West Yorkshire outfit had not really been a club that was seeped richly into the annals of English football.
However, the Blades can boast of being one of only four clubs to have won a league title in each of England’s top four tiers. Apart from those four league titles and as many FA Cup honours, the last of which came 1925, Sheffield United were a club that were often mired in mediocrity, flitting in and out of the different professional divisions.
As far as the Premier League era is concerned, they are in their third stint in the competition, having spent just three years in the top-flight before last season. The groundwork for a more sustained stay there, though, seems to have been laid, with the team making constant progress following the takeover of the club by the current Saudi Arabian owners..
In Chris Wilder, Sheffield United have a manager who knows how to operate within the limits of the squad he has at his disposal while also getting the players to perform as more than the sum of the parts. Let us now go back to the 2019/20 season once again before assessing what beckons the Blades in the campaign that is upon them.
Prelude – The Backdrop
As iterated already, Sheffield United arrived back into the Premier League with very hardly any expectations around them, at least as far as remaining in the league was concerned. In fact, they were the odds-on favourite to go right back down to the Championship after just one season.
Despite securing automatic promotion, the Blades had a squad that was not tinkered with a lot apart from the attacking unit, which was bolstered by a couple of signings. However, continuity seemed to be the trick that did wonders for them.
The defence and midfield instantly gave an impression of being tightly knit, with the players understanding their roles to perfection. This was evident in the performances, as Chris Wilder’s men never finished a gameweek below 15th on the Premier League table.
In fact, after early October, Sheffield United were in the top half of the table after every single matchday, which is mighty impressive in itself. In their first eight games of the season, Wilder & co. grabbed all three points just twice, those instances being against Crystal Palace and Everton.
In this period, they lost and drew three games each, with two of those defeats being to teams that finished above them in the final standings. One of the stalemates, however, was the inspiring comeback effort to share the spoils with Chelsea. In their next 11 games, Sheffield United lost just once, although judging by the form they were displaying, they would have been disappointed at losing to Newcastle United.
Some of their outstanding and accomplished displays included the 1-0 win over Arsenal and draws with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers in successive games. Thereafter, the Blades remained consistent and even had prospects of European football for the 2020/21 season looming large, as they were on the wrong end of a result only 5 times in the following 16 games.
However, in a relatively disappointing end to the season, Sheffield United ended up missing out on even the playoff spot for the UEFA Europa League, courtesy three losses on the bounce to end their season. Nevertheless, it was one stupendously successful Premier League campaign for the Blades, who finished 9th in the Premier League and even reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Sheffield United have not been too active in the transfer market this summer, something that has left Chris Wilder admittedly frustrated. In fact, the only major movement around Bramall Lane has been in the goalkeeping department, although the change is quite a big one.
Dean Henderson’s memorable time at Sheffield United has come to an end after two productive campaigns. The Englishman now looks set to stay at Manchester United, who could reportedly offload Sergio Romero in order to create room for Henderson. The young goalkeeper, meanwhile, intends to challenge David de Gea for the no. 1 spot.
With Henderson no longer at the club, Sheffield United had to act quickly and efficiently in order to ensure a minimal dip in quality at the back. And so, in came Aaron Ramsdale from Bournemouth, whose relegation to the Championship boosted United’s chances of snapping the player up.
The only other summer signing made by the Blades is another goalkeeper, Wes Foderingham, who has arrived from Rangers on a free transfer. Otherwise, Wilder & co. welcomed back five players from loan spells, four of whom immediately departed as well, either on loan or on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, like Henderson, Panagiotis Retsos is no longer at the club either after the culmination of his loan spell.
Chris Wilder on transfers ✍️
“Over the last 3/4 days it’s moved on, definetely three out of the five.
Hopefully we’ll have announcements to make Monday or Tuesday.” pic.twitter.com/dHfVRmfQp3
— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) September 4, 2020
The underlying issue for Wilder is understandably the slow transfer business. While defence does not need any improvement, the attack was precariously frugal last term and needs to be addressed in order to make sure that a dearth of goalmouth action does not end up dragging Sheffield United down to the bottom half of the table in the upcoming season.
Wilder recently confirmed that the Blades are on the verge of securing the services of “two foreign players”. The identity of this duo remains a secret for now, but judging by the acumen that Wilder has shown during his time as the Sheffield United manager, chances are his squad is going to receive a much-needed shot in the arm.
Upon first glance, Sheffield United’s fixture list appears to be one that ought to facilitate a fine run over the course of the season for them. Fortunately or unfortunately, Chris Wilder & co. will be up against the daunting ‘Big Six’ opposition in successive games at different stages of the season.
Such a run, however, could potentially pave the way for pressure-free sequence of games wherein they will lock horns with teams that they will fancy winning all the spoils. In the opening five weeks, the tricky fixtures come in the form of match-ups against Wolves and Arsenal, apart from meetings with newly promoted Leeds United and potential relegation battlers in Aston Villa and Fulham.
Our 20/21 #PLFixtures. 🦁
Ready for another big season. 💪 pic.twitter.com/oGk78GkcEz
— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) August 20, 2020
The first unsettling run of games comes late in October, when they will take on reigning champions Liverpool, Manchester City and a beefed up Chelsea. Getting anything from this run will be a bonus which is why they will need to bounce back quickly in the following period, when they take on West Ham United, West Bromwich Albion and Southampton.
The festive period appears to be relatively encouraging, with Manchester United the only bigwig that will be clashing with them in December. The other fixtures at this time are the winnable games against Brighton & Hove Albion, Everton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, stretching to mid-January.
Then comes the next intimidating streak of matches, with Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool their opponents in five of the following eight games. If Sheffield United manage to come through largely unscathed from this string of matches, with respect to their place on the Premier League table, they ought to be in with a chance for another top half finish.
Indeed, in the last three months of the season, Chris Wilder’s men have to face just two ‘Big Six’ teams and this will be their time to rake in as many points as possible. However, if they falter here, the Blades could get sucked in to the bottom half of the table, which is where they will not want to finish in the 2020/21 season.
Defence was the major strength for Sheffield United last season and a lot of the credit for that has to go to the superb Jack O’Connell. The 26-year-old has been with the Blades since 2016 and has enjoyed an upward trajectory over the past four years.
The Liverpool native sits at the heart of the three-man central defensive unit in Wilder’s 3-5-2 setup and it is here where his importance lies. With Chris Basham and John Egan given the license to be the revolutionary overlapping centre-backs that they are in Wilder’s system, O’Connell is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping things tight at the back.
That is a role he excels at and in his absence, Sheffield United are often found wanting, with Phil Jagielka not having the same legs underneath him. And so, Wilder will be eager to have O’Connell fit throughout the season if Sheffield United are to enjoy another strong campaign in the Premier League.
Over the last two years, Chris Wilder did not have to worry about the goalkeeping spot in his team (well apart from the two games against Manchester United last season). All that was down to one player, the excellent Dean Henderson, the 23-year-old Englishman who was the club’s Young Player of the Year in each of the seasons he was at Bramall Lane.
However, Henderson is no longer at the club, having returned to Manchester United, where he has every intention to challenge for the first-choice role. Henderson’s departure created a huge void in Chris Wilder’s squad, one that has since been filled by Aaron Ramsdale. Another young goalkeeper who impressed to no end in the 2019/20 season, Ramsdale returns to Sheffield United a much improved player.
The 22-year-old ought to be up to the task to fill the boots and gloves of Henderson as well, after clearly standing out in a poor Bournemouth team and saving their blushes a number of times last term. A potential coup by Chris Wilder this summer.
THE PLAYER OF THE YEAR 🥇
Mr. Sheffield United, Chris Basham. pic.twitter.com/bIsD0BJWsE
— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) July 31, 2020
Another centre-back and this time, it is one of the two players who have the unconventional role of overlapping during the offensive phase. The veteran can often been found outside the opposition box on his adventurous runs and he will once again be crucial for the Blades. At 32, he might be nearing the final phase of his career.
However, that does not appear to be the case just yet, seeing as he was an ever-present at the back for the West Yorkshire outfit, playing every single game last season. That is the kind of physical and disciplinary reliability that makes Basham so reliable for Sheffield United and that is exactly why he will be a pivotal figure once again for them.
The entire attacking unit never quite managed to click over a stretched period for Sheffield United last season, with each of the four strikers only delivering in phases. The pressure was, therefore, on the midfielders to raise their hands up and come up with the goods in front of goal. And, one player who stepped up quite well last season for John Fleck.
The 29-year-old Scotsman, now at the peak of his powers, found the back of the net five times in 29 games for Sheffield United last season. And, with the Blades yet to bolster their attack, Fleck will need to be at his best in the final third once again in the 2020/21 Premier League campaign, with his driven strikes from range as well as the late runs into the box. A key player for Chris Wilder.
Sheffield United were the surprise package in the Premier League last season, surpassing all the low expectations that were placed on them by pundits and, perhaps, fans alike before the start of the campaign. However, terming them as just a surprise package would be undermining the efforts of Chris Wilder and his charges, who were extremely efficient on the pitch all season long.
Having said that, the output in the second season often dictates whether a promoted outfit has the mettle to stick around in the Premier League and Sheffield United will be no different. With the squad not improved a great deal, Wilder faces a challenge to keep up the levels in what will be a cramped league campaign.
For the Blades, defensive solidity will once again be critical, especially if they do not sign a potent forward this summer. A relegation battle, though, is unlikely even if their levels drop, considering the Wilder’s tactical acumen and his coherent style of play. The Hard Tackle, and the author, thus predict a midtable finish for Sheffield United, albeit on the other side of the table.
THT Prediction: 11th
Author Prediction: 11th