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28th Sep 2019

Chris Wilder’s impatience for niceties bodes well for Sheffield United

Kyle Picknell

It would be patronising to suggest that this will feel like a victory for Sheffield United. It would also just be a blatant lie

This was a game in which Chris Wilder’s men went toe-to-toe with the reigning champions of Europe and will be bitterly disappointed that they weren’t the team to tear up the only perfect record in the Premier League so far. That they couldn’t revel in the infamy.

With Liverpool far below their best, as much a testament to Wilder’s tactical nous and the endless, combative intensity brought to the occasion by his players as it is a knock against that glittering front-three the Reds possess who didn’t quite click for once, Bramall Lane smelled blood.

Jürgen Klopp, recently named FIFA’s Best Men’s Coach during the latest iteration of the most pointless awards in existence, which is no small feat given that the BBC Sports Personality of the Year gong is still going strong, also seemed to sense a wound gushing open.

At the start of the second half after a hugely positive first period for United, he very briefly matched his opposition’s shape. Fabinho dropped in between Matip and van Dijk whilst his two wing-backs – Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold – switched flanks.

Again, you could call it a huge compliment to Wilder that Klopp – ‘The Best’, remember – sensed enough cold turbulence in the air to invert. That the game could so easily swing away from him despite the possession and the territory. That he was, perhaps, being outmanoeuvred by the man in the opposite dugout.

It is painstakingly clear just how problematic Wilder’s 5-3-2/3-5-2 system is to opposing teams. It’s not just pub small talk’s most en vogue subject, the overlapping centre-backs, either. It’s the fluidity of the entire team. It’s the way Enda Stevens and George Baldock power everything from the wings, that Robinson and McBurnie press so unselfishly, that Fleck, Lundstram and Norwood cover so much horizontal space as a measly, always-outnumbered trio.

After the game, Wilder said of his side’s performance: “I’m bothered about the result. Liverpool had an off-day, whether that was our shape or our attitude or what. We missed a huge opportunity today. We’ve got to jump all over it and we didn’t. Norwich did it to Man City a few weeks ago.” That cut-throat attitude to the scoreline will only serve him and his team well as the season rushes on.

There were signs early that it could have been their day. Joel Matip, who was otherwise superb alongside van Dijk in the least surprising news you will hear this weekend alongside Nigel Farage apparently inciting hate and violence, played a hopeless pass into a congested midfield that was immediately pounced upon by Sheffield. McBurnie was played into the desert of space behind Alexander-Arnold and he drove forward with purpose, even if he could only sting the palms of Adrian rather than find the back of the net.

His strike partner Callum Robinson had a similar chance, again exploiting this apparent weakness in Klopp’s system. Part of what makes Liverpool so consistently dangerous is the semi-reckless abandon with which Robertson and Alexander-Arnold vault forward. Against more clinical opposition, and perhaps a forward duo that weren’t just strong Championship performers last season, they will be punished more severely. It was the case against Napoli. As it was, Robinson flashed his shot wide after two scything, ambitious passes from Norwood and then Fleck.

Liverpool, of course, had some not quite golden chances of their own. Only the most impossibly brave, improvised bit of defending stopped Roberto Firmino going clean through on goal as John Egan slipped on the ball before deciding that the best – and really, the only – course of action would be to throw his head at the feet of the Brazilian.

The Reds’ most consistent threat, however, was the diagonal running of that effervescent pest Sadio Mane in behind Chris Basham. He got in a couple of times, once latching on to a gorgeous diagonal from Alexander-Arnold before Basham got back to thwart the chance with a fine challenge, a second time after a trademark van Dijk pump down the middle dropped at the feet of the Senegalese forward. But as established by the prevailing mood, this was a Liverpool off-day and he sliced high and wide.

Later, after Salah scurried forward and played in Firmino, who in turn played in Mane, he would smash the ball against the near post and hold his head in his hands. That pretty much summed up his afternoon, and the afternoon of every Fantasy Football player who had entrusted him with their digital armband this week.

As the game wore on, Sheffield United grew into something resembling the ascendency. It was Liverpool’s turn to defend like the Blades as van Dijk and Matip stretched for headers whilst Andy Robertson, seemingly powered by nothing other than Irn Bru and faint, horrible memories of playing for Steve Bruce, threw himself in front of shots like he doesn’t particularly care for the more vulnerable of his organs. One block on John Fleck, as his compatriot danced inside the Liverpool area, cut in and for all the world looked to have hit a shot destined for the net, deserves its own Netflix adaptation.

The game devolved into the kind of end-to-end freneticism Liverpool usually thrive in as both Divock Origi and Lys Mousset were tipped into the witch’s cauldron by their respective sides, two versions of the same kind of chaos-maker, pot-luck forward who can win you the games as often as they can ensure you only draw.

But then, there was only one way this game could have ended. The off-colour side taking the lead through a tame volley slipping through the fingers of the otherwise superb Dean Henderson and Leon Clarke skying over the bar in the 85th minute after Fleck had produced one of the passes of the season wide on the left flank. The margins couldn’t have been finer.

Liverpool had won their last 20 matches in which they had taken the lead before this. This makes it 21 and reaffirms the boring adages about the hallmark of champions, winning ugly and earning your own luck. Sheffield United and Chris Wilder helped reaffirm another one, too. You can look at two team sheets and scoff as much as you like. This wild old game will never, ever be played on paper.