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23rd Sep 2019

Why are Sheffield United not getting the praise they deserve?

Sheffield United are not the most fashionable club in the Premier League, and consequently do not get the credit they deserve

Reuben Pinder

Sheffield United have eight points from six games, but their achievements so far have been largely overlooked

Watching the way Sheffield United beat Everton 2-0 on Saturday – with one shot on target and 30% possession – you’d be forgiven for thinking they were your quintessential, backs-against-the-wall, meat-and-two-veg, taken-over-by-Big-Sam-in-January kind of team.

In truth, they are anything but.

The pragmatic, counter-attacking style on display at Goodison is just one side to their game – but that seems to have been overlooked by most pundits in the early stages of the Premier League season.

Before a ball had even been kicked Danny Mills, in his role as an expert for Sky Sports, claimed that “attracting players to Sheffield United is never going to be easy. It’s not the most glamorous way of playing. They might play a little direct at times.”

A couple of weeks later, during the Blades’ 2-2 draw against Chelsea, Garth Crooks said the team’s style of play was “too basic for the Premier League”, predicting that they would be “in trouble”.

Forecasting a potential relegation battle for a promoted team isn’t exactly a controversial opinion, but these assumptions are formed on the incorrect idea that Sheffield United are essentially Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City reincarnated – a direct comparison that Mills drew upon.

It only takes a short browse through their results this season, and their stats from last year, to see that Chris Wilder’s team are in fact a multifaceted outfit, capable of adapting their approach depending on the opponent.

In their promotion season last term, they averaged more than 50% possession per game and were in the bottom half for aerial duels won. That’s more akin to Eddie Howe’s widely praised Bournemouth side than Warnock’s Cardiff.

The Blades also deploy the innovative tactic of using the wide centre-backs in their back three to create overloads on the flank, a tactic seldom used in the Premier League and therefore extremely difficult to defend against. The most basic research reveals that Wilder’s side are far from run-of-the-mill top-flight minnows. Inventive and expansive, they are a well-oiled machine, equipped for the variety of battles they will come across.

Of the three newly promoted sides, Norwich City have received the most plaudits, particularly after their shock victory against reigning champions Manchester City. Daniel Farke’s team have stuck to their principles of pressing high up the pitch, interchanging positions to drag opposition players out of their comfort zones and counter-attacking with vigour.

They are deserving of the praise they are getting but the same respect has not yet been paid to Sheffield United, with no obvious explanation as to why.

One theory is that stereotypes of northern clubs and British managers have shaped pundits’ opinions before they’ve had the time to form a considered perspective. Another is that certain pundits simply couldn’t be bothered to do their homework. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

After six weeks of the campaign, Sheffield United have eight points, two more than Norwich and four more than Aston Villa. They are above Chelsea on goal difference, having conceded fewer goals than Arsenal, Tottenham, Bournemouth and West Ham.

Throughout the season, the club’s reputation may well change as viewers and pundits become more accustomed to seeing Jack O’Connell whip crosses in for Oliver McBurnie or Lys Mousset to finish.

One suspects that all it will take is a high-profile, televised victory against a more fashionable side for the likes of Mills and Crooks to admit that the Blades are deploying more cutting edge tactics than they realised. Liverpool’s visit to Bramall Lane on Saturday offers the perfect opportunity.