Sheffield United Season Preview: can Wilder’s Blades push further?

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Sheffield United fan Ben Meakin (@bnmkn) from the excellent Blades Pod.

After boyhood Blade Chris Wilder led you to the League One title in 2016-17, you achieved your highest finish in eight years last term. It must be a good time to be a Sheffield United fan?

It really is. We endured a truly miserable period between 2010-2016, where it really felt as though the universe was conspiring to see how it could make things worse every single season. That might sound melodramatic and I won’t bore you with the details, but the outpouring of fan anger during the “lap of shame” after Nigel Adkins’ last home game was emblematic of six awful years for the club. Wilder changed all that almost immediately as we stormed to the League One title, playing the best football I’ve ever seen from a United side, and bringing the buzz back to the Lane.

Your game last season appeared to be about holding onto the ball in good areas and waiting for runners from deep to provide overloads. Did that approach enable you to sustain pressure?

It did, although to an extent it was also a weakness. Our game was based on pinning the opposition in and picking our way through them / wearing them down. The trend for our season was that we focussed on creating high-quality chances rather than shooting on sight – we’d look for an extra pass if a good shot wasn’t on. In the main our style was very successful (not to mention pleasing on the eye) but on occasion we couldn’t move the ball quickly enough and so were held at arm’s length.

Equally, Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp are both in their 30s and neither look especially quick. Would you like to see Wilder bring in a younger striker capable of threatening in the transitional phases?

Clarke is actually much more athletic than I think many fans (including some of ours!) would give him credit for – he’s certainly “quick enough”. But yes, I’m 99% sure we’ll be signing at least one new forward in the next few weeks, it has to be a priority area for the team given Clarke and Sharp’s advancing years. We were pretty thin in that regard last season and at the time of writing we’re now even thinner, having let some fringe players move out on loan.

Although Mark Duffy isn’t quick in the obvious sense, he seems to be a fraction quicker than his opponents in terms of his awareness. Is that part of what allows him to get into those pockets of space in front of defences?

Duffy is simply one of the best footballers I’ve had the pleasure of watching play for us. His touch, control and skill are like a dream compared to some of our midfielders of recent years. He’s been an incredible creative force for us the last couple of seasons. Sadly he can only manage about 60-70 minutes at that level, but I suppose if he could go the full 90 we wouldn’t have been able to get him for free a few seasons ago.

John Fleck was arguably the best midfielder in League One in 2016-17. Does the fact he started 41 league games last season suggest he handled the step up to the Championship as well as expected?

I would say he was better than expected, and actually improved as the season went on. Some of his performances in the last few months of 2017/18 were phenomenal – he was always in the game. It’s stunning to me that he cost us nothing to sign, and that he keeps getting overlooked by Scotland (fine by me, don’t want him getting injured playing for someone else!). I hope he starts another 40+ games for us this season as he’s a joy to watch, and a real fan favourite.

Paul Coutts suffered that horrible injury in the first half of last season. How have the likes of John Lundstram and January addition Lee Evans fared in the Scot’s absence?

I like both these players but comparisons to Coutts aren’t totally fair – and I think that was used by some as a bit of a stick to beat them last season. Not only was Coutts playing at an unbelievably high level before that season-ending injury (reminder, we were top of the league at the time having recently knocked off Wolves and scored 4 in a half against Hull), but both Evans and Lundstram were used in slightly different ways.

Evans looks a neat-and-tidy kind of midfielder, good at retaining possession but plays in a largely risk-free role. Lundstram possibly has more potential and we started to see that as the season developed – his range of passing is superb, and he’s more box-to-box (though his shooting needs some work). Both are pretty young (24), so there’s scope for continued improvement, but I expect one or both to be backup/rotation this season when Coutts is back.

You had a fascinating debate on your podcast last season about the contrast in style between your wing-backs, George Baldock and Enda Stevens. Although Baldock always seems more eye-catching because of his powerful runs, does he have something to learn from Stevens in terms of accuracy and productivity?

In a word, yes. Stevens has his weaknesses defensively but he was statistically one of the better attacking wingbacks in the league last season in terms of his chance creation. In theory, Baldock’s production should be way higher than it was (1 goal and 1 assist from 34 games, and his chance creation was also low): he’s a proper athlete and in our system spends most of his time deep into the opponent’s half. He’s a tidy-enough footballer and I really hope he can step up his creativity this season. We have Kieron Freeman back from injury now after he scored 10 goals in League One the previous year, and it may well be a shootout between him and Baldock on the right.

There can’t be many centre-backs that drifted into the final third quite as often as Jack O’Connell did last season. How important was the left-sided combination play between him and Stevens?

It definitely helped and is possibly one of the reasons Stevens’ chance creation numbers were so good. O’Connell is a superb defender – I’m very confident he’ll be in the Premier League before too long, hopefully with us! – but he also offers a fair bit going forward.

Collectively we weren’t stuffed with pace or skill last season, so a lot of our attacking play was about retaining possession and trying to work overloads where we could get 2 on 1, 3 on 2 etc. O’Connell overlapping Stevens was a big part of that and he helped himself to 4 assists of his own, most of which were crosses from the byline.

Chris Basham is a player I personally always admire for his adaptability and bravery. Is it important to have characters that the fans identify with?

I’ll hark back to the first question here – I don’t think it’s vital to have players that fans can identify with, but when you’ve been in the mire, it really really helps. When we were last relegated from the Championship it was so hard to feel any connection with the players – most of whom were either on loan or had recently arrived. It was very easy to think “these players don’t give a damn about us, they’ll be straight back to their Premier League parent clubs whatever happens”. Sadly that feeling continued for a few more years.

Basham joined us in 2014 and has arguably improved with every single season. It’s been great to see: here’s a player who seems to be making the absolute most out of his footballing ability, every single week. I thought he might have difficulty in the Championship – particularly playing in central defence – but in fact he’s been integral to our ability to build from the back. And yes, as with having a Blade as both your captain (Sharp) and manager (Wilder), it is extra sweet when there’s that connection between players and fans.

Your defensive record improved by 15% when Richard Stearman started last season. Do you see him as an important part of that back-line?

Less so now that John Egan has signed, as I expect he will replace Stearman in the middle of our back three. It’s a bit harsh as I thought Stearman was generally very good for us last season, and we’d actually have been in a real mess without him (we were a bit light at the back, and fortunately didn’t suffer many injuries there). But one major weakness was our ability to win aerial duels in the middle, with our defenders ranking quite low in the league for that category and us getting stung by some pretty soft goals towards the end of the season. By all accounts Egan should go a long way to solving that.

Jamal Blackman has gone back to Chelsea but Dean Henderson, one of the best goalkeepers in League One last year, joins on loan from Manchester United. Happy with that addition?

From what little I saw of Henderson at Shrewsbury he looks a very good young keeper, and he looks certain to be our starter this season. I thought we might try and re-sign Blackman but evidently not. I really liked him, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a keeper dominate from crosses like he does, and his shot-stopping was decent as well. He’ll definitely get a good ovation at the Lane this season, even playing for Leeds…

Blades aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

The EFL can be a nightmare to predict, although as it happens the “big” teams all generally took care of business last season as the bookies had forecast. Outside of the obvious prediction that the relegated teams will likely do well (none of them look likely to do a Sunderland), Forest have tooled up and must fancy themselves for promotion with that outlay. Derby look a bit of a wildcard – some intriguing loan signings and it remains to be seen what Frank Lampard is like as a manager (hopefully good; I like Lampard). Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa should be anything but dull. And then there’s Brentford who were a football analyst’s dream last season for their attacking numbers, but couldn’t seem to finish their chances. Bookmakers have Stoke and West Brom as favourites and it’s hard to argue with that.

Where will you finish?

Boring answer: probably similar to last season, where we’re in and around the playoffs for a good chunk of the season (I imagine you can copy and paste that for most clubs’ expectations).

What encourages me is that we were very close to being an upper-echelon Championship team last season, and the vast majority of that team is still here. There were a lot of “if only” moments, particularly in games where we dominated and threw away points. In March/April alone we were leading late on in five straight matches and ended up with a measly five points when it could easily have been double or triple that – and that was the difference between 10th and, say, 5th.

The only teams to truly outclass us were Wolves and Fulham (and even then we beat Wolves at home, and pushed Fulham hard in a ridiculous 5-4 defeat) – we looked comfortably on a level if not better than all the other playoff teams during our matches with them, and made a mockery of most pre-season predictions (particularly those coming from our neighbours).

On the flip side – we don’t know if Coutts will return fully from his injury. We don’t know if Clarke can carry on banging in the goals like he did last season. We’re lacking a truly creative player beyond Duffy (David Brooks, our brightest youth prospect for years – possibly decades – just signed for Bournemouth).

There’s an ongoing boardroom situation which, if not catastrophic, is a messy and unwanted distraction from a club that otherwise feels as though it’s going places for the first time in a long time – although that being said, we’ve just broke our transfer record for John Egan, so it’s clearly not affecting the day-to-day running.

There was a strong sense of an opportunity missed last season. In theory we have the players and the management to build on that and take another step forward – but I guess you never know, and I prefer to remain slightly conservative in my predictions/expectations until the transfer window is over and we’ve seen how the team shapes up.

Thanks to Ben for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Sheffield United can be found on We Love Betting from July 30th.