After last season’s unprecedented success, this season has seen a massive change of fortune for Sheffield United.
The Blades’ first season back in the top flight since 2007 went better than anyone could have dreamt.
Finishing ninth looks excellent for a newly-promoted side on the face of things but when one considers that they were genuine contenders for Champions League qualification pre-lockdown, their season looks even more impressive.
Teams were not able to break down a side that conceded the fourth-fewest goals in the league, with 39.
The back three of Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell defended heroically. On the flanks, George Baldock and Enda Stevens were a lot more defensive-minded than the typical modern wingback.
They had fantastic protection from the workmanlike midfield three of John Lunsdstram, Oliver Norwood and John Fleck.
When teams did manage to unlock the defence, they still had to get past the superb Dean Henderson in goal.
Going forward, the overlapping runs of Basham and O’Connell bamboozled opponents, as they wondered exactly who they were meant to be marking.
The system helped the Yorkshire side to a host of big wins as they won the hearts of fans throughout the country.
Ex-United player and local lad Chris Wilder was responsible for it all with his ground-breaking system and simple likeability.
The change in form
However, this season has seen a dramatic fall from grace.
Wilder’s men currently sit rock bottom of the Premier League, with just one point won in 12 games. That point came at home to newly-promoted Fulham, who sit in 17th place themselves.
United have conceded 21 goals, the joint-16th most in the league. This is a rate of 1.75 goals conceded per game. Last season, it was, on average one goal conceded per game.
They have scored just five, which is the joint-fewest. Again, this is a rate of 0.41 per game, compared to last season’s one goal per game.
As shown, there has been a massive drop-off in both defence and attack.
So what is going wrong?
The simple thing to do is to assume that teams have simply figured out the Blades’ system. Teams are finding it easier to get through the midfield and defence. They are also better equipped to deal with the threat of the overlapping centre-backs.
Sheffield United have also had to deal with two major losses this season.
O’Connell is expected to miss the majority of the season after suffering a horrific knee injury in September.
Meanwhile, Henderson’s loan from Manchester United has expired, so he is back at his parent club. His replacement Aaron Ramsdale simply is not anywhere near as good as him.
The main problem has been upfront, where the selection of strikers has missed a whole host of chances. In fact, United have scored just once from open play, despite having a staggering xG of 8.32.
Time to change the Sheffield United way?
The job Chris Wilder has done has been nothing short of remarkable. Taking his local team from League One to within a hair’s breadth of European football was an unbelievable achievement.
Even if United look doomed to relegation, they should stick with him. He is as good a manager as they could hope to have.
His revolutionary tactics and man-management ability have been the main reason for their success. Especially considering the fact that the majority of the squad has spent most of their careers in the Championship.
Wilder seems insistent on sticking to their 3-5-2, despite the drop in form. However, the longer it goes without working, the more obvious it becomes that he needs to try something different.
O’Connell’s loss means that the Blades are missing their best overlapping centre-back. So maybe they should step away from the system altogether.
Wilder could try a 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. These could offer Ramsdale more protection in goals while still leaving room to create more chances.
Here is how they can do it.
4-4-2 – supply Brewster with more chances
As mentioned, the absence of Jack O’Connell means that United are without two of their almost ever-present back three.
Wingback Stevens has deputized there at times. Ethan Ampadu, Kean Bryan and Phil Jagielka have also got minutes in the role. Unfortunately, none have stood out.
So perhaps the red side of Sheffield should just abandon it and leave Egan and Basham as orthodox centre-halves. Baldock and Stevens could then play as defence-minded fullbacks in a counter-attacking 4-4-2.
It is a very basic, and frankly, quite boring system. But we have seen countless sides keep their place in the league by playing it down the years.
Sander Berge should be a guaranteed starter. It remains to be seen who his best partner would be in midfield, however. Ethan Ampadu is a great prospect and is probably the best option.
John Fleck and Oliver Norwood’s contributions to Sheffield United should not be forgotten, but neither are having good seasons. Understandably, Wilder may want a more experienced head, so perhaps one of them should remain regulars.
Either way, the midfield pair’s main job should be to defend then spring counter-attacks.
Oliver Burke is the only natural winger at the club. He has often flattered to deceive throughout his career, but he has the pace necessary to carry the ball on the counter. The club should look for another quick, hard-working winger in the January transfer window.
He is yet to score for his new team but has suffered from the lack of players providing him with quality service. Other strikers have wasted the type of chances that Brewster thrives on. Oli McBurnie in particular (one goal with an xG of 2.4) has wasted quite a few good opportunities.
The 20-year-old is reasonably quick so should suit a counter-attacking style. He will also benefit from the space afforded by the system. He has the potential to be a very smart signing, but he needs to be used correctly.
Alongside him, McBurnie could act as the big man in the traditional ‘big man-little man’ strike partnership. David McGoldrick could use his intelligence to make space, while Lys Mousset is a half-decent quicker option too.
4-2-3-1 – a No 10 can create opportunity
If Wilder chooses a slightly more attacking way to go, then 4-2-3-1 could be an interesting option. The system is actually very similar to a 4-4-2.
Sheffield United could use the same back four as is mentioned above. The midfield double pivot of Berge plus one other should also stay the same.
Again, Burke would take up one wing, with a potential new signing on the other. Brewster would be the number 9 up top.
Then, United need to find a No 10. Fleck could potentially play there. He is averaging the joint-most key passes in the squad with 1.1 per game.
The man who joins him at the top of that table is John Lundstram. The Scouser is not renewing his contract at Bramall Lane so should be sold to generate funds.
McGoldrick is an option. He possibly has the best first touch in the squad, but he is more useful playing with his back to goal.
So if they were to play this system, Sheffield United would probably need to sign a No 10, as well as a winger.
4-3-3 – Play the new fullback duo for more creativity
Possibly the best way to go for Sheffield United is a 4-3-3, or 4-5-1.
None of their midfielders are particularly attack-minded, so maybe the best way to create chances is by filtering the play out wide.
With Berge and Ampadu, plus one other, United would have a hard-working, defensively solid midfield trio. They could sit deep and offer protection to the back four, before springing attacks with their long passes.
Key to this system would be the fullbacks. So, rather than the defensively solid Baldock and Stevens, Wilder could use two of his summer recruits – Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe.
The young duo were one of the strongest fullback pairs in the Championship with Derby before United snapped them up in a double deal in September.
Right-back Bogle in particular looks a fantastic prospect at just 20-years-old. But he is yet to play a Premier League game due to Wilder wanting to use the experience of Baldock.
With five assists in the Championship last season and nine the season before, it is clear that Bogle has loads of attacking ability. It makes very little to sense to not play such a creative force considering his strengths are what the team is currently missing most.
Lowe is three years older, which is presumably why Wilder has decided to had him six league starts this season.
He is much less of a creative force than Bogle but is a stronger defender. He has made an average 3.6 tackles per game throughout his career. Lowe is also quicker than Stevens so would suit a counter-attacking style better.
This system would work similar to Liverpool’s. The midfield trio would provide cover for the fullbacks bombing forward.
Burke and perhaps Lys Mousset could play either side of Brewster. If not, then a new signing should be brought in.
Brewster would thrive off the high-quality crosses out in by Bogle, while Lowe would be useful in winning the ball and dribbling it upfield quickly.
Berge could even use his height as an advantage and make bursts into the box to get on the end of Bogle’s crosses.
Transfer market fixes
Sheffield United need at least one new creator, possibly two if they play a 4-2-3-1. This is a difficult task for a few reasons.
Firstly, there is not much money in the bank to spend. Any sellable assets they have would not bring in large sums.
Secondly, would a player good enough to save the Blades want to join a team that looks so likely to go down?
The best options are to try sign players from the second tier or a minor European league.
Perhaps there are also certain top-tier players not playing at their clubs that would fancy more game time. A loan move would be a good option to save money.
As far as second-tier talent goes, Emi Buendia, Michael Olise and David Brooks could aim much higher. All three could well have a better chance of playing Premier League football next season by staying with their current teams. Harvey Elliott and Harry Wilson are both playing well but are already on loan from Liverpool.
Millwall’s Jed Wallace is a decent creator and may be worth a gamble. Stoke’s Tyrese Campbell also looks a prospect out wide.
Dan James, Jack Clarke and, in particular, Emile Smith-Rowe are all decent options that could be got on loan.
Others like Yannick Bolasie, Jesse Lingard, Max Meyer, Robert Snodgrass, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Josh Onomah should also be available for a relatively low fee. None of them, in reality, are sensible signings for the future, but they could be enough to tide them over until the end of the season.
Others putting up good creative numbers in Europe this season include ex-Chelsea wonderboy Gael Kakuta, now of Lens. Romain Faivre, Filip Djuricic, Ryan Gauld, Sergio Pena and Raphael Holzhauser are others putting up excellent key pass numbers around Europe. None of them are particularly young, but all could be feasibly bought for relatively low fees in January.
Further afield are the likes of Argentine duo Thiago Almada (Velez Sarsfield) and Augustin Urzi (Banfield), Sparta Prague’s Adam Hlozek and Dynamo Kyiv’s Viktor Tsygankov.
It is of course very possible that none of these systems will improve Sheffield United.
But what is clear is that they need to try something. And fast.