When two parties fight, a third stands to gain. It’s an adage that assumes particular importance in relation to this season’s rendition of the Championship promotion dogfight. Given the prize at the end of the grind, it’s no wonder that there’s no room for error when your team is at the top of the table. League leaders for the first three-quarters of the season could well find themselves sliding down the table, their efforts wasted away after a sudden collapse. It is why a slow grind, right behind the leaders but never too far behind, may be the best method.
This season’s promotion favourites are led by the enthralling Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa and the Germanic Norwich City, led by ex-Dortmund II coach Daniel Farke. And yet, while both teams play to a philosophy bred outside of the English waters, there is a quintessential English side right behind the peloton.
Sheffield United are the unassuming underdogs, quietly creeping up behind the top two even as the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Middlesborough threaten to overtake them. Their efficiency is reminiscent of the city’s heritage as the steel-makers of the country. Whether their over-performance can last until the end of the gruelling season is a question Blades fans may loath to ask – after all, the journey is important but it should not detract from what is an excellent story.
This has only been their second season in the Championship following promotion in 2016/17 from League One. Having emphatically romped home to the title, racking up 30 wins, 92 goals and 100 points, most fans would’ve hoped for some stability in the Championship. They’ve gotten that and more.
If there is a parallel to their story, it may be Bournemouth, a club whose rise through the divisions has been helped by foreign money but who retain their identity as a outfit that promotes British talent. Both teams retain the mark of their English managers, and their progression has been eerily similar. Both finished 11th in League One the season before promotion, and both finished 10th in their first season in the Championship.
Bournemouth followed that up with the title and promotion in their next campaign – an act tough to follow, but following a similar thread. Back then, they triumphed by a single point over Watford, with Norwich four behind and Middlesborough five further back. While these may be frivolous coincidences, it details the model United should look to emulate.
At the heart of this renaissance lies a man who understands the club like few others. Sheffield-born Chris Wilder grew up as a Blades fan, eventually playing for them for a number of years. He eventually moved into management, earning his stripes in the lower leagues. It was this grounding that has proved the basis of his philosophy: keeping it simple, building a strong team spirit and ensuring there is no shortage of passion.
His first jobs were at Alfreton Town and subsequently Halifax Town and Oxford United, spending six years each at the latter two. It was his work at Northampton Town, however, that drew attention. He took them out of the relegation zone in League Two in 2014/15, then followed that up with promotion in 2015/16, using a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 formation. Sheffield United took notice and duly snapped him up.
Nigel Adkins had flattered to deceive in his only season prior to Wilder, having finished 11th in League One, eight points off the playoffs. He paid the price with his job, and it seemed as though the club were destined to remain in League One for some time yet.
Between four permanent managers – Danny Wilson, David Weir, Nigel Clough and Adkins – and two caretaker stints by Chris Morgan, there were three playoff appearances and a consistent failure to heave themselves out of the third tier. But Wilder helped to inculcate a winning mentality by fostering a solid team spirit, whether it meant the team going out for a beer or simply spending time together.
Building chemistry was all the more vital given the turnover of players. By embracing the basics, Wilder was able to finally guide the club towards progress. This was achieved despite a failure to win in any of their first four league games, gaining a sole point, but once Wilder moved away from the quintessentially English 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2, the results bore reward.
Wilder is United through and through. Born in Stocksbridge, one of many small towns that comprises Sheffield, he grew up watching the Blades play, he’s played for them before, and he even has a tattoo of the crest. He’s not here because of the club connection, though, but due to the hard work and effort put in during his time in the lower tiers. United might have been his dream job, but it was simply the culmination of several years of learning the managerial ropes.
In a Guardian article in November 2017, Wilder talks about keeping things simple. Rather than complicating issues, he looks to simplify the game. Or at least that’s his way of motivating his players, creating a positive environment. The rewards of an environment that allows the players to express themselves in their best way possible has always been reaped. For a modern-day example, compare and contrast José Mourinho’s Manchester United to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s.
It’s the same squad, but one maintained a sour relationship with his star player, while the other has kept a positive mindset in motivating his men. Football, of course, is more than just flowery, confidence-boosting talk, but it can help in making the players believe. Wilder is no Pep Guardiola, but he can certainly manage. And his usage of an unorthodox back-three system is proof that he knows what he wants.
A back-three system has come in and out of vogue in recent years. Its recent resurgence can be tracked back to Antonio Conte’s Juventus, after which he brought it to Chelsea to great effect, winning the Premier League title in his debut season. Louis van Gaal was another to utilise it with the Netherlands and then Manchester United, to varying degrees of success.
Wilder’s iteration is different, however, and his side lines up in a 3-4-1-2, varying between a 3-5-2 and a 5-3-2. Rather than the positions, however, it is the roles of the defenders that prove relevant. He has his centre-backs bomb forward from the right and left of the back three; they’re given licence to join the attack, bring the ball out of defence and support the wing-backs. It’s unusual, but it keeps them in control.
Ball-playing centre-backs have become a prized commodity over the past few years and Wilder conforms to this modern approach. The wing-backs are pushing up high and the centre-backs are comfortable in possession. This is modern football under the guise of an antiquated textbook.
The Championship is awash with fallen giants, including as Leeds and Nottingham Forest, and teams who’ve dropped from the top tier and have failed to make it back. In a cut-throat competition, where margins are thin and the rewards enormous, it helps to be different. Last season, Wilder encountered the perils of a thin squad running hard all through the season. They were second in November but eventually fell apart. This season, he’s rotated his pack wisely.
Wilder may value commitment and effort above other things- an old-school notion – but this is married with a refreshing outlook on the game. A British manager preaching hard work does not have to necessarily translate it into route one football a la Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis.
Wilder’s 3-4-1-2 and his tactics around it are simple to decipher, as he says himself, but when they are on the top of the game, most teams find it difficult to stop the machine. It may be because Championship teams are trained in overcoming, to a large extent, direct, fast football.
Across the division, you generally find the same formations, and familiarity is easy to deal with. Wilder’s side mixes it up, creating overloads that opponents may find overbearing to deal with. They are not infallible – they have lost eight games in the league this season, but even Leeds, with the now-infamous detailed analysis of Bielsa, were unable to overcome them in a 1-0 loss. With a healthy goal difference, it’s working. Sometimes, a unique approach can provide the edge in a tight race. A deep squad, solid team spirit and canny additions are proving to be the difference between last season and this.
The purse strings were loosened last summer and the club spent a record fee on defender John Egan from Brentford. But the rest of the additions have all been on either free transfers or loans. In addition to Egan, Oliver Norwood arrived on loan from Brighton to provide the engine in midfield – a deal that was made permanent in the winter. David McGoldrick, now 31, has provided 12 goals so far after arriving from Ipswich on a free and is acting as the ideal foil for Billy Sharp.
And then there’s Dean Henderson, Manchester United’s young goalkeeper who has impressed hugely in their run this season. This is his fourth loan, each of which has been a step-up in division, and you’d imagine he is deserving of a chance in the Premier League, even if it isn’t at United.
Ben Woodburn came in from Liverpool but failed to impress and was sent back to his parent club; Kieran Dowell arrived from Everton in the winter and has received more opportunities. It goes to show that talent is not everything, especially in a team-oriented system.
United’s most valuable players – at least in terms of minutes – are Henderson, left-back Enda Stevens, Egan and O’Connell. The seven with the most minutes also includes central midfielder John Fleck, Norwood and centre-back Chris Basham. Marc Duffy’s been a catalyst. This is a side built on the foundations of a strong defence.
The main man, however, has been Billy Sharp – then self-proclaimed “fat lad from Sheffield”. He has 22 goals in the league so far this season, has 101 and counting for the club, and 226 in his career, the most in English league football in the 21st century. As captain, he’s led from the front, providing a focal point in attack, but also proving lethal in the 18-yard box.
It’s no wonder he’s one of Bramall Lane’s favourite sons; he’s been around for so long and yet he’s been able to maintain his level of motivation and growth. In that regard, he’s Wilder’s perfect striker. He’s powering United through, and it will be fully deserved if he has the chance to taste Premier League football.
In the 2017/18 season, Sheffield United’s academy graduates racked up over 16,000 Premier League minutes, the fifth most in the league. That they’ve achieved that through just six players – Leicester’s Harry Maguire, Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, Everton’s duo of Phil Jagielka and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Swansea’s Kyle Naughton and Burnley’s Matt Lowton – is an impressive feat.
But such statistics would only be received in sour taste by the Blades’ faithful, who would rather see their academy graduates play for the club in the top tier than don different colours. David Brooks was the latest to move off the conveyor belt, heading to Bournemouth in the sort of deal United may look to emulate should they reach the Promised Land. The Welshman has six goals and four assists in the Premier League so far, seamlessly transitioning to a higher standard.
United’s last season in the Premier League was in 2006/07. Back then, they had an Iranian, an Egyptian and a Chinese in the squad, with all three combining to make four appearances in all competitions. The enigmatic Colin Kazim-Richards was at the start of his journeyman career, Neil Warnock was manager, and they were relegated in their first season back in dramatic scenes. They lost 2-1 to Wigan on the final day, finishing 18th and a single goal behind Wigan on goal difference, tied on points. West Ham, meanwhile, went three clear of the Blades by beating champions Manchester United.
If they make it back to the Premier League this time, the squad will be suitably British, but with a healthy tinge of continental thinking. They may be backed by the Saudi Prince Abdullah, who holds a 50 percent stake, but will they splurge the money? Given their steady progress, you’d think they would continue the process by bringing in those that can fit into the manager’s vision.
The hope is that the next David Brooks would not need an intermediate step and instead accumulate minutes in the top-flight for United. There’s still a promotion race to be had, and even with their victory over Leeds, the home stretch is just around the corner. But you’d be foolish to write them off.
They may be flying under the radar but they won’t be for too long. Whether their efforts end with promotion, playoffs or a narrow disappointment, Sheffield United deserve credit for making it to this stage by keeping things simple. They’re achieving things in their own way, and it’s helping to write a great narrative. Can they fulfil their destiny after years of failure? Who knows, but with Billy Sharp leading the line, anything is possible.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_