Clough waiting for opportunity to select his optimum XI

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Forty-One games into a marathon season and Nigel Clough has a frank confession – he still does not know his best XI.

The Sheffield United manager has overseen a run to the League Cup semi-finals and the fourth round of the FA Cup, with Premier League sides West Ham, Southampton and QPR vanquished along the way.

Sheffield United's 'Ben Davies.

Sheffield United's 'Ben Davies.

He has even managed to keep his team in the top six for much of the campaign, save for the last month when the demands of juggling cup and league football have caught up with his squad.

But amid it all he has not yet been able to decide on a settled team – and after bringing five new players in during the January transfer window, he is unlikely to decide on it anytime soon.

“I still don’t know my best XI because we haven’t had everyone available yet,” said Clough, who has been deprived of people like summer signing James Wallace for much of the season through injury.

“When we’ve got everyone available you can try different things, that’s what pre-season is for. When you have four or five coming in, in January, then they’ve got to settle in a lot quicker.”

Clough has been accused by some sections of supporters of tinkering too much, but as the manager points out, when a much-changed United were beating promotion-challengers Swindon 10 days ago, few people were complaining.

The influx of players in January is only going to exacerbate the problem.

John Brayford is a case in point – a £1m signing last month following his exploits while on loan at Bramall Lane last season, the former Cardiff man has yet to hit the heights again.

“I think the weight of expectation is affecting him a little bit,” admitted Clough.

“He’s just got to relax a little bit and play like he did for us 12 months ago.”

Players are returning from injury all the time to strengthen Clough’s options and give him the chance to name a favoured XI.

Ben Davies spent 13 weeks on the sidelines as United forged ahead on three fronts.

“The cups are great and everyone gets carried away with them, but the league is what we set out to do well in,” said the 33-year-old former Derby midfielder.

“We need to get back up into the play-offs before anything else.”

For Clough, while cementing a place in the top six is the minimum goal, the pursuit of the top two is not over despite an 18-point gap.

“It’s still not completely gone, but with Swindon winning at the weekend it makes it very difficult, but we’ve not given up on it yet,” he said. “It’s a big gap but our priority has always been to keep up with the top two and if not then stay in the top six.”