Brentford v Sheffield United: Smart and adaptable Bees inspire Chris Wilder to keep innovating

In some respects, Brentford and Sheffield United go about their work in very different ways, but still there is plenty for the Blades to learn from Saturday's Premier League hosts.

Surprisingly when you consider how money-dominated it is, England's top division has plenty of "small" clubs.

Bournemouth and Luton Town's average gates are below Bradford City’s. Brentford's is only 77 more. Bournemouth, Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion played in the fourth tier this millennium, Burnley and Fulham in the 1990s. Luton won the 2014 Conference.

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So whilst the step up to the Premier League has been daunting for Sheffield United – indeed beyond them this season – it can be done.

Brentford "moneyballed" success via data-driven recruitment and ditching the academy. Manager Chris Wilder wants Sheffield United rebuilt on home-grown talent yet still has plenty to learn from them.

He and Thomas Frank have been friendly rivals since 2017-18, when the Dane was Dean Smith's assistant and the clubs level on points in the Championship's top half.

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What has most caught Wilder's eye is how Frank adapted after leading them into the Premier League.

ADAPTABLE: Brentford manager Thomas Frank (right)ADAPTABLE: Brentford manager Thomas Frank (right)
ADAPTABLE: Brentford manager Thomas Frank (right)

"They've been really smart in terms of their recruitment," he says. "They do an incredible amount of research and algorithms and have a lot of people employed as well.

"(But) the intriguing part for me was from an incredible possession-based team in the Championship, (playing) 4-3-3 and BMW (Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Ollie Watkins) at the top of the pitch, a technical side, to changing the way they played. For me that's smart.

"A lot of teams come up and say they're going to impose their way. They're still playing in the right areas for them, maybe a bit more direct – and that's not a criticism, it's playing to their strengths of the top two, (Ivan) Toney and Mbuemo – three really athletic midfield players and being very effective in both boxes."

But Frank will not divulge secrets.

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"I wouldn't give anything away to anybody or expect anybody to do the same, right from the top to the bottom," says Wilder.

"Everybody's learning and looking at different ways of playing, how everybody else is playing. (We're) magpies really, all trying to steal ideas whether it's set plays, a way of playing, different outlooks..."

Brentford pioneered specialist coaches – the now-commonplace set-piece experts, even a throw-in coach and sleep expert.

"It's something we talked about at boardroom level from a set-plays point of view and an analyst point of view, looking at best practice and going through data right around the world," reveals Wilder.

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"We're not there at the moment but we will have delivery of that. You'll see changes in the next two or three months for the small gains that can make big differences."

Because lest it not be forgotten, Wilder was one of English football's great innovators with his overlapping centre-backs in his first Blades. team The game, though, moves on.

"We have to change our approach, definitely," he says. "(But) you can't take away what you are.

"From a technical point of view, the game is always moving forward. Now teams are building with three (defenders), two sitting midfielders and five at the top of the pitch, inverted full-backs… There was a thing that happened a few years ago that we were part of.

"Everybody's learning and trying to nick and invent as well."

Brentford seem sure to be at the front of it but Wilder's Blades have no plans to sit back and watch.

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