Bring it on - Sheffield United prepared for demands of European football
The Blades have never played in continental competition, but were well placed to do so when football was put on hold because of the coronavirus, seventh in the Premier League, with a game in hand which could take them above Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United.
The picture is complicated by a possible Manchester City appeal against their European ban but assuming they are unable to compete in 2020-21, the top seven will qualify for the Europa League, and the rest of the top five for the Champions League. If they have not already qualified, the FA Cup winners will also play in the Europa League, and the Blades have a home quarter-final against Arsenal.
The European competitions are drawn-out affairs which can test the squads of clubs not designed for them, but they hold no fear for manager Wilder, who takes inspiration from the way Wolves have adapted in their second Premier League season. Seventh in 2018-19, they were above the Blades on goal difference when the league was halted and took a 1-1 draw from the away leg of their Europa League last-16 tie at Olympiacos.
“First and foremost for the morale of the country (it’s important to) get football back out there, whether it’s behind closed doors or hopefully in the near future we’re playing in front of crowds,” said Wilder, whose team are playing Premier League football for the first time since 2006-07. “It (the coronavirus pandemic) is an unprecedented situation and scenario.
“We’ll deal with whatever’s in front of us. We’re not scared about handling the fixture list if we do manage to gain one of those European spots. I look at Wolverhampton Wanderers and I’m a massive admirer of Nuno (Espirito Santo, their manager) and that football club and his group of players. They adjust from a physical point of view in terms of the recovery and usually play the same team, whether it’s Carabao Cup, FA Cup, Premier League or Europa League.
“They’re possibly ahead of us in terms of how much they’ve invested into that football club over the last two or three years but that’s a brilliant example that a promoted side can handle the Premier League and their second season has been just as good if not better than their first one.”
Wolves are one of the teams still to travel to Bramall Lane this season, along with Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Everton, all of whom have European aspirations. They have nine matches to play, to the Blades’ 10.
Whether those games will be played at Bramall Lane or a neutral venue is one of the issues that will be discussed when the Premier League clubs meet via video conference on Friday to try to further develop ideas for how football can be resumed. The timescale is dependent on Government advice about when it is safe to resume training, then playing.
Proposals are expected to include playing matches behind closed doors and the possibility of centralising games to ease the logistics. A 35-day window to complete the games and a June 6 return have been mooted, but no concrete decisions have been made yet.
Regardless of where they finish the season, United’s football in it has won them many admirers, and Wilder thinks a subtle tactical change from 3-4-1-2 to 3-5-2 has been important.
“We just try and be an effective team,” he said. “When we played Liverpool at their place they were on the night an unbelievably effective team.
“There are two or three different ways to play and win a game of football. You go long, you go around or you go through.
“We’ve tried to win games of football, even though our goals for record is not brilliant. We’d like to have a little bit more possession in games but it gives you an opportunity to dictate the game more but we’ve been effective, or tried to be as much as possible, against the quality opposition we’re undoubtedly up against.”
The change is formation has brought a dimension to midfielder John Fleck’s game rarely seen since his teens at Rangers.
“He’s really raised his game through the divisions,” commented Wilder. “He’s had an outstanding season.
“His position’s changed a little bit, he played in a (midfield) two last year, he’s playing in a three now so he’s licenced to get forward a little bit more and arrive late and get in the box. As he started his career as a centre-forward that’s a natural talent he’s got.
“We felt we needed to put an extra man in midfield because the counter attack in the Premier League is huge.
“Another man in there was vital for us and thankfully that has helped us. It has given us a bit of stability in the middle of the park and helped us get positive results.”