Chris Wilder does not do much for show, but there was significance to his team selection at Crystal Palace.
John Lundstram and Lys Mousset, two stars of Sheffield United’s awesome autumn, were watching from the bench at kick-off. In Lundstram’s place was a £22m, 21-year-old midfielder who made six Champions League starts this season. Sheffield United do not sign players like Sander Berge, or at least they did not until last week.
In Mousset’s was Billy Sharp, the captain who epitomises the qualities which dragged them from League One into the top flight.
Manager Wilder is determined to drive on, not freewheel to the finish.
“You try to sign players to make you better in the second half of the season, to raise standards and to add to a group that’s done fantastically well,” he explained.
Although Berge missed out on an early debut goal when he just failed to get on the end of Oli McBurnie’s fourth-minute knockdown, £22m did not bring much stardust to a contest which could have done with some. But as Sharp can tell the Norwegian, playing for Wilder is not just about ability, it is about heart and work-rate, too, and Berge was not found wanting.
From the right of a midfield three, he played an important part in their energetic pressing, won tackles and passed the ball well, and if he faded from view a little after the first quarter, it was partly because he sacrificed himself to help George Baldock deal with the one player who brought real quality to proceedings in Wilfred Zaha.
“When he was subbed the look on his face was, ‘Wow, I’ll have to get up to speed in this division’, which is great, but he contributed,” noted Wilder.
“The pace, the intensity, there’s never a break in the game and it goes faster,” said Berge.
For the travelling fans, it was love at first sight. It only took a couple of minutes before they were singing their new Berge song, and they lapped it up when he overcame his initial sheepishness to go over and salute them at full-time, leaving his shirt as a memento.
Their work ethic allowed the Blades to hang in a game Palace were starting to dominate, so that when Vicente Guaita dropped Oliver Norwood’s 58th-minute corner over his goalline it put them in front.
The unexpected goal – no-one in the Persil-white away kits looked remotely like scoring until then – lifted the visitors and deflated Palace.
Victory took the Blades to 36 points, a total only one team has been relegated with in the last seven seasons. Whisper it quietly, but they are only five behind the Champions League places.
Wilder will not entertain talk of Continental qualification, even if Berge’s new ditty promises “we’ll be in Europe next season”. Do not mistake the manager’s reluctance to set targets – at least in public – for sitting back and enjoying this while it lasts.
If Jack Rodwell and Jack Robinson were, with all due respect, “normal” Wilder signings – British, unflashy, cheap and with points to prove – Berge, Richairo Zivkovic and Panagiotis Retsos were not. If any can fulfil their potential they are “next level” acquisitions of the type Premier League clubs often find most difficult (cf Bradford City 2000-01).
Another thing Wilder’s mid-season shopping was designed to do was bulk out his squad. Saturday hinted why that might be necessary.
By the time Chris Basham’s head was being bandaged up after a clash of heads with Christian Benteke (his knee was gashed too), fellow league ever-present Baldock was walking a tightrope trying to keep Zaha in check.
There is no shame in struggling to subdue arguably the Premier League’s best winger, but Baldock needed the help of a generous referee.
He was fortunate Andy Madley thought he was just being friendly when he hugged Zaha in both arms after 13 minutes, but could not survive tugging him back in the 19th. Another yellow card probably should have followed when he was late on Zaha by the touchline, and for the remaining 10 minutes of the half, Palace tried to play everything through their talisman.
With Benteke, who earlier hit the side-netting, failing to get on the end of a succession of crosses flashed over from the left, Palace’s growing first-half dominance amounted to little for Dean Henderson to do.
Berge and Basham did their best to help Baldock, and Zaha was quieter in the second half.
“He had to deal with that and find a way out,” said Wilder of Baldock. “There was no way he was coming off.”
The hard work paid off in a most unexpected way, thanks to Guaita. Sheffield United suddenly found a goal threat, but on a windy day, a game between two low-scoring sides always looked a candidate for a 1-0.
“Even when we’re not at our best, we give ourselves the possibility of getting a result,” declared Wilder.
Palace were fortunate to keep 11 men on the pitch, too, Joel Ward showing his studs as he went in over the ball on Enda Stevens. There did not seem to be any malice but Madley reached for his red card.
For the first time in a Sheffield United match, the referee jogged off to the opposite side of the field to look at the tv monitor and decide that, actually, a yellow would do.
Victory nudged Sheffield United three places up the table. They are moving forward without leaving behind what go them here.