Defensive problems mounting for Sheffield United

John Egan of Sheffield United is sent off. Picture Simon Bellis/SportimageJohn Egan of Sheffield United is sent off. Picture Simon Bellis/Sportimage
John Egan of Sheffield United is sent off. Picture Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Into their stride and defying expectations, it was always clear the coronavirus suspension had come at a bad time for Sheffield United. Two matches into the restarted race for Europe, they are yet to get out of the blocks.

Forgiveably but frustratingly, they have not returned as the same side. After being held to a 0-0 draw on the Premier League’s resumption, yesterday they lost by a three-goal margin for the first time this season.

With the stands all but empty, you could actually hear their frustration.

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The Blades and to a lesser extent Wolverhampton Wanderers are the odd ones out in the race for Europe, surrounded by clubs with much bigger squads.

Sheffield United's Billy Sharp has a headed attempt on goal.Sheffield United's Billy Sharp has a headed attempt on goal.
Sheffield United's Billy Sharp has a headed attempt on goal.

Having kept their first XI remarkably fit before lockdown, Lady Luck is turning against them. They could be without two of the back three who have been such a solid foundation of their success when they take on Manchester United on Wednesday in a game which always looked important to their European ambitions.

After injury prevented centre-back Jack O’Connell returning to action, the last thing they needed was John Egan being sent off for a second yellow card, ruling him out of the trip to Old Trafford.

Panagiotis Retsos’s apparently lukewarm attitude to extending his loan suddenly becomes a major issue.

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Within 264 seconds of Egan’s dismissal a Newcastle United side who had threatened much but delivered little were in front. Things unravelled from there.

Former Sunderland defender Egan had been involved in some unnecessary first-half handbags with Joelinton, and he was the one who would regret his booking when pulling back the No 9 shortly after the restart.

It had been a disappointing first 45 minutes from the Blades, and heavy touches by Chris Basham and Oliver Norwood showed the half-time break had not helped either.

The pace of Joelinton and particularly Allan Saint-Maximin put the jitters up Sheffield United all afternoon, and when the former threatened to run behind them in the 52nd minute, Egan instinctively pulled him back. Seeing the Blades’ weakness, Steve Bruce’s side pounced.

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The frustration of Basham, born in nearby Hebburn and a Newcastle youth product, was audible when he was caught coming out for the ball and the home forwards sprinted in behind him. Still, Ritchie’s cross was an easy one for Enda Stevens to clear, but he flashed at fresh air and winger Saint-Maximin behind him was gifted the tap-in his performance deserved.

Just four minutes later Billy Sharp was shrieking himself for the second time in the game after a miss which could have changed his side’s mindset.

George Baldock got to the byline and crossed for the captain, who got a glance on the header when he needed something firmer.

It went wide, and the Blades were never in the game again.

The next chance typified the first half rather than the second, Saint-Maximin speeding past Jack Robinson and pulling the ball back, only for Miguel Almiron to steer straight at Henderson.

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The Magpies were about to get uncharacteristically ruthless, though.

With defenders backing off, Matt Ritchie fired in a second and when the Blades were cut open again, Almiron squared for a 
tap-in even Joelinton could not miss.

Richairo Zivkovic came off the bench for his Blades debut, signalling his commitment to the fight, but entering the fray at 2-0, this particular skirmish was already over.

Although Sheffield United’s rustiness had been evident from the start, Newcastle did not look as though they had three goals in them during the first period.

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Even though this was the Magpies’ first game since mid-March, the Blades’ first since Wednesday, the hosts quickly grew into being the stronger team, with Saint-Maximin’s pace and Almiron’s passing to the fore, but in a city which worships its No 9s, finishing is the Achilles heel.

Almiron measured a gorgeous ball to Joelinton in the 18th minute, but he stumbled and scuffed his shot at Dean Henderson.

Ritchie’s shot five minutes earlier had been the only difficult save either goalkeeper was asked to make in a nevertheless decent first half, and Henderson was more than up to it.

Sheffield United’s defensive shape and commitment at least kept the hosts at bay to a degree, Basham covering across to stop an early Almiron cross picking out Joelinton, and Baldock over to cut the pass out when Saint-Maximin went past Stevens with ease. Centre-backs Robinson and Egan threw themselves in front of long-range shots to protect Henderson, but the pressure was building.

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All the Blades could offer in return was Oli McBurnie’s weak early header at Martin Dubravka, and a Sharp volley from a Baldock cross.

Sharp was annoyed at himself for not keeping it down but was being harsh on himself, as he did well to hit it so sweetly when the centre arrived behind him.

Those cries of anguish were to sum up his team’s afternoon.

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