In the first match since Chris Wilder’s unsettling departure they produced arguably their worst performance and certainly their biggest defeat of a spell in the Premier League which is now working its notice.
The Blades were poor all afternoon against an excellent Leicester City side chasing Champions League qualification. Wilder’s temporary stand-in Paul Heckingbottom called them “ruthless”, epitomised by a Kelechi Iheanacho hat-trick. Boyhood Wednesdayite Jamie Vardy was on top form as a creator rather than a finisher – not a phrase you often associate with one of the Premier League’s leading predators.
For an hour, the Blades clung on determinedly but as soon as Leicester scored a second, they let go. It finished 5-0, but could have been more.
Interim manager Heckingbottom blamed the “emotional fatigue” of a brutal end to the week when the loss of one of the best managers the club has had in modern times was painfully drawn-out.
It was frustrating to watch players, most of whom were top half of the Premier League performers last season, making basic mistakes but doubly annoying to see them repeated.
Leicester scored the same goal twice, Youri Tielemans playing Vardy in behind the fit-again Chris Basham to find Iheanacho in too much space at the far post.
Twice in succession after the half-hour Kean Bryan did well to win the ball, then dwelt on it and was tackled.
Both times he stopped it becoming costly but it was symptomatic of the sloppiness his team showed all day.
Oliver Norwood threw himself in the way of an Ayoze Perez shot from a training-ground corner but a minute later Leicester were allowed to play the same corner, the Blades fortunate Perez missed the target.
By that stage they were looking sorry for themselves. It is something they will have to shake out of quickly because Sunday sees them one match from Wembley in the FA Cup. Beating an in-form Chelsea on their own ground seems improbable enough if they are on their game but in the mindset they showed towards the end of this hammering, their last meaningful game this season will be messy.
There was a sloppiness right from the kick-off, Norwood letting John Lundstram’s pass from it squirm under his boot.
Inside the first 10 minutes Ethan Ampadu hit an attempted square pass comfortably out, Basham gave the ball away looking to release Oliver Burke, Lundstram did well to chase back and tackle Perez only to immediately return it, and Billy Sharp’s reverse pass was a long way short of the midfielder.
Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel completed more first-half passes than anyone in pale pink.
At least at that stage there was plenty of energy, as Lundstram’s run back showed, and it took 13 minutes for Leicester to carve out a really good chance, Aaron Ramsdale brilliantly touching Perez’s glanced header onto the post.
As Heckingbottom watched intently from the edge of his technical area, much quieter than Wilder, with his assistant, the masked Jason Tindall, making notes in the director’s box, it just seemed a question of when the Foxes would take the lead.
The answer was the 36th minute, Iheanacho peeling off Bryan and onto Vardy’s cross.
After the interval Bryan made a terrific challenge and Basham produced a brilliant header off the line, both from Vardy, but the first was needed because John Fleck had again given the ball away, and blue-shirted players were queuing up to score from the second.
When the dam burst in the 64th-minute the visitors went from plucky triers to shambolic.
Leicester cleared a free-kick to George Baldock, who dallied on the touchline. In the blink of an eye, Perez had the first of four goals in 16 minutes.
The next was much like the opener.
Easy passes from Wesley Fofana to Wilfred Ndidi to Iheanacho allowed him to score his hat-trick and Ampadu turned in a Vardy cross for the fifth.
In the 78th minute 21-year-old midfielder Iliman Ndiaye came on for his debut, Heckingbottom insisting afterwards injecting youth is not something the board has asked him to do.
“I’ve been honest with the players, they can set the standards now and say what they need to be and where they want to go and I’m more than comfortable holding them to that and not picking anyone who doesn’t meet that work-rate and effort,” said Heckingbottom.
“Whoever the next manager is will be watching.”
If the Blades let this “emotional fatigue” linger, would-be managers will have second thoughts and Heckingbottom will struggle to raise a side.
They may not be good enough for the Premier League, but they are better than this.
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