Familiar failings return to haunt Sheffield United in Championship

Not enough about Sheffield United’s new era was new on Saturday night.

The Blades played well against Birmingham City. Not knock-your-socks off brilliantly, but well enough to have 76 per cent of the ball. Despite using six centre-forwards, all they had to show for it was Oliver Burke’s shot against the post and a couple of penalty decisions which could have gone either way but went Birmingham’s.

Lee Bowyer’s side had been happy to surrender plenty of the ball once they went ahead in the 19th minute. As so often in 2020-21, one poor bit of defending was punished.

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“We played well,” insisted centre-back Jack Robinson. “I think we showed what we were capable of.

Oli McBurnie of Sheffield Utd. Pictures: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“One cross let us down but we had plenty of chances to finish the game off and we just couldn’t take them. Last season getting in the final third we struggled with the final pass and again on Saturday.”

As Robinson rightly pointed out, these are very early days in Slavisa Jokanovic’s management. Not only was it his first competitive match but only his third overall, two friendlies is very little time to implement new ideas, and there were new ideas. Whereas you knew exactly what formation Chris Wilder teams were going to play, just not always how to play against it, Jokanovic was a tactical chameleon in his first night in Bramall Lane’s home technical area. The Blades started in a 
4-3-3, and there were spells of 
4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1.

That lack of pre-season football – partly through luck, partly judgement – meant Jokanovic did not have a single player who had played 90 minutes since May, or in the case of Sander Berge, December. The Blades were unfortunate to have a pre-season friendly cancelled because of Covid-19 in the Norwich City camp but even three never felt enough for a new manager. “All people need time,” stressed Jokanovic.

His players will scrape off the rust and hopefully get calmer and quicker on the ball as he asked once their confidence grows. They certainly could not complain about a lack of support from a 29,043 crowd who forgave and forgot last season’s dismal relegation. Rhian Brewster, the centre-forward still to score almost a year after his club record signing, got unwavering encouragement.

Sheffield Unted's Sander Berge and Birmingham's Kristian Pedersen battle for the ball. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

But there is one important area where the clock is ticking. The transfer window closes in 22 days and the Blades are still to make a signing.

For all the faults exposed last season this is a squad with plenty of experience of not just playing but succeeding in the Championship. There is no need to rip things up and start again but there is a need to tweak it.

Last season’s caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom, watching from the directors’ box, tried to shine a light on the young players available but none of them made the 18-man squad. When the personnel were all so last season, it cannot come as a major shock that the faults were.

This is a group built for 
3-5-2, one of the few formations Jokanovic did not try. Even the youngsters have been brought up that way.

The lack of a specialist left-back with the start of Enda Stevens’s season delayed by injury came back to bite the Blades.

You can criticise a left-back for not being able to defend like a left-back but it is a bit harsh on Ben Osborn, a midfielder who did play a bit there for Nottingham Forest, but a long time ago.

Osborn’s body was in the wrong position, making him helpless when wing-back Maxime Colin powered over him to head Jeremie Bela’s cross past Aaron Ramsdale.

Likewise, when the Blades went 4-4-2, David McGoldrick and John Fleck were in ill-fitting wide midfield positions. The Blades could have rescued it.

Within a minute of Colin’s goal, Burke thumped a shot against the post.

Tim Robinson could have awarded a penalty when Fleck’s shot hit Gary Gardner’s arm but it was fiercely struck, the player pretty close and his arm reasonably near his body.

Birmingham were more fortunate a minute later.

As the game went on, Berge began surging more down the right but at the end of a strong 66th-minute run Tahith Chong grabbed his hand and tugged. Robinson was blindsided.

If anyone should have seen it, it was the linesman and for a few seconds it might have had a some fans wishing the Championship had video assistant referees, before remembering why they were so glad to see the back of them.

“The referee just didn’t want to give us anything,” said a rueful Robinson.

Birmingham could have had a second goal when the Blades wobbled around the hour, Lukas Jutkiewicz heading wide, another Colin header disallowed for the striker’s unnecessary push on Robinson and Scott Hogan making a horrible hash of a volley.

The cracks were not to be papered over.

Some repair work can be done on the training ground, some in the mind, but it would be negligent not to get to work in the transfer market too.

Sheffield United: Ramsdale; Baldock, Egan, Robinson, Osborn; Berge, Norwood, Fleck (Sharp 68); Mousset (Brewster 53), McGoldrick, Burke (McBurnie 80). 
Unused substitutes: Basham, Freeman, Bogle, Verrips.

Birmingham City: Sarkic; Colin, Dean, Roberts, Pedersen; Bela, Gardner, Woods, Chong (Sunjic 73); Hogan (Leko 68), Jutkiewicz. Unused substitutes: Friend, Aneke, Sanchez, Castillo, Trueman.

Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).