PHil Jagielka says “under-rated” Sheffield United are striking the right balance by sticking to tried and trusted methods in the “game of chess” that is Premier League football.
Although the 37-year-old made 287 appearances for the Blades between 2000 and 2007, he is a relative newcomer to this squad, having only rejoined the club in the summer of 2019.
It is like a game of chess, if they are going to run in behind, I need to be in position to make sure they don’t run past me.Phil Jagielka
On Sunday, he made the first Premier League start of his second spell in a 3-3 draw with Manchester United.
The core of Chris Wilder’s squad has been together since he became manager in League One in 2016.
Since then he has made minor tweaks to tactics and personnel, but th e principles remain the same. Staying true to that in the Premier League has been key to their success, according to former England centre-back Jagielka.
“When I came in and trained, you could see the camaraderie,” he said. “They play a certain way and everyone knows how to play it.
“When a promoted team does so well, sometimes they get torn apart and they spend hundreds of millions and think that is the right way of doing things.
“The gaffer and the club decided to bring one or two in and it has worked massively so it is logical, sticking with the team ethic.
“They have had been together, had promotion after promotion, had a season where everyone expected them to get relegated and they finished mid-table (in the Championship) and it is easy to stay together, it is a snowball effect.”
How Sheffield United play – with three central defenders, two of whom are encouraged to overlap the wing-backs, central midfielders who attack the penalty area and centre-forwards tasked with linking the play – is easy to predict.
Counteracting it is much more difficult.
On Sunday, Manchester United switched to a 3-4-3 formation in a nod to the Blades’ strengths – and their own injuries – and came unstuck, utterly outplayed until a burst of three goals in seven minutes having reorganised into a more familiar shape.
“Do you adapt to try and counteract what we’re doing or do you think your version of how you want to play is going to work?” mused Jagielka. “It is a game of chess.
“Manchester United tried to try and go three at the back and it is a difficult formation if you are not used to playing it and they were more comfortable with a four at the back in the second half.”
By contrast, Wilder’s men look extremely comfortable in their own skin, and draws against the Red Devils, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, plus wins over Arsenal, Everton, Crystal Palace and Burnley have provided firm evidence that the methods work even at the highest level of English football. Jagielka says they will need that confidence to ensure the club do not go on the kind of losing streak so prevalent amongst teams outside the Premier League’s elite.
“There is a belief,” he commented. “You look left, you look right, you look into the eyes of your team-mates and everyone is thinking the same.
“In a strange way, the pressure is off because no-one is expecting it. In another way, the pressure is on because it is the best division in the world.
“If you sit in and wait to be beaten game in game out, you might nick a win or a draw but, as it stands, our best form of defence is the aggressive attacking play.
“At the same time, we are not leaving ourselves wide open and going gung-ho, there is an element of using your brains as well. At the moment, we have found the right balance.
“We have not had the disastrous spell, 10 games where we only win one, and that is what we need to keep on doing, making sure we don’t have one of those spells.
“If we lose or pick up a draw we have to make sure next game we don’t lose. You see teams who have got relegated from the Premier League and they have gone down another division.
“We are rolling forward and want to stay with it.
“Physically, we can mix it with anyone. Technically, maybe we are under-rated.
“We have got some fantastic players playing some key passes, picking up some key positions but we will happily be under-rated until the end of the season and pick up points.”
It is the same balancing act on an individual basis, as the 37-year-old found when up against England’s in-form 22-year-old forward Marcus Rashford.
“It is enjoyable,” he said. “It is why I want to keep playing football, I have made no secret of that.
“I understand they are younger and more supple than me. It is like a game of chess, if they are going to run in behind, I need to be in position to make sure they don’t run past me.”
Sheffield United might not yet be regarded as grandmasters, but it is hard to imagine them being under-rated for too much longer.