For a Sheffield United team largely made up of Premier League rookies, Sunday’s trip to Manchester City was a new experience and, when the final whistle blew, a chastening one.
Having held their own for 52 minutes, a mistake by referee Chris Kavanagh let the champions in. From there, City secured a 2-0 win.
Fortunately, manager Chris Wilder has assembled a side of good learners who have improved every time they have been presented with a stiffer challenge.
There were as many if not more good things to learn from as bad at Eastlands, and the Blades will get an instant chance to show they have taken it on board today at Liverpool – with due respect to Leicester City, the only team in England who can say with real certainty they are even better than Pep Guardiola’s.
Until Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero pounced on Kavanagh accidentally running into midfielder John Fleck, the Blades sat back and defended deep while counter-attacking with real pace and thrust, to the point where Lys Mousset had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside. Wilder will look for the same chemistry at Anfield.
“Getting the balance right is key for us, out of possession and in it,” reflected Wilder. “We created good chances (on Sunday).”
We need to keep learning and improving, keep driving it forward, keep the hunger and desire. The next challenge is the biggest. It would be dangerous to take our eye off the ball.Chris Wilder
Manchester City keep the ball better than any Premier League team and although one of Liverpool’s great strengths is counter-attacking, they are still second in the division for possession.
“I don’t think it’ll be much of a different outlook from our point of view,” said Wilder. “We can’t open up because they’ll kill you but we have a belief we can put on a good show like we did on Sunday.
“The fine margins we need to be a little bit better at. Hopefully, the ref doesn’t tackle one of our midfielders in the middle of park and allow their lad to score!
“We were never going to get 50, 60 per cent of possession at Manchester City, the best teams in the world don’t get 50. But we created good chances and we’re disappointed we didn’t take them.
“We picked our moments to go forward and that’s the balance of what we’re trying to do, you can’t open up unless you have to late on. We saw that at Manchester City and when that happened we were vulnerable on the counter-attack.
“We’re not a team who wants to sit back and defend because the inevitable happens then. When we do go forward we have to find that extra bit of quality to change the course of a game.
“It was a tough game at home (where the Reds won 1-0 courtesy of a rare Dean Henderson error). It was tough to take.
“I’m not saying we did enough to win but no one would have been surprised if we got a result and we’ve got to have that same belief we had then and at the Etihad.”
Wilder takes comfort from the fact his players have learned from their experiences as they have moved up the league pyramid, showing mental resolve along the way. It gives him confidence that having fought their way to eighth in the Premier League at the end of the year, there will be no resting on laurels in 2020.
“We need to keep learning and improving, keep driving it forward, keep the hunger and desire,” he said.
“The next challenge is the biggest. It would be dangerous to take our eye off the ball.
“We have a medium and a long-term vision but the important thing is the next game.
“Hopefully, everyone stays healthy because that’s key, keep enjoying the experience and can we get better at it.
“There’s a hell of a lot of work still to be done, we’re going to take some hits and have some good days too and we hope to have more good days than bad.”
The Blades have a couple of Liverpool fans in their squad – and hopefully on the pitch if John Lundstram can recover from the ankle injury which kept him out at Eastlands to join Jack O’Connell – but Wilder says a trip to Anfield is special for everyone.
“For anyone playing at Anfield against the (Premier League) leaders, with where we are and where they are, a full house under the lights on a Thursday, is special for everyone.
“The clubs are at different stages but we’ve earned the right to be here. We need to work hard to make sure this is a fixture for years to come.
“In the school holidays I used to go to see family up there – aunties and grandparents etc – so there’s always been a connection for me.
“The majority, if not all, were Liverpool fans. I went a few times with my uncle, who has been a fan since the 1960s. When I was a young boy of six, seven, eight, it was an unbelievable experience. They love their football and so do we (in Sheffield).
“I always associate Liverpool with football and a bit of music now and again. It’s a similar city to Sheffield, really, more successful on the field than ours, but football is important for our city as well.”