Patience required as Sheffield United hit anticipated Premier League hard times

Yet again, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder could point to the “small margins” which consigned his team to defeat on Sunday.

Sheffield United players show their disappointment after defeat to Leeds United on Sunday. Picture: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA

Against Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Blades had been six minutes late starting their season and when they woke up, their opponents were already in the distance, holding a 2-0 lead they never relinquished.

At Villa Park, the game turned on a subjective decision in the first quarter of an hour. The officials decided John Egan professionally fouled Ollie Watkins where others – Wilder included – called it six of one, half a dozen of the other. After missing a penalty, the Blades lost 1-0.

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It was debatable if they deserved to lose a tightly-contested derby at home to Leeds United. On the one hand, the Whites were the better team after an even first half, but Wilder was right that his side had the better chances.

WARNING SHOT: Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder instructs his players during the Premier League match against Leeds United at Bramall Lane. Picture: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA

The net result is three Premier League defeats.

The Blades have not scored a league goal this season and their only cup game was a 1-1 draw at Burnley before losing the penalty shoot-out 5-4. They have suffered six consecutive league defeats going back to last season, equalling their worst run since 2013 BC – before Chris. Wilder warned there would be times like this in the Premier League, now his players know he was not crying wolf.

If the sample size gets that big, it cannot be just bad luck.

Perhaps the worst result of the miserable sequence came from the hospital after Jack O’Connell complained of a pain in his knee.

HARD GOING: Sheffield United's John Lundstram shows his frustration during Sunday's Premier League defeat to Leeds at Bramall Lane. Picture: Alex Livesey/NMC Pool/PA

The Blades’ brilliance is based on an innovative formation, principally its overlapping central defenders. Replacing left-sider O’Connell, who is not expected to play again this season, will be extremely difficult because so few play as he does.

Also, this has been a summer of relative Sheffield United austerity, responding responsibly to covid-19’s financial challenges.

There is money in the budget but it was earmarked for a striker, and the lack of goals shows they need one before Monday’s 11pm transfer deadline.

O’Connell had not looked the same since returning from an injury picked up days before last season restarted, then rushing into 2020-21 on the back of no pre-season matches.

BIG BLOW: Sheffield United's Jack O'Connell is out for the rest of the season. Picture: Julian Finney/NMC Pool/PA

“He’s just below where he needs to be,” explained Wilder. “We wrapped him up in cotton wool but long-term it’s not good for him to carry on like that.”

Whether the Blades brought O’Connell back too soon is impossible to say from this distance but it is clear he will be badly missed. Jack Robinson was a steady stand-in late last season but it is asking a lot for him – or anyone – to consistently hit the heights O’Connell did.

Other vital cogs are also causing concern.

When football went into its coronavirus hibernation, four of Sheffield United’s back five were Premier League ever-presents. Egan had only missed one game, as had goalkeeper Dean Henderson. Midfield bodyguard Oliver Norwood started them all too.

NEW ARRIVAL: Sheffield United's Ethan Ampadu appeals for a penalty at Bramall Lane. Picture: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA

That very firm foundation allowed midfielders John Lundstram and John Fleck to make the runs and score the goals which made light of failings further forward. Lundstram, the last Blade to score a league goal, was still making those runs on Sunday, but missed a very good opportunity and was thwarted by an incredible Illan Meslier save from an even better one.

Lundstram’s contract is in its final 12 months. Whether that is affecting him or not, the time when he too will have to be replaced may not be far away. A good offer in the next seven days could bring it forward.

Henderson has already gone, recalled by Manchester United after proving in two season-long loans in Sheffield he is the goalkeeper they hoped, but in Aaron Ramsdale the Blades have signed a proven Premier League performer who kept free-scoring Leeds at bay until Patrick Bamford’s 88th-minute header.

Norwood has also struggled to recapture his pre-lockdown form. At Villa he was dropped for a league game for the first time since his debut. A very familiar line-up is rapidly changing.

There are benefits as well as drawbacks. Ethan Ampadu, on loan from Chelsea, offers good passing from the back but does not gallop forward like Chris Basham, and it is early to trust him with the one-on-one defending middle man Egan is left to.

Oliver Burke brings pace and penetration down the channels, an upgrade on Lys Mousset, but still somebody is needed to finish the chances. No centre-forward guaranteed to score them was in the price range of a club who have to shop for broken biscuits even before O’Connell’s injury. Hopefully more money can be found.

But they should not worry about being written off. Theirs is a dressing room fuelled by the criticism Wilder will dish out before anyone else can.

The principles of their success remain intact and as they showed against Leeds, highly effective. They just need patience to develop a few new parts to get the machine working smoothly again.

The sooner the hard-luck stories can be put to bed by a morale-boosting win, the better.

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Thank you, James Mitchinson. Editor.