Sheffield United 0 Manchester City 1 - Chris Wilder replaces carrot with stick

My ball: Kevin De Bruyne watches as Sander Berge takes possession. Picture: Simon Bellis/SportimageMy ball: Kevin De Bruyne watches as Sander Berge takes possession. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
My ball: Kevin De Bruyne watches as Sander Berge takes possession. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United are serving up half-measures this season. Teams of Manchester City’s quality might be able to get by on that, but they cannot.

This was another day when you could say the Blades played well to an extent but...

The net result was another defeat. Seven games into the Premier League season, they have a solitary point and the longer they take to get going, the more work they are storing up when they do. They are lucky Burnley and Fulham are in a similar malaise.

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Something has to change and on Saturday, it was manager Chris Wilder’s post-match press conference. After losing by a one-goal margin at Liverpool, he praised his team for their best display of the campaign. Seven days later they again lost by a one-goal margin to the other team a level above the rest of English football but this time he was grumpy and more on the offensive than his team had been all day.

Winner: Former Blade Kyle Walker, second right, refuses to celebrate his goal. Picture: Andrew Yates/SportimageWinner: Former Blade Kyle Walker, second right, refuses to celebrate his goal. Picture: Andrew Yates/Sportimage
Winner: Former Blade Kyle Walker, second right, refuses to celebrate his goal. Picture: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

If, half-an-hour into Saturday’s game, you had offered most Blades fans no more damage than the current 1-0 scoreline, surely they would have taken it.

Like the rain, Manchester City’s players were relentlessly in the face of the home side.

The first 30 minutes was defence versus attack. Supposed left-back Cancelo stepped into midfield when his side had the ball, and that was 78 per cent of the time. With United’s wing-backs stuck at full-back, it gave the visitors a four-versus-three advantage. At times, centre-forward Rhian Brewster had to drop in to try to even things up, but City’s magical midfielders have nothing to fear from a fair numerical fight, and it only isolated Oli McBurnie even more.

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Rodri could hang back and set the pace whilst Kevin de Bruyne roamed.

Close: Chris Basham heads towards goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/SportimageClose: Chris Basham heads towards goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Close: Chris Basham heads towards goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Ferran Torres played as a proper centre-forward – not a job he is supposed to be able to do – allowing Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling to stay high and wide, preventing George Baldock and Max Lowe, never mind the centre-backs inside them, from causing problems themselves.

Lowe ventured forward for the first time in the 15th minute, anticipating a loose ball three-quarters of the way up the pitch, but his cross was cut out. Another, two minutes later, was hit at Ederson. Wilder seethed.

Fortunately, Aaron Ramsdale was in defiant mood and City’s cutting edge is not where Pep Guardiola rightly expects.

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“Nine goals in six games is not enough,” he moaned but these are football’s first-world problems. The blunt Blades have three in seven, including two penalties.

Ramsdale saved twice from Torres and his inelegant handling of Rodrigo’s long-range shot did the job. With a wet, swerving ball, that was all you could ask.

After 28 minutes, the goal came from a Sheffield-born Blades fan attacking from what was effectively the right of a back three. Sterling burst past Chris Basham and Baldock, Cancelo came over to help and eventually the ball was rolled for Kyle Walker to stride onto and drive precisely into the net. It was his 100th Premier League appearance for City and only his third goal, but the former Blade could not bring himself to celebrate.

From there, things changed, just not enough.

As the sun came out, the game moved closer to the visiting goal and a City side whose manager has complained about a workload flogging them into the ground seemed content to conserve energy and rely on the counter-attack.

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Basham won a header at a corner but Walker put it behind and Brewster glanced Sander Berge’s cross wide.

The second half was played more as the hosts wanted, Basham, Baldock and Berge working City. Ramsdale still had to make saves – off his line to deny Torres, meeting a low Mahrez free-kick with a firm hand and clutching on when Sterling danced along the byline and nearly netted by playing pinball off Basham.

Berge in particular got into good positions but too often his crosses failed to find a man. The team’s reluctance to put the ball in – a hallmark of them at their best – was highlighted on television in the evening, but Wilder was more unhappy sloppy passing meant too often it never came to that.

When Berge got it right, the chance was wasted. With 20 minutes to go, he nutmegged Cancelo and found John Lundstram, the contract rebel introduced from the bench.

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It was the sort of opportunity good teams take to gloss over failings. Lundstram had his head in his hands after shooting over.

The way the Blades answered the tactical questions, the character not to subside when the going was so tough, Ramsdale’s goalkeeping, Berge’s energy and the team’s courage to play higher up despite Sterling’s omnipresent threat all ticked boxes.

“My disappointment is we didn’t do enough to put them on the back foot and affect the result,” raged Wilder.

“It wasn’t really (Lundstram’s miss that annoyed me), it was the other bits, unopposed where it was our times to play and we gave it away really cheaply. Sometimes it is not enough to be an aggressive, competitive side. I don’t want plaudits, we want points. In every game, press play because I am saying exactly the same thing.”

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The tone, though, was different this time. The carrot at Anfield was replaced by the stick. Wilder sounds like a man desperately looking for a way to get a reaction.

Sheffield United simply have to start scoring goals and winning games. Stamford Bridge, where Frank Lampard’s Chelsea appear to have hit upon some defensive resolve, is not an easy place to do that, but it must happen – no ifs, no buts.

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