For 45 minutes at Bramall Lane yesterday, the Blades were excellent, much more like themselves. Prompted by a recalled and revitalised Oliver Norwood, they knocked the ball about pleasingly and created good chances.
But when they failed to take them, we saw a side as fragile mentally as they are physically at the moment. In the end, a late Billy Sharp penalty came as a relief rather than a reward.
The plans manager Chris Wilder made for a game between two sides yet to pick up a point this season had to be rewritten more than once.
John Fleck’s name had been pencilled in to start, but a bad fall in training with Scotland produced a back injury expected to keep the midfielder out for four to six weeks.
It did not stop Wilder making a bold choice.
Having failed to sign the left-sided centre-back he wanted once Jack O’Connell was sent for knee surgery, he dropped Jack Robinson and moved Enda Stevens deeper, handing Max Lowe a Premier League debut.
Interestingly, Wilder let it be known afterwards he had given serious thought to a change at right wing-back too. George Baldock beware.
The idea of going with Lowe effectively came to a shuddering halt within the opening minutes when the new boy clattered into another debutant, Fulham’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Lowe carried on after lengthy treatment but before the game was 20 minutes old he had to accept defeat to both the Wilders he could see. Robinson came on at centre-back, Stevens returned to his usual position.
That setback did not deter the Blades.
The overlapping centre-backs had hit their stride by then. It is vital to the Blades’ way of playing that the men either side of John Egan – released from self-isolation to play – get forward, and Stevens was preferred to Robinson for that reason.
Egan did have cause to shout “Enda, higher!” at one point, but generally the latter struck the right balance as he and Basham both picked out Oli McBurnie with crosses. McBurnie’s first effort deflected wide, his second was glanced off target with his head when he really ought to have scored.
The decision to save the limited time in Rhian Brewster’s legs to the end of the game rather than the beginning would backfire on Wilder, with McBurnie’s radar awry. Whether the debutant would have done any better is anyone’s guess. It would not be a great day for centre forwards as opposition No 9 Aleksandar Mitrovic would discover.
After the rejig Stevens continued to attack, forcing a stretching save from Alphonse Areloa, and McBurnie continued to be wasteful. Areloa’s point-blank save from another Basham cross was excellent, but a sharper striker might not have given him the chance.
When a Robinson throw-in flew across the box without a touch and an own goal was chalked off because crosser Sander Berge was offside from Norwood’s cute pass, it looked like it might be one of those days.
Fulham took heart from that, and came out much improved for the second half. United’s confidence never re-emerged from the dressing room.
Aaron Ramsdale made a good save from Tom Cairney early in the game and started the second half with an even better one to deny Ademola Lookman. The goalkeeper made the chance himself, sloppily allowing a cross to slip through his hands, but recovered with a brilliant reflex stop.
By the 12th minute of the half Fulham were worthy of what should have been their opening goal, Robinson’s hand taking a corner off Loftus-Cheek’s head, but Mitrovic hammered his spot kick against the crossbar.
After 63 minutes the Blades had another let-off, Robinson redeeming himself by getting back to block as Fulham launched a four-on-two counter-attack.
A Fulham goal was coming, though, and Lookman provided it, bursting past Basham and Berge and smashing home with 13 minutes remaining.
By now their good first-half football was a distant memory for the Blades, who came into the game with one league goal and – like Fulham – no points.
Their equaliser came from nowhere.
Ramsdale had made another good save, fingertipping a Mitrovic volley around the post, when video assistant referee Martin Atkinson whispered in Andre Marriner’s ear that he might want to go over to his pitchside monitor and take a look at an incident at the other end minutes earlier.
So often the scourge of United, technology came to their aid as Marriner noticed a foul when Mitrovic challenged Robinson – the two men the big moments were inexorably attracted to. The recently-introduced Billy Sharp showed Mitrovic how to take a penalty, thumping home.
With only five minutes left and Wilder having poured on attacking players in search of an equaliser, the odds should have tilted to a home win but after wobbling at first, Fulham finished stronger.
Twice in stoppage time Mitrovic headed wide, but it was the first of his opportunities which a striker of his calibre ought to have taken.
It would be the hard-luck story of both sides’ day.
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