If Lys Mousset finds himself back on Sheffield United’s bench after goals in his last two appearances, the centre-forward should not be too downhearted. Chris Wilder loves a substitution.
Saturday’s Premier League visit of Burnley will be Wilder’s 164th game in charge of his boyhood club, and he is yet to finish with the XI that started.
As the game has evolved, substitutions have become increasingly important, and Wilder is as keen to capitalise as anyone. Particularly at the sharp end of the field, he likes to rotate Mousset, Oli McBurnie, David McGoldrick, Billy Sharp, Callum Robinson and Leon Clarke to first wear down defenders, then give them something different to think about.
Mousset’s goal at West Ham was his second from the bench in 2019-20, so with Wilder unconvinced the Frenchman is yet fit enough to last the course in a Premier League match, he must decide whether he will be more effective at the beginning or the end. Whichever it is, Mousset should prepare himself to play an important part.
“The right team to start is not always the right one to finish,” stresses Wilder. “The game has changed now, especially with the work we want them to do in and out of possession.
“It’s not an 11-man game for us. You look at every aspect of it and everyone has a part to play.
“We think about different scenarios – if we’re up in the game, down in the game or have to change shape because of what the opposition might do. It isn’t Liverpool of the ’80s where it’s the same XI all the way through (a season). The game has changed and evolved, physically and tactically.
“The question I always ask myself before we go out is, ‘Have I picked the right team?’ If you see me lean over to Knilly (assistant manager Alan Knill), I’ll be saying, ‘I haven’t picked the right team, Al.’ But you have to get on with it.”
Having players able to drop into a game three quarters of the way through and hit the ground running is important in the fine margins of the Premier League, but every player would rather kick off the match than taking his chances that the manager will call on him later.
For the likes of Mousset, it makes being a good substitute a doubled-edged sword, although he also scored on his only Premier League start for the Blades, against Arsenal last week.
“Some people are better at coming on than others,” says Wilder. “It is a skill.
“They have to pick the pace of the game up. They have to watch in the dug-out, they are involved in all the (pre-match) video analysis we do as well. On a Friday, the focus is on the players who will start. Usually, they pick the pace of the game up pretty well.
“I do believe they understand they have a part to play if you are chasing the game, or if you want to be a little bit more stable and solid. They understand that now, as professional footballers.
“They all want to start and get on the pitch but if you look at our record, I think it’s very rare we keep the same 11 on the pitch.”
Whatever Mousset’s job today, it seems unlikely to be starting and finishing the game. The last time he did that was in February, when still a Bournemouth player. When asked if his £10m signing would be capable of a repeat against the Clarets, Wilder replied that Mousset was, “possibly a little bit off. But we’ve got a group of forwards that we can change.”
As the number of substitutes and the necessity for squad rotation has increased in football, so has the importance of man-management. Wilder does it differently now to when he started out in non-league.
“My door is always open,” he says. “I used to, as a young manager, spend a huge amount of time on a Thursday and a Friday going around the lads who weren’t in but I was exhausted.
“Now I say for them to come and see me Monday. If we’ve won, I’m safe. If we haven’t, I just say I picked the wrong team.
“But it’s about the group. Last season, for every Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick, there was a Martin Cranie and a Marvin Johnson. Their contributions were huge.”
Sheffield United and Burnley are two sides who like stability in their starting line-ups more than most. Dean Henderson, George Baldock, Chris Basham, John Egan, Enda Stevens, Jack O’Connell and Oliver Norwood are Premier League ever-presents for the Blades this season, whereas the Clarets have six.
At times, though, freshening the side can be vital to cope with the intense physical demands of top-flight football in England.
“It has got tougher,” says former right-back Wilder, who retired when with Halifax Town in 2001. “The distances they cover, the work they do in the gym, they’re athletes. (Liverpool captain) Jordan Henderson, I didn’t think he was that big before I saw him.
“Not only are these lads great players, they get about the pitch. The high-intensity runs they make, that’s something we’re working on. There aren’t many ‘Up to the players’ bar, straight out on it and Sunday too’ merchants now.”
Another thing Sheffield United and Burnley have in common is that both club’s managers play an unashamedly intense brand of football.
“Sean (Dyche) goes his way and I go my way,” says Wilder, lest the comparisons get overblown. “The one thing we both ask our teams to do is run around and compete. I’m not embarrassed to say that’s what I want my teams to do, being organised and disciplined. I’m not embarrassed by that and I don’t think I should be. I don’t think Sean should be either.”
Like Wilder, Dyche has done the hard yards to drag a club into the Premier League. At times it feels like the only way Englishmen without a glamorous playing career can get a seat at the top table.
“Sean has been brilliant, fantastic,” gushes Wilder. “I’ve known him a while. He’s played in these parts (spending much of his career at Chesterfield) and I came across him as a player.
“They are a benchmark for the likes of us. They produce year in and year out.
“I like his team. I like the way they work together. They have some great individuals but they are a team.”
So are Wilder’s Sheffield United. And in the 21st Century, a team is made up of more than just 11 men.