Sheffield United’s regulars are back from their mini mid-season break refreshed and ready to go.
The Festive period was a tough one for Chris Wilder’s men, but now it is out of their legs and their minds, ready for tonight’s Premier League visit of West Ham United.
The Blades were not at their sharpest in their Boxing Day draw with Watford, and Wilder criticised their lack of intensity – something he rarely has cause to do – in the New Year’s defeat at Liverpool. In between came a trip to Manchester City where United were the better side for 50 minutes, only to run out of steam when Sergio Aguero gave his side a fortunate lead.
Helped by facing non-league opposition in the FA Cup, Wilder’s solution was making 11 changes for the third-round tie at home to Fylde, and give his players much-needed time off. He and they can already see the difference.
“The boys that played in both the games (at Manchester City and Liverpool) had two days off and reported for the game on Sunday,” Wilder revealed. “A few were involved (as substitutes).
“I noticed a change in them. It refreshed them, and we reset them on a lot of things after the Liverpool game. We reminded them of our standards, our values and what makes us play well.
The Liverpool game was a bit of an eye-opener for us. We weren’t at our best, which we have to be to try and get a result.John Egan
“We’ve tried to put them into practice on the grass in the last two or three days.”
All English clubs have been through a rigorous Festive period, but the physical demands Wilder puts on his squad arguably made it harder for them. George Baldock, Chris Basham, Oliver Norwood, Jack O’Connell and Enda Stevens are Premier League ever-presents this season, and John Egan, John Fleck, Dean Henderson and John Lundstram have only missed six matches between them.
Having said his piece at Anfield, Wilder has softened a little since.
“There were mitigating circumstances after the Man City game,” he argued. “They played a lot over Christmas, there’s the intensity of the Premier League and their lack of experience in it.
“I wasn’t too hard on them, I just opened up and said it how it was.
“They understand, they’re honest boys, a real humble group.
“The rest will have done them the world of good physically and mentally.”
In some ways, the Blades were unfortunate to play their two most testing fixtures in the space of a few days.
“They were really tough trips to City and Liverpool,” reflects Egan, who missed the visit of Manchester United through injury. “They’re probably the two best teams in the country, so going away to them was always going to be tough.
“The Man City game, we were quite unlucky not to get a result. We created the better chances, certainly in the first half, and there was a clash with the referee leading to their first goal. It was hard to see them breaking us down until then.
“The Liverpool game was a bit of an eye-opener for us.
“We weren’t at our best, which we have to be to try and get a result. We came away from those two games, saw where we went wrong and we have to learn from it. All we can do is try and get better so next time we play these teams we have a better chance of getting a result.
“It’s about improving game on game and trying to build. I think you’ve seen that already this season. From the first game at Bournemouth we’ve got better and better as the season has gone on. That’s credit to the work on the training ground and the manager driving us on every day.”
Wilder is not the first Premier League manager this season to feel he had no choice but to field a weakened side. Last month Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp was presented with games on different continents on consecutive days.
“It’s just how it is,” shrugs Wilder. “It’s a huge period for supporters historically, playing Boxing Day, New Year’s Day or whenever and a game in between. It’s part of the (English) game, it’s been with us forever, so we respect the fixture list.
“I do think the game has changed now, as the Liverpool manager has said. We have to respect players and not put them in danger. People will say they are professionals and should be able to do it but you talk about the quality maybe taking a bit of a hit, and opening (players) up to injuries. Newcastle picked up a lot of injuries and I should imagine everybody has picked up one or two.
“Is it a coincidence? I’m not so sure. I think it’s the effect of the amount of games we’ve had and the intensity and the distances the players cover. That’s massively gone up through the years.”