Sheffield United's striking failings see brilliant season fizzle out at the last
The Blades finished above big clubs like Everton and Newcastle United, and perennial over-achievers Burnley but a season which might well have brought Europa League qualification had it been for the momentum-destroying, landscape-changing impact of coronavirus ended with three straight defeats and a ninth-place finish.
It has been an outstanding campaign by Chris Wilder and his well-drilled team, but it is not in the manager's nature to settle for what he has.
Their final match showed what they need to improve. With more ruthlessness in front of goal, they might have put the game to bed before Southampton woke themselves up and won it themselves.In their penultimate game of Sheffield United’s campaign there were wistful looks across to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a striker who has thrived since leaving the then-League One Blades. On Sunday another product of their academy, Che Adams, scored twice before the deadly Danny Ings adding a penalty.
The Blades played the final 20 minutes with Richairo Zivkovic and Leon Clarke, two players who have not started a Premier League match for them, up front.
If Nathan Redmond’s giggle as George Baldock slid in to tackle after the winger beat Chris Basham with his quick feet suggested this game would have an end-of-term feel, Wilder’s demeanour on the touchline quickly made it clear this was not a day when his Blades players could bring in toys and wear their own clothes.
The visiting media were at the back of St Mary’s West Stand, Wilder on the east touchline, yet you could hear every word as Sheffield United’s manager bawled instructions throughout the game. The Blades’ chances of qualifying for the Europa League might have gone, their top-half finish secured, but this was no dead rubber for him.
He saw his side create three good first-half chances and take one. To kick on as Wilder insists they must next season, they need to be a bit sharper in front of goal and must keep their goalscorer, John Lundstram, who is in the final year of his contract.
The Merseysider was back in a midfield which for the first time since August 2018 kicked off a league game with Oliver Norwood, and showed the composed finishing which has made him, like so many of his team-mates, a welcome addition to this season’s Premier League.
Norwood would come on for the second half, but Chris Basham, George Baldock and Enda Stevens started all 38 matches and their fatigue showed by the end. they have been super, but not superhuman.
There were 27 minutes gone when Stevens rolled the ball out of his feet and crossed. The ball made its way to Lundstram at the far post, who put it between the legs of Alex McCarthy.
Southampton’s goalkeeper made an excellent save to his left from Lundstram ten minutes before half-time after Oli McBurnie pounced on Kyle Walker-Peters’ poor pass inside and linked with Billy Sharp before picking out the midfielder.
Sharp ought to have been on the scoresheet inside a quarter of an hour, Lundstram’s contribution this time a lovely measured pass down the line. It presented the sort of one-on-one opportunity which perhaps gave the centre-forward too much time to think, and McCarthy came out on top.
McCarthy nearly made up for it after an hour, passing straight to the former Saint, but he dwelt just long enough for Oriel Romeu to tackle.
Redmond was the star of the Saints’ first half, but when he did brilliantly to dribble alongside the byline after 38 minutes, his cross was scrambled clear.
Stationed out wide, Redmond could not do it on his own and the only first-half chance which fell to Ings as he chased the golden boot, seconds after McCarthy’s save from Lundstram, deflected wide.
It was that sort of half from a home side who did not look quite as desperate to win as their visitors, but were a different proposition after it.
Leeds United were keen to bring Adams to Elland Road in January, but the Saints wanted more than £20m for a striker who had not scored in the Premier League when it went into its covid-19 hibernation. He has justified both clubs’ faith since with four goals.
Neither Basham nor Sander Berge dealt with a long ball in the 50th minute and Adams pounced on the latter’s heavy touch to equalise.
Jack Robinson made an outstanding tackle on Adams but when Walker-Peters smashed a shot into Basham after 73 minutes, Adams pounced.
Ten minutes later, a heavy touch looked to have denied Ings the chance for his 25th goal of the season, but John Egan clipped him, and the striker scored from the penalty spot instead.
At full-time Wilder and his coaching staff gathered the whole Blades squad on the pitch for a lengthy debrief. It is safe to assume he will have been demanding more next season.
Southampton: McCarthy; Walker-Peters, Stephens, Vestergaard, Bertrand; Armstrong (Smallbone 30), Ward-Prowse, Romeu (Obafemi 90), Redmond; Adams (Long 83), Ings.
Not used: Gunn, Vokins, Bednarek, Danso, Valery.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, J Robinson; Baldock, Lundstram, Berge, Fleck, Stevens; McBurnie (Zivkovic 51), Sharp (Clarke 69).
Not used: Jagielka, Norwood, K Freeman, Osborn, Moore, Rodwell.
Referee: P Bankes (Liverpool).
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