Sheffield United must be braver after reality check from Leicester City

SHEFFIELD UNITED have always been fast learners under Chris Wilder.
Equaliser: Blades striker Oli McBurnie celebrates his goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/SportimageEqualiser: Blades striker Oli McBurnie celebrates his goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Equaliser: Blades striker Oli McBurnie celebrates his goal. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

The Blades may have last week been hailed on the front page of Italy’s premier sports newspaper for their innovative use of overlapping centre-backs.

But the introduction of a system that eventually took League One and then the Championship by storm was far from seamless.

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There was, for instance, a 4-1 defeat at Walsall early in 2017 that saw United hit on the break four times to leave the players not fully convinced.

Arch enemy: Sheffield Wednesday fan Jamie Vardy taunts the Blades fans after putting Leicester ahead.Arch enemy: Sheffield Wednesday fan Jamie Vardy taunts the Blades fans after putting Leicester ahead.
Arch enemy: Sheffield Wednesday fan Jamie Vardy taunts the Blades fans after putting Leicester ahead.

Wilder, however, was adamant. “This is how we play,” he said. Four months later, United had 100 points and their six-year stay in the third tier was finally over.

Now, the often unforgiving landscape of the Premier League is once again home to the south Yorkshire club who were given an early lesson as to just how harsh this new terrain can be.

In a contest that only truly sparked into life after the interval, the Blades were left to rue not only a couple of individual errors but also two finishes of a calibre rarely seen outside the top flight.

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Jamie Vardy, back in the city of his birth, provided the first with a typically clinical shot past Dean Henderson.

Then, after United had dragged themselves level through Oli McBurnie’s first goal since becoming the £17m club record signing in the summer, Harvey Barnes lashed in a terrific winner that must have given watching England manager Gareth Southgate food for thought.

Wilder admitted the two goals were “exceptional”. But the Blades chief also stressed that the first defeat of the season must be one that his players learn from in terms of sticking to the principles that took United back to the top flight.

“We have to be braver,” said the 51-year-old, frustrated that his much heralded overlapping centre-backs did not do enough overlapping.

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“By that, I mean we were not brave enough defensively in the first half. We did not get high enough up the pitch to put pressure on Leicester.

“It was difficult for our two centre forwards to either engage their centre halves or get round the back. The back five never got out enough. We have to be braver and stick to how we play, regardless of who are the opposition.

“That was disappointing. I highlighted it at half-time and after the restart we were a lot better. It gave us an opportunity to engage higher up the pitch – and then go from there to create more.

“I recognise we were undone by two really good goals, especially the second one. They were both exceptional. In the Championship, we might have got away with a 1-1.

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“But, indirectly, the positional play of our back five – including the three centre halves – did not do us any favours. Now, we learn from that. We have had days in the past where we have had to do the same.”

The contingent of Leicester fans that filled the bottom tier of the Bramall Lane stand were clearly in mischievous mood from the start. “Just like Leicester,” they sang, “this city is blue.”

It is a sentiment that no doubt brought a smile to the face of Vardy, a lifelong Wednesday fan back in the city of his birth.

The former FC Halifax Town striker was clearly intent on getting one over the Blades and he had an early chance on 17 minutes.

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A flighted cross from Youri Tielemans found Vardy around 10 yards from goal but his header was woeful and the taunting from the home fans behind that goal merciless.

Twenty minutes later, however, the laugh was at the expense of those same tormentors as Vardy put the Foxes in front.

There is a moment in every Premier League season when a newly-promoted club is given a reality check about how ruthless life can be living among the elite. For United, it came via Leicester’s opening goal.

Chris Basham, one of those overlapping centre-backs who have made United such a joy to watch, brought the ball out of defence with his usual grace before deciding to turn inside as Ayoze Perez honed into view.

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Part of a quite splendid attacking trio who may well fire the Foxes into the top six this term, he quickly closed Basham down before nicking the ball away. Then, the other two members of Leicester’s deadly attack got to work as James Maddison played an inch-perfect pass with the outside of his right boot for Vardy to race on to before drilling a shot beyond Dean Henderson.

Leicester could have had a second after the restart but Perez was only able to turn the ball back across goal following lovely link-up play between Vardy and Maddison.

United needed a spark and it came via the introduction of Billy Sharp and McBurnie from the bench.

Sharp, making a nuisance of himself on the edge of the penalty area, found Oliver Norwood, who quickly spread the play to George Baldock out wide.

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His floated cross then allowed McBurnie to steal a march on the Foxes defence before guiding a header beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

With Sheffield United’s tails up, play raged from end to end but it was the visitors who were destined to take all three points.

Again, the finish was exemplary as Barnes thundered a half-volley past Henderson so fast the loanee goalkeeper had barely moved by the time the ball hit the net to leave Wilder and his Blades side to reflect on the harsh reality of Premier League life.