BACK in the summer, if someone had said to Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder that his side would be level on points with Manchester United going into the October international break, then he would have gladly snapped that person’s hand off.
Boasting the joint second-best defensive statistics in the Premier League – only Liverpool have conceded fewer goals – and unbeaten on the road, incorporating what had the makings of tough trips to Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, the Blades’ acclimatisation back into the big time has been relatively smooth on paper.
But, as Wilder recently sagely said, the hard work starts now. Even if the base camp is built.
After eight games of the top-flight season, the Blades’ record is identical to that of Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield Town in 2017-18 – both sides with nine points to their name. Town were 11th back then, United are now 13th.
Huddersfield may have memorably survived amid jubilant scenes at Chelsea the following May, but it was a close call and there were some bumps in the road along the way.
The Premier League is notoriously unforgiving and Wilder’s side need to find a ruthless edge somehow in the weeks and months ahead to maintain their impressive progress thus far.Leon Wobschall
Town’s ability to chip away and register wins at key junctures against the likes of West Brom, Brighton and Watford proved invaluable and so Wilder’s troops must do the same.
A haul of six points away from home – the fifth best record in the division – is propping up the Blades’ disappointing return of three points from 12 at Bramall Lane.
Wilder may have stated that he is not particularly bothered where his side’s points come from as long as they achieve their season’s aim of survival.
Yet he will know deep down that home form holds the key for the Blades.
His side have taken the lead just once in front of home supporters in the league this season. In mitigation, performances have been good – witness the displays against Southampton and Liverpool.
But the Premier League is notoriously unforgiving and Wilder’s side need to find a ruthless edge somehow in the weeks and months ahead to maintain their impressive progress thus far.
It is why the Blades chief very publicly referenced that point after single-goal losses to the Saints and Liverpool and refused to bask in the glow of his side’s highly-creditable performances.
Points not pats on the back is his business.
Much has been made of the Blades’ style – overlapping centre-backs et al – during Wilder’s time at S2. But, above all else, he prides himself of being a results man.
Forward options certainly should not be a problem. United have five recognised frontline strikers in Oli McBurnie, Callum Robinson, Lys Mousset, Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick. Six if you include Leon Clarke.
At least a couple of options will be on call on the bench if the scenario so requires with United chasing a game. Wilder can mix and match and change horses.
It explains why he spent almost £35m on three forwards in the summer.
As someone who makes no bones about being a tough taskmaster, Wilder will be expecting more from his forwards over time. Others, too.
It will not have escaped his attentions that his side’s haul of seven goals is currently higher than just three clubs – Everton, Newcastle United and Watford.
In the final analysis, nothing much passes Wilder by.