Premier League 2020-21 preview No 15: Sheffield United

Premier League 2020-21 preview No 15: Sheffield United

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 11th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Doyle’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 9th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 500-1

If you want to bore Chris Wilder, ask him about Second Season Syndrome. Someone did that straight after the final match of last season, a 3-1 defeat at Southampton, and the Sheffield United manager retorted peevishly that the ailment was far less common than believed.

He was right if you agree that 25% is an encouragingly low infection rate. Of the 36 teams this millennium to have survived in the Premier League in their first season after promotion, 27 stayed up in their second season, too. So while the likes of Ipswich and Reading can serve as warnings against complacency, there are far more positive examples to inspire Sheffield United as they strive to build on last season’s sensational exploits. Heck, who is to say (er, apart from the Guardian’s Einsteins) that the Blades will not emulate the Leicester class of 2015-16 by winning the title in their second season back in the top flight?

Opponents will be better prepared for the Blades this season but that works both ways: Wilder’s players, most of whom arrived with little top-flight experience, will have grown even more canny – individually and collectively – thanks to last season’s feats. On Wilder’s watch there is no reason to expect one of the smartest units in the division to start malfunctioning. Which does not, of course, mean there is no scope for upgrades. On the contrary, the manager would welcome greater quality in a couple of key areas and more depth throughout in order to cope better with injuries and suspensions like the ones that took the momentum out of United’s drive for Europe.

What makes Wilder and his team so admired, and so difficult to play against, is that they are an unusually intelligent blend of solidity and style. It is outlandish for a newly promoted team to finish the season with the fourth-best defensive record in the Premier League, with only Liverpool and the Manchester clubs conceding fewer goals. Even better, the Blades were tight without being negative because their whole team applied a clever, enterprising method with gusto.

Before joining in attacks, which they did as a matter of conviction and in an innovative way, United’s three centre-backs excelled in their defensive roles: no Premier League defender made more interceptions than Chris Basham, though John Egan and Jack O’Connell made almost as many; all three also featured in the league’s top 20 for clearances made and headers won. The wing-backs, Enda Stevens and George Baldock, secured the flanks while offering constant threats going forward, and Wilder has strengthened at wing-back by signing Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe from Derby.

How they finished

Dean Henderson was a reassuring presence behind that defence, rarely erring and frequently dominating his box, which is one of the reasons why no one conceded fewer goals from set pieces than United. Henderson’s return to his parent club, Manchester United, left a hole that Wilder hopes to have filled with the £18.5m purchase of Aaron Ramsdale, who, on the evidence of his breakthrough season at Bournemouth, is a sound replacement.

It is at the other end where improvement is still required most. United need to score more.

Even though their wing-backs are excellent and their central midfielders dangerous – Ollie Norwood conducts play beautifully, John Fleck is deftly cutting and Sander Berge or John Lundstram make telling bursts from deep – United do not create a massive amount of chances. In fact, they had fewer shots than anyone in the league. But that is chiefly because Wilder’s emphasis is on the quality of openings rather than quantity. Which makes it all the more important that the forwards achieve a high strike rate.

Lys Mousset and Billy Sharp are United’s best finishers but neither links up play as niftily as David McGoldrick nor rattles defenders as effectively as Oli McBurnie, who is a kind of Jamie Vardy-lite in the speed and pestering stakes and surprisingly useful in the air (West Ham’s Sébastien Haller was the only player in the league to win more aerial duels). If McBurnie starts hitting the net more often in his second season at the highest level, then United should be in a better place. Still, buying another forward would increase their chances of taking their chances regularly.

Quick guide

Sheffield United’s history in 100 words

Show Hide

When an FA Cup semi-final between Preston and West Brom attracted a massive crowd to Bramall Lane in 1889, locals got the idea of forming a football team, linked to Sheffield United Cricket Club. Nine years later they were crowned champions of England for the first and only time, and the following year they lifted the first of their four FA Cups, the last in 1925. Though pickings have been relatively slim since, their conquest of League One with Wilder in 2017 made United one of only five clubs to have won the titles in all four of the country’s top leagues.

The manager

On the touchline Wilder bestrides the touchline like a vigilant teacher, offering loud reminders to any slacking players. With no fans present, there is no danger of him not being heard. “That’s four tackles we’ve missed – FOUR!” he bellowed during June’s draw at Aston Villa.

On Zoom Wilder is refreshingly frank and fair, and can also be funny. The way he communicates reflects the high standards he demands from his team: he is not given to excessive whingeing when things go against him, nor does he sugarcoat bad performances.

The key

Norwood played every league match last season and embroidered each one with his artful passing, providing the thread that connected most of United’s best moves as well as offering high-class set-pieces deliveries. But he is no fancy dan and also does his fair share of tackling.

Oliver Norwood, in action here against Spurs, has impressed with his artful passing.

The owners

Following a bitter court battle with erstwhile co-owner Kevin McCabe, Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a Saudi prince, last year took sole charge of the club, in which he first bought a stake in 2013. Despite being a member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, he is not super-rich in Premier League terms and he takes a relatively hands-off approach to the running of the Blades.

Young blood

Regan Slater. The 20-year-old from Sheffield was reared as a midfielder and enjoyed positive loan spells at Carlisle and Scunthorpe before returning to Bramall Lane, where he has impressed in pre-season as a right wing-back, offering promising cover for Baldock.

New blood

The good thing about playing behind Bournemouth’s ramshackle defence was that Ramsdale got plenty of practice last season, with only two Premier League goalkeepers making more saves. The 22-year-old can expect much better protection at the Blades and can use his move to establish himself as one of the league’s best young keepers and a contender for England’s No1 spot.

Aaron Ramsdale was kept busy at Bournemouth. Here he deals with a Liverpool free-kick in December.

Kit story

Red and white stripes have been their uniform for a very long time, although designers have occasionally tampered with that simple formula, most infamously when they replaced stripes with diamonds in 1994. The club’s ‘Blades’ crest has been a fixture since 1971, signifying the nickname United pinched from Sheffield Wednesday early in the 20th century.

Notes from an empty stadium

Specially commissioned banners have been draped across seats since lockdown, including one that covers most of the John Street Stand and features an artists’ representation of fans celebrating particularly joyful moments from the club’s history.

Euros vision

Jack O’Connell can use this season to offer Gareth Southgate more evidence that if England intend using a back three, then Sheffield United have an ideal candidate for the left side of that rearguard. On top of his defensive attributes, the 26-year-old can deliver high-quality crosses.