With most of the focus on Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United have flown under the radar and established themselves as genuine promotion contenders. What have you made of the season so far?
I think it’s perhaps a surprise with a small ‘s’. Sheffield United are a team that has, by and large, stayed together from the previous season and they all know what they are doing. Chris Wilder has moulded that group of players to play a certain style, which they have been doing for two or three seasons now.
They achieved a top-ten finish last season and the addition of Oliver Norwood, more than anyone else, has strengthened the team. They had a run of fixtures that you would expect a top-ten team to get through fairly comfortably, which they did. Now it’s just a case of seeing if they can maintain their healthy league position; at the moment, there is no reason to think that they can’t.
Former Bees skipper John Egan joined the club in July. How has he fared in his first few months at Bramall Lane?
Sheffield United have set off well, so they have taken to him kindly. He’s come in and been a steady influence at the back. He missed a game earlier in the season and as soon as he was fit and available again, he was brought back in. He’s one of the first-choice picks, it would appear, along with Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell. As a back four as it were – three centre-halves and a goalkeeper - they’ve been very strong this season.
United’s style of play is up and at them, to be basic, and that sometimes means they are susceptible to conceding goals, but they have kept four clean sheets already and are doing well at the back. Egan has come in and, for me, made a big impact.
The January transfer window is looming and there have been numerous players linked with the club, including Jermain Defoe. What do you think Chris Wilder might like to add to his squad?
I think Wilder knows they have the semblance of something strong due to the reasons I’ve mentioned already: a strong team ethic, defined style of play and good characters within the team. They don’t lurch in terms of performance; if they don’t win a match, they generally respond pretty well.
One thing that Wilder keeps citing is that sometimes they are found wanting in the final third. For example, in the recent derby against Sheffield Wednesday, they had most of the possession and didn’t really convert that dominance into a great volume of chances. That has been a theme at times throughout Wilder’s reign; they can play absolutely wonderful football, but do they get the goals that their football warrants and deserves? Aside from Sharp and McGoldrick, they do need more quality at that end of the pitch. They could also do with an adequate replacement for Mark Duffy. If Duffy’s not available or tired, they need somebody to come in and pull the strings in midfield
Chris, being as popular as he is, doesn’t shield his messages to the board to put their hand in their pocket! This will be their best chance for promotion in a long time if you take the view that they are a better team than last season. They are more experienced this campaign, so you think that if they do spend a bit, they might give themselves a chance of going up.
United’s style of play has earned rave reviews. As someone who watches the club on a regular basis, can you articulate their approach?
Sheffield United like to maintain a position high up the field and press early. They have an almost shock-and-awe brand of football in that they try and get on the front foot very early indeed. In terms of width, they have two wing-backs who like to get forward at great regularity and they have two centre-halves who can, and indeed do, push further up the pitch.
The midfield triangle of Norwood, Duffy and John Fleck can keep the ball superbly among themselves – it’s terrific. When they are on it, they are generally camped in the opposition’s half. The passing and movement is superb - they are not a direct team at all. They like to run in behind, play the triangles outside of the area and pick out the intricate passes that get the ball into the penalty area. It’s very easy on the eye but sometimes lacks that killer touch.
What’s your score prediction?
I could see it being a high-scoring draw, something like a 2-2. I don’t see it being much different to the previous game between the two sides on Good Friday – hopefully the weather is a bit better! I’d be stunned if United didn’t put in some kind of performance because there will be a part of them that is a little disappointed they didn’t win the Steel City derby.
For the full chat with Andy, pick up a special edition BEES matchday programme this evening.
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