Sheff Utd 19/20 Review: Fairy-tale success for Wilder
Alex Keble takes a look at Sheffield United's extraordinary 2019/20 season, suggesting that Chris Wilder could yet take his team into the Champions League...
The job Chris Wilder is doing at Sheffield United is scarcely believable. Had it not been for the Premier League's suspension there was every chance Wilder would have celebrated his fourth anniversary at the club, in May, by taking them into Europe. It has been an extraordinary journey from the foot of League One.
Incredibly, United are in fact a mere four points off fourth with a game in hand. If you think Champions League qualification is beyond them, then you haven't been paying attention to the fairy-tale successes Wilder has brought to the club.
Season so far
From the outset Sheffield United were competitive and compact, even though they struggled to record points in the first few weeks of the season. To date they have only lost three times by more than one goal - against Liverpool, Man City, and Newcastle - and have conceded the second fewest goals in the division (25).
That is testament to Wilder's incredible tactical sophistication, creating an organised and highly compressed team shape that few clubs have managed to break down. More impressive still is what United do with the ball - and there's a lot more to it than overlapping centre-backs.
Their 3-5-2 involves constant positional rotation, with players not only readily swapping with one another but occupying large zones of the pitch. This allows Wilder's side to overload one flank at a time, outnumbering the opposition in central midfield and on the flanks. If only they had more creativity and goalscoring threat up front, the Blades would most likely be challenging for second place.
Results began to match performances in winter, and since December 5 United have won 10 matches in 17 games in all competitions. Nothing much has changed in that time, except the team is simply getting better and better with experience. Seven players have started 27 or more of their 28 league games.
Billy Sharp's injury time equaliser in their opening game at Bournemouth was a wonderful moment for their long-time servant, but the Blades' best win was a 1-0 victory over Arsenal at Bramall Lane in October. Lys Mousset scored the only goal of the game to give Wilder a result that will hearten fans ahead of their rematch in the FA Cup quarter-final.
The biggest highlight of the season so far has been the midfield trio of John Fleck, Oliver Norwood, and John Lundstram. All three have been outstanding, controlling almost every match in which they play, whether defending in a deep block or taking the game to the opposition.
United fans have had very few reasons to complain, although they would not have expected to get knocked out of the EFL Cup at home to Sunderland. A 2-0 defeat at home to Newcastle was the most worried supporters will have been, the result extending a winless run to four and dropping United to within five points of the bottom three.
One area that needs improving is the club's work in the transfer market. Mousset, a £10 million signing from Bournemouth, has scored only five goals, while £17 million Oliver McBurnie has netted just four times. Both have been a disappointment.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Qualifying for the Champions League, priced at14.50 with Betfair Exchange, is unlikely - though possible. Finishing in the top six4.00, however, is definitely on the cards, and anything less would probably disappoint Wilder given their good run of remaining fixtures.
They still have Newcastle, Burnley, Everton, and Southampton to play, which are the sort of matches United have consistently won this season. In the FA Cup, a run to the latter stages is the best they can hope for while Man City are in the tournament.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Consolidation is all Sheffield United will want next season. That means buying better than in 2019, which shouldn't be a problem if they can offer European football, and it also means buying in quantity.
Those added games will take their toll. Wilder won't be able to play the same 11 week in week out should they finish in the top seven this year.
Sheffield United fans wouldn't have predicted the 2019/20 season in their wildest dreams. The club are on course to battle for a Champions League spot and certainly look better equipped than their rivals for a place in the Europa League, which would be a stunning achievement for a newly promoted side.
All credit goes to Wilder for implementing an astute tactical system that the Premier League is yet to get to grips with. United's only concern, when the football gets back underway, is how they prevent their manager from being poached by one of Europe's biggest clubs.