• Despite conceding three goals in a crazy seven-minute period, the Bramall Lane feel-good factor continued with a 3-3 draw against Manchester United as Oli McBurnie’s 90th-minute equaliser secured a point in a remarkable game.
• Despite two enforced changes against Manchester United, the Blades have started just 16 players in the top-flight this season.
Sixth in the table, unbeaten in six games and winning new friends along the way — it’s fair to say Sheffield United are enjoying life back in the Premier League.
Despite conceding three goals in a crazy seven-minute period, the Bramall Lane feel-good factor continued with a 3-3 draw against Manchester United as Oli McBurnie’s 90th-minute equaliser secured a point in a remarkable game.
“Can we forget about that little period? Blades boss Chris Wilder joked to the media afterwards in reference to his side conceding three goals so quickly.
The point means Sheffield United stay above Sunday’s opponents — as well as Arsenal and Tottenham — in the table with more than one-third of the season gone. Only eight teams promoted to the Premier League have secured more points than Sheffield United after the first 13 games, but Wilder is refusing to get carried away.
Perhaps he remembers the 2008-2009 season, when Hull City claimed 21 points from their first 13 games before managing just 14 more from the next 25. After dominating Manchester United for most of the game at Bramall Lane, it seems unlikely the Blades will suffer a similar fate.
So why are they succeeding where other teams promoted from the Championship have failed?
Despite two enforced changes against Manchester United, the Blades have started just 16 players in the top-flight this season. Struggling Arsenal and bottom club Watford, in comparison, have each started 22.
So, Sheffield United’s dressing room is a tight-knit group, with more than half the side starting all 13 games this season. That figure includes the centre-backs Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham as well as wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens.
All five played in the Championship last season and have contributed to Sheffield United being the third-meanest defence in the league behind the top two sides, Leicester and Liverpool. Familiarity clearly breeds success for the Blades.
It’s also a dressing room without any prima donnas, perhaps as a result of the players’ unglamorous routes to the big time.
Midfielder John Fleck and forward Billy Sharp, as well as Basham, O’Connell and stand-in keeper Simon Moore, were all regular starters when Sheffield United won League One with 100 points in 2016-17.
Some of Wilder’s key players have even tasted non-league football on their way to the Premier League. Six years ago, wing-back Baldock was playing in the fifth tier for Tamworth while Basham also appeared at that level for Stafford Rangers when he was starting his career at Bolton.
“There are very few players, if any, in the team that have spent all their lives in the Premier League,” said former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson, who was at Bramall Lane on Sunday for BBC Radio 5 Live.
“There are no egos in that dressing room. They are all Chris Wilder’s players and he knows what they will do on the pitch and in the dressing room. At Premier League level you cannot have one or two bad apples. It just doesn’t work.”
While Fulham spent around £100m on new players after winning promotion in 2018 — only to be relegated a few months later - Wilder has adopted a different approach.
Sheffield United did agree a club-record deal worth up to £20m for Scotland striker McBurnie from Swansea in August, but they have certainly not broken the bank. They have been shrewd in the transfer market with astute signings such as French forward Lys Mousset, who was outstanding against Manchester United. He has been involved in seven of his side’s 16 goals this season — four goals and three assists — since joining from Bournemouth for £10m.
Callum Robinson joined from Preston for just £7m but has already scored against Chelsea and provided the cross for McBurnie’s dramatic equaliser against Manchester United. Former Sheffield United midfielder Michael Brown, who spent five years at Bramall Lane from 1999 to 2004, believes the club is in a strong position to attract players in the January window after their solid start to the season.
“They have already become much more attractive for potential signings,” said Brown. “They will be thinking ‘this club can stay up’, whereas in the summer a lot of people were probably thinking ‘it is going to be a long season for them’.”
Tactics and character
One of the team’s most impressive traits this season has been the character they have shown after falling behind. Sunday was the fifth time they have salvaged a point after trailing in a match.
“It is their sheer desire and determination that has stood out for me - not to concede, not to be beaten - along with that little bit of confidence their early results have given them,” added Brown. “Having that determination is why they have been able to fight back to get something after going behind in games this season - I saw them do it for myself against Bournemouth on the opening weekend.”
Wilder’s tactic of employing overlapping centre-backs has attracted much attention this season, but it is nothing new to Blades fans. United, essentially, set up with a 3-5-2 formation. John Egan is usually the central of the three defenders and a fixed point — in his absence against Manchester United, Phil Jagielka filled that role.
In contrast, the defenders flanking Egan or Jagielka — O’Connell and Basham — are encouraged to make long diagonal runs that carry them outside wing-backs Baldock and Stevens, who in turn cut in off the flanks.
“This was something I saw them do in the Championship,” added Lawrenson. “A lot of teams probably don’t think they have players that have the ability to do it — to come out and play the way Sheffield United’s defenders do. They are all so well drilled.”
Can they keep it up?
The next few weeks will stretch the Blades squad to its limit. In December they have seven league games then Wilder’s side faces dates with Manchester City (away), Liverpool (away), Arsenal (away) and Manchester City (home) between December 29 and January 21.
That’s a daunting run by any measure, but Sheffield United do not lack belief — illustrated by the fact they are unbeaten away from home since January 19.
“I am sure they will lose a couple of games, but that won’t stop them believing that the way they play works,” added Brown. “What they’ve done so far is a great foundation. They have got some tough games in the weeks to come but, especially at Bramall Lane, they will always think they have a chance.”