The Premier League is all very 2020. Players come from all corners of the globe to ply their trade here, many of them sporting snazzy haircuts and tattoos of obscure Chinese symbols or homages to their favourite RnB artists.
The players are generally on strict diets that don’t contain sugar and hardly ever feature salt or fat and gone are the days when famous victories were celebrated over a few pints and packets of crisps down the pub.
The club’s official shirt tells you to open an account with any number of online bookmakers and casinos, while the perimeter billboards advise you to visit Malta, Azerbaijan or Malaysia.
Off the field the fans check their smartphones every two minutes from the stands for news of other matches, their latest Fantasy Football points or what’s trending on Social Media. On the field, everyone seems to be playing the same 4-3-3 formation and teams generally try to score their goals thanks to counter-attacks at breakneck pace that catch the opposition’s defence off-guard.
Managers come from the likes of Spain, Norway, Portugal or Germany, most of them speaking far better English than the majority of the fans they’re trying to entertain.
At least that’s the story for most clubs in the Premier League. But then again, Sheffield United aren’t most clubs.
Wilder’s Wild Ride
The Blades’ manager Chris Wilder had a very modest career as a player that spanned 15 years and took him to 11 different clubs, most of them in the lower leagues at such places as Leyton Orient, Rotherham United and Lincoln City. A right-back by trade, Wilder started his senior career at Sheffield United where he made 93 league appearances and returned for a second spell in the late nineties, though this time round he stayed around for just the one season.
Wilder is a lifelong Blades fan and when the opportunity arose to manage them in 2016, he jumped at it after spells in management at the likes of Oxford United and Halifax Town.
Three years and two promotions later, they had been promoted to the big time, the Premier League.
Chalked up as favourites for the drop from pretty much the minute they were confirmed as a top-tier club, they’ve proven the doubters wrong. And then some. They’re making a mockery of those odds-on quotes from August by not just steering clear of the drop but challenging for a European place. They’re currently sixth.
Consider this for a minute: only Liverpool have conceded less goals than their 21 goals and only the top three of Liverpool, Manchester City and Leicester have lost less games than their six. Only Kasper Schmeichel has kept as many clean sheets (eight) as Blades’ keeper Dean Henderson.
So what’s the secret to their success?
The first clue may be in the make-up of their squad. Of the 26 players in their first team, 22 of them are British, a stark contrast to a Man City or an Arsenal, where it’s rare that there are more than two English players on the pitch at any given time. That’s obviously not a case of having a gratuitous dig at non-British players; rather a case of Wilder choosing the sort of players who are likely to buy into his brand of football whilst instinctively understanding the unique characteristics of this uncompromising league.
Among those players making up his squad are club captain and life-long Blades fan Billy Sharp, a man who spent most of his career playing at Championship and League One level and who is now into his third spell at the club.
Or John Lundstram, a Fantasy Football favourite for tens of thousands of wannabe managers up and down the country who has combined all-action displays in midfield with the odd goal. He may be a settled Premier League footballer these days but prior to finding his calling at Bramall Lane, went on loan at five different clubs.
Or how about George Baldock, the busy right-back who once spent a season on loan in Iceland before wearing the colours of the rather obscure Tamworth during two separate spells… before also finding his calling at United?
In recruiting hungry players who had achieved little or nothing in their careers to date, Wilder has got himself a motley crew of men who are going to ensure they make the most of this opportunity. Rather than recruiting players picking up the big bucks, moaning about the local cuisine and wearing three layers to training for four months a year.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach and as important as anyone to their side has been one of the rare imports, French striker Lys Mousset. A relatively expensive purchase at around 10 million, was the one wildcard that Wilder decided to take a gamble on after impressing during three seasons at Bournemouth. Five goals for the season may not sound like much from a striker but they were all crucial: one was the winning goal, one the goal that sealed a victory over Everton, while the other three secured priceless draws.
The Wilder Way
To watch Sheffield United in action is like taking a trip back in time to 1994. Two banks of four do their best to ensure no-one from the opposition has time on the ball or that anyone can run into space unmarked.
Everyone is expected to track back, defend for their lives and leave very last morsel of energy out there on the field. Even Sam Allardyce’s Bolton in the 90s carried the odd ‘passenger’ when the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff were at the club.
This brand of football doesn’t always make for great spectacles, mind. Just 27% of their home matches to date in the league passed the over 2.5 goals barrier and the figure falls to a remarkable 18% for away games. By way of contrast, 72% (home) and 70% (away) of Liverpool’s matches had at least three goals. If we’re being honest, only United’s 3-3 home draw against Manchester United back in late November would have been a candidate for the first game to be shown on Match of the Day.
No matter. The fans aren’t complaining with relegation already all but avoided and a second season in the big time to look forward to. If you like to bet on football at Marathonbet, their odds of securing a Top 10 finish are worth a second look. They’re in the odds-on category but with no signs of the opposition starting to work them out, it looks like one of the safer bets you’ll strike this season.
What it all proves is that there are many ways to skin a cat. The likes of Norwich preferred to chance their arm by being aggressive and positive but it hasn’t really worked out for them, while Bournemouth’s more attractive style of football has resulted in 12 defeats, 35 goals conceded and a bitter fight for Premier League survival.
Make no mistake about it. When it comes to Sheffield United, retro is very much back and so far it’s trumping most of the other 2020 fads.