Why have Sheffield United struggled this season?

Chris Wilder is Mr Sheffield United, supporting them while growing up, turning out at right-back 105 times for them, and managing them for the last five years. However, this season has been a disaster for them, quite frankly, leading to Wilder exiting stage left this weekend. Therefore, what has gone wrong for the Blades this year? In this article, I will highlight several areas I feel have contributed to this parting of ways, and look at why the club has fallen so far this season when compared to the last.

Firstly, the thing I have always commented on with Sheffield United is their confusing transfer policy. Chris Wilder has always had this thing about signing players, not using them, and selling them in the next window, because they weren’t needed after all. If we look at some of the players he has signed, we can see just how many have been through this pattern, with varying lengths of stay:

  • Caolan Lavery
  • Samir Carruthers
  • Daniel Lafferty
  • James Hanson
  • Ched Evans
  • Nathan Thomas
  • Clayton Donaldson
  • Ryan Leonard
  • Lee Evans
  • Ricky Holmes
  • Luke Freeman
  • Callum Robinson
  • Ben Osborn
  • Jack Robinson

That is a lot of players who have come in and not been deemed to fit what Wilder wants, some because they never played as well as we know they can, and some because they were never given a chance. Callum Robinson, for example, played a few times at the start of 2019/2020 in the Premier League, looked good for them whenever he did play, then lost his place and was loaned out and eventually sold the next summer. This, to me, shows that Wilder is never sure of what he actually wants from new players, and constantly looks to change the team around. This “take a chance” strategy was always going to be an issue in the long-term, and, this season, it does seem to have caught up with them a bit.

However, when you look at the players he currently has, there isn’t too much Premier League experience in the team. Last season, this didn’t matter so much, but now that they are struggling, who is stepping up and saying “this is how we get out of this.”? No-one, apparently. Aside from Phil Jagielka, there is a definite lack of leadership and experience of dealing with their current situation.

However, the blame is not entirely on the recruitment in this way. There have been players that Chris Wilder has wanted, but hasn’t been able to bring in. Last summer, the Blades were reportedly linked with Reading midfielder John Swift, who would have added a slight attacking quality to the midfield that they don’t perhaps have at the moment. However, Swift never came, and it seems no bids were actually made for him, so perhaps there were discussions and disagreements between different areas of the club, and it is probably not the first time this has happened, if it happened.

However, we can flip this the other way, and question whether some players have actually turned Sheffield United down, given the way that other players have come and gone in the space of a few months. Maybe some have decided they are better off at their current clubs, rather than being a part of the recruitment merry-go-round at Bramall Lane? It’s possible, but we will never know for certain if this has been the case.

The second major point concerns Sheffield United’s tactics. Much has been talked about with regards to the Blades’ unique approach to playing football, with the outside centre-backs getting up the field to act as extra wing-backs, creating a three-tiered setup in attack. In their first Premier League season, in 2019/2020, this caught a lot of teams out, certainly in the first half anyway, and was a key reason for their rise up the table, sitting around the European spots.

However, because of this, Sheffield United are not a team who can adapt easily and quickly to different situations, only seemingly having this one way of playing. By the time they were facing teams for the second time last season, most of their opponents had worked out how to play against them, limiting their chances and preventing them playing their free-flowing, three-tiered attacking football. This has carried on into this season too, and now, you are looking at which players are going to lead the others in adapting, and they don’t have those types of players, as mentioned already.

If you are now asking where the evidence for all of this is, look at how they really struggled when football restarted last season, and how they have lacked confidence this season, not making passes and being as creative or potent as they were last season. Therefore, this lack of adaptability has without a doubt been a key reason for their struggles this season.

Finally, we have to consider their off-field issues as well. There has seemingly been a lack of co-operation between the board and the coaching staff, which we have already touched on when looking earlier at their recruitment. For a team to succeed in any league, everyone at the club needs to be on the same page, otherwise one has to go (and it’s always the manager who departs). When they aren’t succeeding, both sides look for someone to blame, as we all do in these situations, and Sheffield United have become a club where the board and the manager have grown apart this season, for a variety of reasons.

Interestingly, Chris Wilder has kept on saying in his press conferences that his team will fight until it is mathematically impossible for them to stay up, but the performances haven’t backed that up. In fact, after their home game against Liverpool back in February this year, he said his side are realistically Championship-bound, almost admitting defeat in their bid to stay up. Is this a comment on how the lack of support from upstairs has put them in this perilous position, as well as the poor performances on the pitch? It’s definitely possible that this is the case.

In conclusion, Sheffield United need a good 2021/2022, with a fresh start, and I would not surprised if we see a lot of their current squad moving on, either to other Premier League squads or being deemed surplus to requirements by the new manager. That would then give them space to add the right players to help them make an immediate return to the Premier League.

However, what the Blades can’t do is bring in a new manager but insist he has to play a particular way. In my opinion, managers need to be allowed to use their own tactics, formations and styles of play, otherwise why bring them in in the first place? Manchester United are a team who do this, always criticising anyone who doesn’t play “the Manchester United way”. Well, that was the Alex Ferguson way, but their new managers have needed to be able to take the club forward into a new era. Sheffield United must allow their new manager to do the same, otherwise they will go through a few seasons of changing managers regularly, just as Manchester United did, and struggling to do as well as we know they can.

Most importantly, though, the recruitment needs to be right, and the board and manager need to work together, because the Championship is a tough and unforgiving league, and everyone needs to be singing from the same songsheet if they are to make a return to the top flight in the near future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s