BENGALURU: When top managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp praise Sheffield United’s performance over the course of the season, you know the club is doing something special. They were one of the favourites to be relegated after attaining Premier League promotion, but are above Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal on the points table. With 39 points and in fifth place, they are in contention for a European slot. No one saw it coming.
Such has been their rise that Sheffield manager Chris Wilder and Liverpool’s Klopp are mentioned in the same breath when talks of manager of the year arise.
Opinion is divided among experts too. The Englishman has been in charge of the club since 2016, overseeing two promotions in three seasons, but this season has been something extraordinary at a shoestring budget.
Wilder’s tactics and entertaining brand of football has been talked about. Their decisive pressing has made teams sweat, and the 3-5-2 formation with overlapping centre-backs has been effective. The wing-backs offer width too, making them a solid team going forward.
With such style, one would assume that they would concede easily. The opposite has happened and their defensive solidity has stood out. Other than three goals by United against them in November, no team has scored more than two in any league game. They have conceded 24 goals, second best after Liverpool, and have nine clean sheets.
“We’ve got a good structure in our team, from the top of the pitch to the back three and five, everybody knows their jobs defensively,” said Wilder in an email interview.
“We pressed in League One and the Championship and we’re selective with our pressing now. I wouldn’t say we are 100 per cent a pressing team. It’s about the right time to press and when to keep a good shape behind the ball.”
If smaller clubs are to remain in the top half of the table, competing against big teams becomes crucial. And they have done that this season to an extent. They made headlines with an impressive 1-0 win over Arsenal in October at Bramall Lane.
Besides, they have secured draws against United, Tottenham and Chelsea as well. They lost to Liverpool and City, both home and away, but it was not a walk in the park for either of the two opponents. It is belief and never-say-die attitude, which has worked for the South Yorkshire club.
“I don’t think it (sense of no fear) is just against the top teams. I think it’s against any team. It’s come from the way we set up, the attitude of the players, our attitude as a club and whichever team we play, we believe we can win the game, understanding that we’re playing against some top sides,” added Wilder, who wants to establish his team in the division. PL matches live on Star Sports Select