Sheffield United’s success has been one of the stories of the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Chris Wilder’s side were initially assumed to be physical, direct and uncomplicated. But they had been miscast. Such a description could not be further from the truth. Instead, Sheffield United have surged up the table playing neat, attractive football. With ten games remaining, they have a genuine chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Sheffield United currently sit seventh. They have two points more than last year’s Champions League runners-up Tottenham Hotspur and three more than Arsenal. Chelsea are five points ahead in fourth, but fifth-place Manchester United are only two points better off. Win their game in head and Sheffield United will move ahead of them. And should Manchester City be unsuccessful at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, that position will be good enough for a place in Europe’s premium club competition.
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They have a kind run of fixtures ahead of them, playing only three teams ahead of them in the league: Manchester United, Chelsea and Leicester. Two of these games are on the road.
Crucially, Sheffield United play north London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham in the space of just a few days, with both games at Bramall Lane. Whether they truly have what it takes to poach one of the Premier League’s four Champions League places is likely to be settled here.
All evidence from the first part of the season suggests that they do. Oliver Norwood has been superb, setting their tempo in the middle of the park. Out wide, Enda Stevens and George Baldock have been superb, drawing admiring glances from many other clubs. And up front, Billy Sharp, Oli McBurnie, David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset have all shared the workload.
But the true star has been Wilder. At the beginning of his season, much was made of his overlapping centre-backs. They are more than a novelty: Sheffield United have conceded the second fewest number of goals of all Premier League teams this season, behind only runaway leaders Liverpool. For a recently promoted team, that is a staggering accomplishment.
Perhaps there is a fear that teams will now be better prepared to play them, having been taken by surprise the first time around. But this is a rather lazy point. Sheffield United have hardly deviated their style of play from their successful Championship campaign last year. They are not a surprise package. They are simply a very good team.
League position: 7th
Next three fixtures: Aston Villa (A), Newcastle (A), Man Utd (A)
Cups: FA Cup quarter-final vs Arsenal. EFL Cup: lost to Sunderland in third round
Player of season so far: Oliver Norwood
They resume their campaign with a trip to Aston Villa, followed by an opportunity for revenge against Newcastle United. In early December, they played poorly and slipped to a 2-0 defeat. They have lost only once at Bramall Lane since, falling 1-0 to reining champions Manchester City. Should they start with a win, that fine home form will likely stand them in good stead during the run-in. Anything is possible.
Wilder certainly seems to think so. “You’ve got to have dreams and ambitions and we’ve been positive in our approach,” he said on Punching TV at the beginning of the month. “We’ve really adjusted and got ourselves back up and running after defeats and that’s been a great attribute we’ve had, it’s all to play for, for us to be talking about the position is just incredible.”
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