As the title suggests, the mixed bag that has been our opening to the season has certainly raised more questions than answers. It’s not time to hit the panic button as yet by any means but there are certain areas that need addressing, some more urgently than others.
The opening game of the season promised a lot and had us all believing that this could finally be the season where not only do we end this miserable existence in League One, but we could also cruise out of the division in style. We had the best part of 80% of the possession, we were creating chances aplenty and all looked rosey, albeit against a very poor Notts County team with 10 men for over an hour. Since then, our performances and the subsequent results have not been as we all expected. The County game raised all of our expectations and I think a bit of realism is probably necessary from here on in.
I would be the first to admit that when I turned up at the lane for the visit of Burton Albion, I expected free flowing football that would see us run out comfortable winners on the night. Unfortunately, what we have to remember is that not only was this a lesser fixture played in front of a small crowd and with little to no atmosphere, but we still have a team and squad that is very much in its infancy. Firstly we have a lot of young players with limited experience, but most importantly we are very much at the start of David Weir’s tenure and his methods, systems and footballing philosophy are still a blue print rather than being 2nd nature to the players.
The 2 league games since then have yielded just 1 point, when maybe we would have hoped for at least 3 or 4 but losing to Brentford on their own patch is nothing to be embarrassed about and but for a linesman’s flag we may have snatched a victory against Colchester last time out. I appreciate that this is very much a glass half full way of looking at the opening fixtures and I am not trying to paper over the cracks but I think at this stage of the season the last thing we need is negativity. Having said that, a few things need addressing very quickly if we are to sustain a push towards the top 6.
I have read a lot of articles and comments where people have bemoaned our lack of fire power and our ability to put the ball in the back of the net. Though I agree to an extent, I don’t think the strikers are the main issue right now and there are other areas that are in need of more immediate attention. Lyle Taylor has shown in glimpses that once he is use to the physicality and the pace of League One, he could well prove to be a handful at this level. He also seems to possess quite a bit of self-belief which, as a striker is vitally important. Beyond Taylor, we are a little lightweight in the striking department and the return of Shaun Miller can’t come soon enough as his intelligence and movement have been sorely missed since he suffered the anterior cruciate ligament injury that has kept him out since boxing day of last year. Chris Porter can be effective to unsettle defences with his physical presence but I don’t think I am alone in believing that this should be limited to the latter stages of games rather than for a full 90 minutes. His lack of mobility and finishing leave a lot to be desired and unfortunately, he just isn’t good enough.
Aside from our short comings in front of goal, I think our main concern is at the back and more specifically in the full back positions. To be even more specific the left back position as the return from injury of Tony McMahon should mean more solidity at right back. McMahon has his faults, his constant bickering with officials and his mandatory yellow card per game for a needless foul being the main gripes but overall he is generally a dependable figure in the back line
I appreciate the way David Weir wants to utilise his full back in the final 3rd of the pitch but this cannot be to the detriment of the team as a defensive unit. With our recognised wide men tending to play narrow, we do need some width to the team and having full backs capable of playing more as a wing back can certainly work, if you have the right tools at your disposal.
Speaking of tools, I am yet to understand why Marcus Williams has started 3 out of 4 games at left back. Though he does possess a bit of pace and doesn’t seem to have a problem with pushing on and getting into the oppositions half, he is sadly lacking when it comes to both distribution and more importantly the ability to defend. The amount of times Williams allows his man to get a ball into our box is frightening and this has been the case throughout his entire career with United. Last season I felt that Matt Hill was as consistent as anyone in our back four and performed a lot better than anyone else in that position. Though Hill won’t be seen bombing up and down the left had side, he is a very competent defender and certainly uses the ball a lot more efficiently than Williams. I therefore find it hard to understand why he is yet to play a single minute of football and I was astounded to see McGinty play at left back against Colchester. Hopefully Hill will get a run over the next few weeks but if not, I don’t see why we shouldn’t look to offload him as he will probably be on a reasonable wage.
The obvious area of concern to most Blades now is replacing the massive void that has been left by the departure of Kevin McDonald. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I am of the opinion that McDonald is the best footballer outside of the top 2 divisions and this opinion hasn’t changed since his departure. As a result of this untimely kick in the swingers, we now need to find a player that possess at least some of the attributes that McDonalds was blessed with. Within the current squad we have a number of players who have a lot of ability but I don’t believe we have any that will fit into the role vacated by KMac. Connor Coady clearly has a lot of potential and is incredibly comfortable on the ball, you can see why he is so highly regarded at Liverpool and he is a lot more competent than a lot of our previous loanees from big clubs (Jon Cofie, Jon Newby and Michael Twiss to name a few) but at this stage of his career he would appear to be more suited to the box to box role and will more than likely be direct competition for Stephen McGinn. Callum McFadzean is quick and direct and has the ability to beat a man but similarly to Coady doesn’t yet have maturity to link midfield and attack and he shouldn’t be burdened with that responsibility. He would be much better utilised as a wide player and I am sure he will keep Jamie Murphy on his toes should he continue to drift in and out of games. Personally, I think we have to recruit someone for this position if we are going to make this system and shape a success. This role as a ‘number 10’ is more integral to our dynamic than any other position and we have to pick the right player. I could sit here and list numerous players that have been mentioned on forums and on various social media sites but what we have to remember is that whatever the fee was that we received for McDonald, it is very unlikely that we will be reinvesting the full amount and we certainly won’t be replicating the big Scot’s wages. I think the likes of Luke Freeman or Max Clayton would certainly be ideal replacements but unfortunately I can’t see us shelling out the fee’s that they would command and they may even be holding out for a more lucrative transfer, especially the much sort after Clayton.
Whilst I may seem to have picked apart certain areas of the team, there have also been positives to be taken from the opening weeks of the season. Febian Brandy looks to have settled in quickly and has been a fantastic acquisition and I think he will prove to be the difference in a lot of games this season. George Long has started the season in fantastic form and looks to have grown in confidence and stature over the summer and the teams insistence on retaining possession rather than the ‘hit and hope’ style we have become accustomed to is a breath of fresh air.
I still feel that with a lot of patience from fans, players and the press that David Weir’s methods will start to take shape and the team will grow and grow as the weeks and months pass. The next few weeks may yield more disappointment than adulation but I think by the time we are into October and the real thick of the season, we will be starting to reap the rewards of playing the game the right way.
Written by Ian Parkes, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger
Ian tweets at @ijparkes