With new investment comes new optimism and Blades around the world can be forgiven for getting more excited than we have done since the glory days of the Premier league. The counter balance to this excitement however is the inevitable pressure that has now been heaped on the club, the players and crucially the manager. Ultimately results on the pitch will determine our level of success over the coming season and this is where we are currently coming up short.
When a new manager comes in to any club there has to be a settling in period and an acceptance that immediate results are unlikely. Personally and from speaking to other fans, this was something I was more than willing to accept when David Weir was appointed. Everything about his arrival seemed right when he was announced as our latest manager. A fresh start with a young, hungry manager who is eager to cut his teeth in the managerial world. I now have to be honest and admit that I am starting to wonder if our current poor form is just an adjustment period or a sign that this could be another catastrophic appointment.
The principals that David Weir and his staff are trying to adapt are commendable and the pretty, tippy tappy football he clearly endorses does have its merits. Anyone that has been to watch United over the last 30 years will tell you that we would love to see a manager who plays football with the ball on the ground and not another gaffer who would rather ram the ball into a useless 6ft 5in lump and hope that we can feed off the scraps. However, there has to be a massive change in the way we are using the ball at present.
The idea of playing one striker as a focal point of the attack and playing other forward thinking players around him is not necessarily a bad one but this must not have a detrimental effect on our creativity. The vast majority of teams higher up the league ladder play this way and to great affect but in my opinion there is one massive difference. They always play with width in the team. Now I’m not going to compare the players we have to those in the upper reaches of the Premier League but the principles and team shape can certainly be mirrored.
Teams like Chelsea play one striker through the middle and three flair players in support. No matter whom the three players are in that role, two of them always start from wide and then drift in. Our current shape works in exactly the opposite way with players having to come from narrow positions to try and get on the ball in wide areas. This then affects the whole balance of the side. Another way of playing is the style that is adopted by Aston Villa. Christian Benteke plays the width of the 18 yard box and no more whilst Andy Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor primarily stay wide but join Benteke whenever an attack is building down the opposite wing.
Both those slight variations of the same formation create oodles of chances and can both be used to great affect by the players at David Weir’s disposal. We have natural width and pace in Jamie Murphy, Callum McFadzean, Fabien Brandy and the returning Shaun Miller so the Aston Villa blueprint would work perfectly given the weapons we possess in our arsenal. In recent games, the few chances we have created have come from wider positions and for example, the introduction of McFadzean at Carlisle provided the few sparks of creativity that we were able to produce. This would then allow one of Jose Baxter or Florent Cuvelier to take up their natural position playing just off the man through the middle. This may place a lot of emphasis on the two holding midfielders to ensure that they don’t stray too far forward, allowing us to become exposed, but as the full backs could now adopt a more defensive approach than at present this would counteract the more advanced wide men in our 11.
At Brunton Park Weir appeared to try and introduce some width to the side by playing Darryl Westlake on the right of a midfield four but this is a huge case of a square peg in a round hole and to me smacks of desperation. Westlake does have a good delivery in him at times and in a similar way to the now departed Matt Lowton, he is an attack minded right back but he is by no means the answer to our problems.
As it stands I can’t help but feel sorry for Lyle Taylor, Chris Porter and Joe Ironside who have all had a crack at filling the ‘number 9’ role this season. All 3 players have their limitations and I agree with the masses that we do need another striker but the service they have received in our games to date (Notts County aside) has been nothing short of appalling. Strikers at any level are only as good as the chances they are given and so far this season I would be surprised if they have had more than 4 or 5 good chances to feed off between them. From the small amount we have seen from Taylor especially, I do genuinely believe he will score goals if he is provided with the right service.
In the squad David Weir has both inherited and built upon there are certainly chances and goals to be found of this I have no doubt, but the shape and structure of the side at present will never coax more than a handful of goals out of this team. The narrow, methodical passing game we play at present is far too negative and doesn’t invite players to try something a bit different or get into positions where they can use their undoubted ability. As a friend of mine correctly tells me on a regular basis, negative football breeds negative results and so far the proof is in the pudding. I think the best example of this negativity would be that with 10 minutes to go of Saturday’s game and with the side trailing 1-0, Carlisle win a corner and David Weir insists that every single player defends the set piece from their own 18 yard box. Not a single player was pushed out to the half way line for the Carlisle defence to mark. Sadly this sums up our current predicament and Weir’s reluctance to remove the shackles and let the players play the way we all know that they can.
Aside from our issues in the oppositions final third, our back four also still concerns me. We constantly gift goals to the opposition and make stupid mistakes that shouldn’t be happening at any level, let alone from professional footballers. The central defensive partnership of Collins and Maguire worries me and has since the first full season they played together in 2011/2012. That year we scored more goals than anyone else in the country and still didn’t get promoted. Make of that what you will! The main issue for me is that for two and a bit seasons now they have had no competition for their shirt. No one knocking on the door and looking to take their starting place from them. Both Maguire and Collins know that no matter how poor they play they won’t be dropped as we have no one to replace them.
Personally I would be as eager to get another centre half or two as I would be to get another striker into the squad but from everything I have read David Weir doesn’t appear to share my views. If the rumoured interest in Harry Maguire is true and the reported £4m fee is also correct, then if I were Kevin McCabe I would be packing up his belongings and driving him to whichever club he wants to go. Maguire is easily replaceable and the funds his sale would create could make a huge difference to strengthening the rest of the squad.
Despite all the doom and gloom I would like to finish on a positive note. Whilst every player around him has faltered and performed well below their capabilities, George Long has gone from strength to strength. He seems to mature and grow with every game and is fast becoming another in a long line of great goalkeepers we have been fortunate enough to see at the Lane. Whilst the jury is out on whether or not Harry Maguire can go on to play at the highest level, I have no doubt that Long will become a Premier League goalkeeper and I don’t think I am being unrealistic when I say he could also become an England number 1 if he continues to progress at his current rate. Unfortunately he is likely to fulfil his potential away from S2 but I for one would not begrudge him the big move that he certainly deserves. Hopefully we will be able to retain his services for the rest of the current campaign before he inevitably leaves us for pastures new.
Written by Ian Parkes, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger
Ian tweets at @ijparkes