Since Nigel Clough assumed his position in the manager’s office at Bramall Lane, the team have lost just twice in seven games, including three wins. On the face of it, this can be seen as steady progression and a vast improvement on what preceded it. All Blades fans would happily have taken this return following a dreadful first two and a half months of the season. I’m not sure however that many fans could have predicted which games would yield valuable points and which would end in disappointment. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that we would come away from Leyton Orient and Bristol City without defeat, nor would they have expected us to pick up just one point from home games against Gillingham and Walsall.
I completely agree with Clough when he says we need to ensure we are hard to beat and that we need to try and keep the score to ‘nil’ but I can’t help thinking this shouldn’t be achieved by removing all positivity and ambition from the team. The manager’s policy of playing four very defensively minded midfielders is fine away from home, particularly against teams who are higher than us in the table or who should be favourites to roll us over. I don’t however agree with this policy when playing at home and certainly not against a team like Gillingham who were frankly appalling and were there to be beaten. I was also left infuriated by the fact we clearly had no intention of trying to win the Walsall game until the last 15 minutes when Jamie Murphy was introduced. Had we been a little more expansive in our last 2 home games I can’t help but think we would be at least three points better off, if not five.
In those two home games the manager has chosen to use a combination of Lappin, Flynn, Doyle, McGinn, White and Coady in the middle of the park. In there we have two left backs, three defensive central midfield players and the worlds slowest and most negative right winger. Hardly a midfield that will frighten the opposition or more importantly provide any service to our strikers. I can see the logic from Clough that he doesn’t want us to lose but by playing a midfield packed with workers rather than footballers we will never score goals from open play. We have scored one goal from open play in our last six games with the rest coming from penalties, set pieces and own goals. Given our inability to keep the ball out at the other end, we will more often than not need to score more than once if we are going to win a game and this just isn’t happening at the moment. I’m not suggesting that we go gung ho and try and win games 4-3 but there needs to be a happy medium if we are to progress up the table. Tellingly, the attendance for the last home game was our lowest of the season and if we continue to serve up such negative football at home then the number of fans coming through the turnstiles will only continue to diminish.
Personally, I am a huge fan of players with pace and/or an element of unpredictability as these are attributes that all opposing players hate. There needs to be an end product and some creativity in there as well (take Jonathon Forte as an example of how not to use your attributes to the best of your ability) but players who can carry the ball 40 yards or who can buy you a set piece from nothing are essential if you are going to create chances and cause problems for the opposition. There are players within the current squad who are capable of carrying the ball at pace or of creating a chance from nothing but they seem to be getting over looked in favour of players who will work hard with very little quality to show for it.
The player who obviously ticks all these boxes is Febian Brandy but through his own stupidity and lack of discipline he has been unavailable for the majority of Nigel Clough’s tenure. Clough is a man of principle it would seem given his reluctance to pick Marlon King and Callum McFadzean being farmed out on loan and Brandy’s indiscretion doesn’t seem to have endeared him to his new boss. If we are to start creating chances and giving other teams something to think about when defending then Brandy and Clough need to kiss and make up quickly. Brandy’s work rate cannot be questioned so if Clough does trust him in the starting eleven then hopefully this should ensure he will stay in the team once he is reinstated. I would also be inclined to give Jamie Murphy another chance to show what he can do. I agree with most that Murphy has been a massive disappointment since his January move from Motherwell, but if the manager can coax the undoubted potential out of Murphy then we could have two of the most direct and frightening wide men in the division.
In the middle of the park it seems that despite what appears to be a complete lack of form, leadership and ability Michael Doyle will continue to be picked every week so unfortunately there is only one position up for grabs in the engine room. We have several options available in there (all of which offer more than the infuriating Doyle in my opinion) and I would be happy to see any of them given a prolonged spell in there. Stephen McGinn is a player I like and who I think has the ability to control a midfield at this level but I don’t think he can do this when he has to play alongside Captain Fantastic. As a result, I would be inclined to use McGinn away from home and against better sides where we need to dominate the middle of the pitch with work rate and simple possession rather than with creativity and direction. I am yet to see enough of Florent Cuvelier on a consistent basis to say with conviction that he is the man for the job but I certainly think he deserves a chance in there. He has shown glimpses of being a very tidy footballer with an eye for a pass which will be crucial if we are going to squeeze more goals out of our shot shy side. If I was in the managers hot seat I would be putting my faith in McGinn and Cuvelier with Connor Coady as a more than able deputy but I don’t think we are likely to see that partnership any time soon.
Our next game sees a potential banana skin of a cup tie and I think there will be a lot of neutrals who will be putting their money on Cambridge United to cause an upset. I am hoping to see an attack minded team selection from Clough with a few fringe players given a chance to stake a claim for a start in our next league game against Swindon Town. If we play a negative team against the Conference side on Sunday then this will only encourage them to have a go at us and with the home crowd behind them this could spell disaster. We have the quality to hurt them and I think if we were to get out of the blocks quickly and score an early goal we could go on to dominate the tie. Due to Tony McMahon’s suspension and Aidy White’s ineligibility there will be at least two enforced changes but I hope to see a few more experimental selections. With this in mind, my starting eleven would be: Howard, Kennedy, Maguire, McGinty, Hill, Brandy, Cuvelier, McGinn, Murphy, Taylor and Miller. We are very short of options at right back so though it is not his usual position, I would like to see Terry Kennedy given a chance to get some minutes under his belt. With the wide players and the two strikers I have picked we have enough pace and intelligence to put Cambridge to the sword and I think a goal or two for the likes of Miller or Taylor could do the world of good for their confidence. I can’t see Clough agreeing with my selection but hopefully the team he picks will be capable of scoring goals against a side ranked two divisions below us.
Though it may seem that I have been quite scathing about Nigel Clough’s reign to date, I am pleased with the way he has made us more difficult to beat and results have been considerably better than those served up by the previous regime. Away from home we have become more resolute and we are making progress up the table but I think it is now time that we started to introduce a bit more quality and creativity into our starting eleven.
To finish on a positive note, I would like to mention how refreshing it is to have someone like Jim Phipps involved with the day to day running of our club. Jim is a breath of fresh air in terms of a link between the fans and the club and his continual communication via Twitter is something that I know all the fans have been incredibly impressed by. To take time out of a busy schedule to answer the questions and queries of the fans is something that he doesn’t have to do but says a lot about the man that he still finds the time to do so. Long may this continue.
Written by Ian Parkes, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger
Ian tweets at @ijparkes