The newly-promoted Blades are back in the top-flight for the first time since 2006-07, having been in League One when manager and boyhood fan Chris Wilder took over in May 2016.
They sit 15th after five games, with the 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace in August their only victory so far.
Saturday could also see a return to Goodison for former Blues captain Phil Jagielka, who rejoined Sheffield United in July after 12 years on Merseyside, as well as Everton academy graduate John Lundstram.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, we spoke to Sheffield United fans Paul, Jon, Ian, Luke, Phil and Dan from the new Four Blades In The Pub podcast about what to expect from Wilder’s Blades this weekend:
RBM: Firstly, Sheffield United had spent five consecutive seasons in League One before Chris Wilder arrived and led them to the Premier League in three years. Where he has he succeeded where his predecessors failed?
Phil: The first thing Wilder did in his tenure was make Billy Sharp club captain, a decision that has been repaid by Billy and then some. That decision went some way to what he said was his first objective, reconnect the football club with the fans. This club when together is a special place but can be very different when there’s a disconnect, as Nigel Adkins saw with a vengeance.
On the pitch and in the simplest terms, what Wilder did different to his predecessors was get rid of players that weren’t good enough and replaced them with better ones. Players like Martyn Woolford, Dean Hammond and Conor Sammon, some of the worst in my lifetime, were binned off and he brought in players like John Fleck, Jack O’Connell and Mark Duffy. All three were key to promotion to the Premier League; two are still regulars today.
Added to that, he got the best out of players like Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman by playing to their strengths. We haven’t looked back since (ignoring his first four games).
RBM: Five games in, how do you think Sheffield United have settled in to life back in the top-flight?
Paul: If you’d have listened to the so-called ‘experts’ over the course of the summer, you’d have expected to see a side out of their depth with people questioning how on earth they got promoted in the first place.
Instead, people are now starting to see what we have seen for the last three seasons, and that is a side that mixes hard work and ability with a structure where each and every one of them knows their role, so it comes as little surprise to us that these players haven’t looked out of place at all.
Two defeats in five don’t tell the full story. United could easily be unbeaten going into this game with a little bit more luck (hello VAR...) and a touch more composure in front of goal. The performance and comeback in the second half at Chelsea [2-2 draw from 2-0 down] should be enough to give the players the belief that they can more than hold their own in this division.
RBM: Despite nine summer signings, ten of Sheffield United’s starting XI against Southampton on Saturday played for them in the Championship last season. While the personnel has not changed much so far, has the style of play?
Jon: The style of play hasn’t changed per se this season, however, there’s a little apprehension in periods of play as there’s an argument that some of the team are a little nervous about ‘playing in the big boys’ league.’
As for the side not overtly changing, Wilder often takes time to integrate new players into the XI. Six of that XI were at the club two seasons ago and three stretch back to the League One promotion season.
In terms of a style of play potentially emerging, I can see us being more disciplined when attacking in certain games, but that’s not a new tactical revolution. Victories over the last two years at Leeds and West Brom last season show we are more than capable of doing that away from home in ‘big games’ when necessary.
RBM: Phil Jagielka will get a great reception at Goodison should he play on Saturday. Given his experience, are you surprised he has only featured once, as a late substitute, so far this season?
Ian: Any central defender who comes into our squad has a difficult challenge on their hands. The unique way in which our defenders are required to play, particularly those on the left and right hand side of the three centre-backs [see Appendix below], places a reliance on stamina and ability with the ball at your feet as much as defensive capabilities.
Allied with establishing the requisite understanding of team-mates’ movement and interplay, it means that the players we’ve got and brought us on this journey are near-irreplaceable. There are few equivalents in the transfer market and, barring injury or suspension, they are unlikely to lose their place.
Much is made of the overlapping centre backs but it places an importance on that role and the ability of a player to get up and down the field. In many ways, Chris Basham’s early career as a midfielder makes him ideal for this role and, on that basis, you could argue Jags is similar.
The one thing counting against Jags is his age and, for that reason, he will always be a cover for either the right or middle of the three centre-backs. I suspect he came here knowing that, but I’m sure he’ll be keen for his chance to come and he’s already played a role coming off the bench to help shore up the back when we were holding onto a lead heading into the final minutes against Crystal Palace.
RBM: Another former Blue, John Lundstram, has been a more permanent fixture so far, starting all five league games. What does he bring to the Blades’ midfield?
Dan: Lunny performs two roles in one for us in midfield. He allows our wing-backs and centre-backs to push on by dropping in to cover when required, which is a huge requirement given the system we play. But he’s also predominantly the one of our midfield three who looks to get forward most when we have the ball and get on the end of crosses and pull backs in the box, as he did when he scored the winner against Palace.
I suppose he could be described as an old-fashioned box-to-box midfielder, but he’s also better on the ball than I think a lot gave him credit for when he first arrived. There’s an argument to say, based on the first few games of the season, that he’s quickly become one of our key players.
RBM: Considering Sheffield United’s two defeats have both come at home, could Saturday’s game suit them better playing away than if it was at Bramall Lane?
Paul: While on paper, two defeats from three home games isn’t great, the performances have deserved more than what they have so far achieved, with the Leicester game [2-1 defeat] settled by the division’s goal of the month and a mixture of poor finishing and equally as poor officiating being our downfall last time out against Southampton.
This calendar year, though, the away form has been nothing short of exceptional and with only one defeat in the last 13 (incidentally a defeat inflicted by our now record signing, Oli McBurnie), home sides are finding it difficult to break down a well-organised defence marshalled by the excellent John Egan.
This run includes wins at two automatic promotion rivals and a draw at Carrow Road, plus the last-minute heroics so far this season at the Vitality Stadium and Stamford Bridge, so this is a side that never knows when it is beaten on the road who will again be backed by a packed-out and noisy away end.
RBM: How do you expect Sheffield United to set up on Saturday?
Luke: It’s been nearly three years since we started a game in anything other than a 3-5-2 system. The central three of the midfield five tends to rotate in shape and personnel to suit the flow of the game, and we have a permutation of strikers who all bring something a bit different in the way they can play - it’s often a bit of a guess as to which two will get the nod up front.
RBM: Who do you think can cause Everton the most problems?
Luke: It’s difficult to highlight any one player as a particular threat. Our attacking play tends to operate with a ‘hunt in packs’ strategy, creating overloads with players popping up in positions you may not expect (or want) them to be.
If I had to pick a single player to be wary of, I’d probably say the enigma that is David McGoldrick. Picked off the scrapheap by Wilder at the start of last season, he plays as a striker on the teamsheet only but operates in a bit of a free role, often dropping deep or wide into space as a conduit for our attacking play.
He has a sublime first touch, can drift past people effortlessly and pick a pass. He isn’t the most clinical in front of goal and is currently on the back of a few games where he’s fluffed some good chances. This may bring his place in the side into question for this game but looking at the bigger picture, he’s been instrumental in a lot of our better attacking play recently, and you could say he’s due one.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Paul: This is tough as they come, considering Everton’s recent home record, but as previously mentioned, the Blades are enjoying their travels this year and I fancy that to continue with a hard fought 1-1 draw to end our host’s 100 per cent home start to the season.
Our thanks to Paul, Jon, Ian, Luke, Phil and Dan for their time. You can listen to their preview of Saturday’s game from 45:37 here.
Sheffield United’s very unique system of overlapping centrebacks is covered in depth in this excellent piece here.