The Blues are now without a win in four after Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa, and will be up against a Blades side out for a league double over them after their 2-0 victory at Goodison Park in September.
Chris Wilder’s men have defied all expectations in their first season back in the top-flight and sit eighth, with Europa League qualification still not yet off the cards.
Though, they may need to win this game to keep those dreams alive after a 2-0 defeat at Leicester last time out.
Ahead of Monday’s game, we spoke to Sheffield United fans Paul, Ian, and Phil from the Four Blades In The Pub podcast:
RBM: Firstly, for Sheff Utd to still have a chance of European qualification in their first season back in the top-flight is a fantastic achievement. How have they done it?
Ian: By sticking true to the principles that gave us two promotions in three seasons and by recruiting players that buy into the ethos, the demands from the management team and the discipline required. The results have then followed. Players understand their role and that might mean doing the dirty work alongside the flair.
The clean sheets and defensive record has been a little surprising given the quality of opposition we are now facing, but we defend from the front and keep a disciplined shape that teams have found difficult to break down.
Much has been made of the overlapping centre-backs and overloads in wide areas and we have played some good attacking football, if only lacking the final ball at times. That is one area we will no doubt need to strengthen in the summer.
RBM: Do you think people do Sheff Utd a disservice by saying how hard they work? Have they got enough credit for how good they are as footballers as well?
Ian: I think that’s right. As a team coming up, when you do get the big results (four points off each of Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Wolves etc.) there is a tendency for opposition fans and media alike to refer to the big club having an off-day against hard working opposition. That is so frustrating to hear as a Blades fan. We play exciting, attacking football built on that solid defensive platform.
Yes players work hard, but midfielders Oliver Norwood and John Fleck have shown they fit right in at Premier League level, while our back five have a record that is as good as the two Manchester clubs and second only to Liverpool, despite their additional attacking intent. We are seeing signs of players like Oli McBurnie showing that the experience of this season will hold them in good stead next season.
Our likely player of the season is Chris Basham who was here pre-Wilder and has been a mainstay of that journey from League One. You don’t achieve that without having qualities beyond being hard-working.
RBM: Are you at all wary about the effect the Europa League can have on league form, or does it just feel surreal for Sheff Utd to still be in the mix?
Paul: It’s just more than four years since Wilder took charge, and we were looking at a fixture list that started in August 2016 with Bolton (A), Rochdale (H), Southend (H), Millwall (A) and were bottom with just one point after those four. We’re potentially two games away from looking at a fixture list that includes Europa League qualifiers. If you’d told me that when Billy Sharp was getting the beers in for the coach after that last-minute 2-1 defeat at Millwall, I’d have questioned your sanity.
This is a dream, not something to be wary of. A lot depends on the way a club or a manager approaches these things, and I’m sure in Wilder we have one who will relish the challenge and try to make a mark on the competition while not allowing it to have a negative influence on the league form, in much the same way that Wolves and Nuno Espirito Santo have this season.
RBM: David McGoldrick only broke his Premier League duck in last weekend’s win over Chelsea, yet has been a regular for most of the season. What makes the striker so important?
Phil: McGoldrick is the main reason we play well when we do. When he’s on it, he’s virtually unplayable. If he could score 15-20 goals a season at this level, he’d be a £50 million player. He’s that good at everything else.
The description I often use on our podcast is that the game slows down when he gets the ball; he makes everything just look so easy. As the link between midfield and attack, he is so much more than a striker. You will often see him pop up in the left or right-back position after a tracking a man and stealing the ball or just to come looking for the ball to start another attack from right at the back.
The frustrating thing about his lack of goals has been the amount of times he’s been in the right place only to be denied by a worldie save, lack of concentration or confidence or because John Lundstram’s big toe being offside five minutes before.
All in all, he’s an absolute Rolls Royce of a footballer that replacing will be one of Chris Wilder’s toughest challenges as our manager.
RBM: Chris Wilder was extremely critical of Sheff Utd at Leicester, saying they were ‘way off it’. Do you expect a reaction against Everton, or did it feel like the players may now have run out of steam?
Paul: He has a habit of doing that after the players haven’t reached the heights that he demands and expects of them. I remember a particularly drab performance on a cold Friday night in Hull that ended in a 1-0 defeat and a similar public dressing down; the players responded with a 3-1 win at Reading a few days later and I’m expecting the same kind of response on Monday night.
He’s got form this season, too, with being roundly condemned by many pundits for his comments about Dean Henderson’s error that gifted Liverpool three points at Bramall Lane. Henderson responded the following week with an outstanding performance to keep a clean sheet and win a point for United away at Watford. The man knows what he’s doing, and it’s this kind of straight talking that makes us, and his players, love him so much.
RBM: Phil Jagielka has only made ten appearances for Sheff Utd since leaving Everton and returning to Bramall Lane. Has he still made a positive impact, and are you surprised/disappointed he hasn’t featured more?
Paul: He’s played the kind of role I think most of us would have expected from him considering his age. He wasn’t going to displace John Egan at the heart of the defence and to ask him to do what the other two do at 37 would have been a very big ask.
The knowledge and experience that he will have passed on to the back three of Basham, Egan and Jack O’Connell, and his general presence in the squad after the career he has had, will have been invaluable.
RBM: How do you expect Sheffield United to set up on Monday?
Ian: There won’t be any change in formation. The gaffer’s reaction to the Leicester defeat tells you all you need to know about his expectations for the season and of his team. We looked leggy, off the pace and it clearly took him by surprise. Ordinarily, that would mean a freshening up of the team for Monday, most likely in midfield and up front, but with Wilder, you never know.
A start for Fleck alongside Norwood and possibly Lundstram (restored against his former club) is possible. Up front our best partnership looks to be McBurnie and McGoldrick; the latter makes us tick and pops up everywhere on the pitch. Scorer at Goodison, Lys Mousset, is frustratingly inconsistent and may well be used off the bench.
RBM: Who do you think can cause Everton the most problems?
Phil: We’re not a team that has that one player that causes other teams major problems. It’s a cliche but we’re very much a sum of our parts and several of those parts need to click for us to be effective but when we are we pressure teams until breaking them down.
We’ve already talked about McGoldrick and how he can knit it all together. Norwood is similar in that he keeps things moving. Sander Berge is growing into his price tag and starting to look a real threat, and Lundstram and Fleck can both score goals out of nowhere when having quiet games.
The one I’m most looking forward to seeing how he does, though, is McBurnie. He’s grown into a proper front man as the season has gone on and bullied Chelsea and Spurs’ defences before knackering himself out.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Monday’s game?
Paul: A repeat of September’s scoreline taking the Europa League hopes into the final game. 2-0 United.
Phil: 2-0 Blades.
Ian: It will be a tight game and a lot will depend on our reaction to the Leicester defeat. Even though home advantage is currently diluted, we would expect us to maintain our recent home form and nick it 2-1.
Our thanks to Paul, Jon, Ian, Luke, Phil and Dan for their time.