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Sheffield United will be relieved to get their first 3 points on the board after a hard fought 2-1 victory over Oxford United. A new look starting eleven, as well as newfound spirit and desire in the second half was enough to change The Blades’ fortunes. The United team saw Matt Done take a more central role upfront, whilst Jake Wright made his debut at centre half against the club he once captained. United manager Chris Wilder also came up against his former team, setting the stage for Blades side more determined than ever to have move off the bottom of League One.
United did not get off to the best of starts, with it taking just 16 minutes for Oxford to break the deadlock. A quick free kick routine straight from the training ground gave Liam Sercombe the space to send a fizzing shot from 25 yards, this testing the reactions of Simon Moore. Unfortunately he could only parry to Hemmings who latched onto the rebound and tapped it into the open net, making it 1-0 to the visitors. United will be disappointed with their inability to pick up Sercombe from the free kick, allowing him the space to strike unchallenged on Moore’s goal.
United however responded well. Some excellent close control and skill by Mark Duffy was enough to cut open the Oxford defence. His through ball gifted Kieron Freeman an opportunity he should have scored. However his shot was deflected over the bar after being blocked by the Oxford defence.
Half time saw one crucial change from Chris Wilder. Chris Hussey was brought off in place of Jack O’Connell. Hussey was often caught 10 yards off his man in the first half, gifting Oxford crucial opportunities and allowing them to stretch the play.
The 52nd minute saw the Blades nearly caught out again by another short free kick. John Lundstram’s effort from the edge of the box was scrambled away by Moore. I am sure Wilder will not be happy that the Blades were again not alert to the short free kick, particularly after the first goal. United must stamp out these basic errors.
The Blades then equalised in the 65th minute. Matt Done’s run and looping cross to the back stick was put away by Billy Sharp. His second of the season shows once again his clinicality inside the six yard box. With continued service, he will provide a handful in League One. United then snatched the victory after a great ball in from Duffy’s freekick which was met by the head of James Wilson. It was his first goal for the club and enough to seal the 3 points at Bramall Lane. The game then later saw the introduction of John Fleck, who played a few good through balls that penetrated the Oxford defence. However, Matt Done was not equal to them after covering almost every blade of grass in the to push United ahead.
A crucial three points for United who move out of the relegation zone ahead of September’s games.
Although going 1-0 down, United showed character and belief to dig themselves out of a hole. I think this may be proof that the manager’s footballing philosophy is finally getting across to the players, and Wilder himself is coming to grips with each player’s abilities. His decision to play Done centrally, as well as his confidence in Duffy and Scougall is all reflective of his ability to spot the characters needed in the team and take the decision to bring them in. He wants to build a side which presses and fights for the ball, with the aim of playing fast attacking football. Therefore he will try to exploit the pace and drive of players such as Done, Duffy and Scougall, who were outcast by other managers or were played out of position last season. These players will now thrive and provide a fruitful attacking line.
His signings of Moore, Wilson, Wright, O’Connell, Fleck and Clarke will all provide a new spine to the team. To allow the Duffy, Scougall and Done type players to thrive, a solid spine must be created. He has brought in strength and quality to the back line that has been missed since the days of Maguire. Furthermore his decision at half time to substitute off Chris Hussey was an inspired one, making United look comfortable across the back four. He seems to recognise where things don’t quite work and is flexible in order to find the right solution. It is this pragmatism, as opposed to the stubbornness of Clough and Adkins that will allow him to build a successful side. I think it is a two year project to get out of this league considering there were over 40 professional managers on the books, all of which had been signed by different managers. However, he seems to be doing a good job of removing bad players, getting the best out of the players whom remain and bringing in his own players with the ability and character to get United out of League One.
Jake Wright looked cool and assured at the back. He was aggressive, winning headers in abundance. He add a very composed and experienced head at the back that United have needed after a series of individual errors in recent games. O’Connell made the defence even sturdier when he came on at half time. He was solid defensively and added real solidity and physical power down the sides. He made a few good runs down the wing to support the wide players and showed good distribution. Distribution from the back has been missed since the times of Harry Maguire, however O’Connell does seem to have long through balls in his locker.
New keeper Simon Moore may have been a helping hand in solidifying the Blades defensively. He was a vocal presence and organised his defence rigidly. I am sure he and his defence will stamp out their inabilty to track quick free kicks however he wasn’t at fault much in the game. He couldn’t do anything for the goal, considering the defences lapse in concentration, however he pulled off a couple of impressive saves and organised well.
Matt Done looked a lot better more central. It allowed him to make runs in behind and latch on to the lost causes that haven’t been chased in previous weeks by Clarke and Sharp. At times he caused real problems. This tactical change was clever by Wilder, realising United need pace to supplement either Sharp or Clarke, who are similar in the respect that they hold the ball up and bring others into play. Now United will score more goals as these abilities can be exploited by creating solid centre forward partnerships. Done caused real problems in behind for Oxford. I am sure his end product will only improve after his spell away from playing upfront.
Coutts added a new dynamic to the midfield. He rarely lost the ball, playing a mix of short passes and ones which stretched the play and pulled open the Oxford defence. He is composed and strong on the ball, rarely losing it. He has often been scapegoated by United fans, however I believe he was one of the better players last season. As a harsh critic of his myself under Clough, I believe his run in the team last season hugely benefited him. With that extra sharpness from preseason in conjunction with Wilder’s initial thoughts to discard of him, I believe he will be motivated to fight for his place this season. I think he could be very crucial in the side this season and should be a regular starter.
Basham also looked improved. His quality on the ball isn’t quite there, but his ability to break up the play and provide energy in front of the back four is tremendous. He showed both improved distribution and ball-winning by comparison to recent weeks, offering Wilder options in the midfield. However another signing such as Sam Morsy from Wigan or Luke Murphy from Leeds would improve the Blades team, but there is quality in Fleck and Reed who wait patiently for a place in the starting eleven. The wingers are often frustrated by the lack of quick service from Basham as it leads to a decline in tempo. Scougall and Duffy grew more confident and thrived when they were receiving the ball quickly in the second half. This enabled them the time to turn on the ball and exploit their pace down the line and take players on, in order to overload the box with crosses and through balls. It also led to more chances in behind for Done, who will gamble on these sorts of chances.
However, it must be said that Sharp looked slow and off the pace. Despite this, he popped up again in the right place at the right time to fire United back into the game. As has been briefly mentioned above, I believe Clarke and Sharp to hold similar roles in Wilder’s system. They will both be used to hold up the ball or flick it on to exploit the pace held in the likes of Done, Duffy and Scougall. Therefore they should be rotated dependant upon the opponent and the centre halves they will play, likewise with Done and McNulty on the other side.
All in all, things look positive for The Blades. They have found their feet with their first competitive win under Chris Wilder. He has really shaken up the starting eleven since coming in, with a rebrand in footballing style and personnel. He has now found a solid back 4, which finished the game positively. He has also brought Coutts back into the side who alongside a new centre midfielder would provide real quality in the middle to exploit the target men and quick wide players. If the football is free flowing, United have various players who can produce goals. A couple of signings to strengthen this week will mean United have a very good chance going forward if the players trust Wilder.
Image taken from: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/sport/14710261.Jake_Wright__It_was_a_strange_feeling_facing_Oxford_United/?ref=rl&lp=1