After spending 6 long years in League One, Sheffield United went into their opening game against with real momentum following an excellent campaign last season which saw them finish with 100 points and crowned Champions. Over 26,000 were at Bramall Lane to see The Blades’ 1-0 victory in their opening fixture in the Championship against Brentford; a side which finished 10th in this division last season. It was a competitive affair that could have swung either way, meaning The Blades will be more than happy with both the result and the performance they churned out in this tricky fixture. It lays a positive foundation upon which Chris Wilder can build upon for the rest of the season and will give a good indication of the areas which must be improved if The Blades want to compete at this level.
It was Brentford who were presented with the first clear cut chance of the game. Fleck was dispossessed by Jota midway inside his own half after failing to bring the ball under his control. The Spaniard’s driving run and intelligent pass created an opportunity for Lasse Vibe. However his shot from inside the box was saved at the front post by the firm hands of debutant goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, tipping the shot away for a corner.
However, it was The Blades who then started to drag themselves into the game a little more. Enda Stevens drilled one from range, only to see his effort cannon back off the post. And three-quarters of the way through the first half, it was United who finally broke the deadlock. After Brentford failed to fully clear a Paul Coutts corner, Leon Clarke swung a leg at it, only to miss-time his kick to the jeers of the Brentford faithful. However, Clarke kept his cool and produced a delicate chipped cross on his left foot, which met the head of skipper Billy Sharp who made it 1-0 to The Blades.
The Blades came out for the second half in great spirits off the back of this first half goal. Both Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp had goals harshly ruled out for offside. However the Blades were nearly punished late in the game as Brentford twice went close. Fleck failed to get close enough to Jota who cut inside and fired a ferocious shot at Blackman. Yennaris then headed the rebound off the crossbar unchallenging by Basham who was appealing for offside. Vibe then squandered the resulting rebound, heading over the empty goal to the despair of Brentford’s travelling supporters, perhaps due to the pressure he felt from Jamal Blackman sprinting back across his line. A real left off for United.
A sprawling Blackman then secured all 3 points with a tremendous save. Brentford countered quickly after a United corner, with Ryan Woods making a driving run from midfield. His pinpoint pass founds its way into the path of the new £1.6m striker Neal Maupay just inside the United area. However, Blackman was alert and quickly nullified the danger, racing off his line to close down the angle and making an excellent save.
This was clearly a really good result for Sheffield United. Brentford finished 10th last season and play some very tidy football. The likes of Jota make them a very exciting attacking side; one which scored 75 goals last season – an average of nearly two a game. Therefore, I believe credit must be given to the defence that Chris Wilder has built over the summer and the chemistry they already seem to have. Stearman slotted in the ‘Jake Wright role’ comfortably, commanding and organising the defence from the middle and winning his aerial duels. He looks to be an astute signing and will provide invaluable experience at the heart of the defence. He worked well with O’Connell and Basham who were both good in winning the ball back and bring it into the midfield, a freedom the experience of Stearman allows.
Behind them, Jamal Blackman did himself no harm with a great display inbetween the sticks. Although he had some kicks which went astray, his shot stopping ability cannot be denied. He made two or three saves which kept United in the game and helped to seal the points, making the race for the goalkeepers jersey an interesting one when Simon Moore returns.
Stevens and Freeman put in very determined performances. New signing Stevens was very steady defensively and really pushed to get forward and help in attacking regions, seeing one long-range effort rebound off the post. He looks to be a great asset and will provide United with the same defensive stability that Lafferty provides, however with a more attacking edge to his play. Freeman seemed more reserved offensively in this game than we saw last season, however, this is something that I believe is necessary against the better sides in the Championship. He put in a tough defensive performance, whilst still providing that attacking quality he showed last season at times. The defence looks like it is already working as a United and as the season goes on and grows in confidence, I think they will also provide crucial goals they did last season.
The midfield also slotted into the league above comfortably. Although at times Fleck seemed to struggle from not having as much time of the ball as he was granted last season, I think he will only improve as the season goes on. He showed glimpses of the excellence he displayed last season, particularly with only hooked pass he volleyed into the path of Enda Stevens. As match sharpness increases, I have no doubts we will see Fleck putting his stamp on games as he did last season. Coutts added real composure in the midfield area, winning the ball back and retaining possession of the ball. You can see the confidence he now has in his play. He will be crucial in this division, looking at ease in the centre of the park.
Carruthers was creative and looks to be making the role in behind the strikers his own, showing great touches and passing at times. Sharp and Clarke were also useful. Clarke looked a menace, providing a real presence for the Brentford defence to deal with. Sharp also did what he does best – scoring. However, I believe United lacked the star quality and spark that you could see in Brentford’s attacking line. When Jota got the ball, he had a star quality to him. Even on an off-day by his standards, it felt like when he got the ball, he could create something from nothing. We lack a real diamond like this up the top end, something which is essential at this level. A lot of games are going to be very tight. If we want to turn some draws into wins, I think we need a creative and pacey spark up top, something Wilder may be hoping is found in the young David Brooks.
However, moving away from individuals, I believe the as a collective, United showed Saturday the exact principles and mentality that Wilder has instilled into his team. The had a rugged determination to win, and did so by any means. United pressed all over the field and showed a real desire not to be beaten. You can see the underdog mentality that is running through them in this league, something I believe will spur them on as a team. The team spirit that Wilder built last season will therefore be crucial. With a few more players of the same mentality that add bits of quality in key areas, United will find life in The Championship quite comfortable.
THE BLADES WAY; @blades_way
Image taken from sufc.co.uk