Sheffield United preview

 Here is Nat’s preview for our Sunday lunch time game.


Current Form
The Blades (or is it Blunts?) come into this game on a slide with no win in the last four competitive games, though two were admittedly against Premiership Hull City in an FA Cup tie they lost in a fraught replay at the KC Stadium on Thursday. It can only be hoped that a lack of recovery time from playing on Thursday can only hinder their performance through tiredness on Sunday.
Last time out
The last time these two sides met at Bramall Lane was in a low-key League Cup tie in October 2006, which even with the backdrop of Steve Bruce ‘s job at St.Andrews being in severe jeopardy was nothing more than a mundane looking game, treated as such by the paltry 10,584 crowd and by Neil Warnock fielding a reserve team.
The Yorkshiremen took an early lead through the often underrated Ade Akinbiyi. Twenty minutes later Blues equalised with one of the strangest goals seen. Centre-half Chris Morgan attempted to hoof the ball up the pitch, only for it to rebound of DJ Campbell and from some twenty-five yards the ball soared over Ian Bennett’s (yes, OUR Ian Bennett) despairing dive and into the net.
The unbelievable luck seemed to give Blues’ charges an essence of resurgence, and after the interval they raced into a two-goal lead through Bendtner and Jerome (yes he can score, only joking Cameron, keep on trucking). A fabulous Nick Montgomery strike gave United hope before Larsson sealed the win in the ninety-third minute.
For those of you lucky (or unlucky, whatever the case may be) enough to read my Derby preview this is déjà vu, but as we know in the aftermath of this game Bruce clung on to his job like me to a warm Balti Pie and the rest, as the coined cliché goes, is history.
The season so far
After a late-season resurgence under Kevin Blackwell after the malaise of the Bryan Robson era, the Blades went into this season full of hope that they could lodge a serious bid for promotion to the Premiership.
The season started in Bordesley Green, where they were stoutly set up and heading for a well-deserved draw until Kevin Phillips struck with an injury-time winner. Following one from that was a collection of a seven points from a possible nine, until they suffered the ignominy of being the first team to lose a league game against Paul Jewell’s Derby County. Still their positive start seemed to reaffirm themselves as promotion candidates.
After that, their season started to level out into a consistent point-winning rhythm, consolidating themselves in the play-off picture without ever really looking like overtaking Wolves, Reading or ourselves to try and claim a top-two spot. Much of their decent form was seemingly down to the talismanic work of James Beattie, but with his future in the balance it seemed that Sheffield’s aspirations balanced with it.
The dawn of the January transfer window heralded the departure of Beattie to Stoke City, and his ex-side’s form has been indifferent since then, with good wins against Charlton and Southampton being complimented by local derby defeats at Bramall Lane against Doncaster Rovers and, much more seriously, Sheffield Wednesday.
They currently sit in seventh, and with three points separating Ipswich in tenth and Cardiff in fourth it is undeniably tight in the play-off chase. United probably have the talent to gain a play-off space, but consistently solid performances will be needed from now until May to cement that place, particularly as teams vying for one of those spots have matches in hand over them.
The Manager
Those of you who have read my previews recently may well have come to the conclusion that my appraisals show I am nothing more than a devout follower of Managers in this Division. Not so, as the following will show. It is my sad duty to inform you that my personal opinion is that Kevin Blackwell is a bellend, a seemingly friendly man, but in my opinion undoubtedly a bellend.
Blackwell had a rather insignificant career pottering around the English lower leagues, with the highlight (and highlight in a loose sense of the word) being part of five different teams under Neil Warnock’s Management. He took his first steps into being a coach/manager by helping Warnock with training at Huddersfield Town, and from then on wherever Warnock went Blackwell lingered like a bad smell.
This partnership was bitterly ended however when Blackwell left his post as Warnock’s assistant at Sheffield United to join the Leeds backroom staff in the Summer of 2003. Following relegation from the premiership, Blackwell was appointed to the hotseat. A season of transition and much needed consolidation in the Championship for the debt-ridden club followed, and the following season Blackwell guided the club to the play-off final. However the fairytale turnaround was to remain a fairytale as Blackwell was outwitted and his team comprehensively destroyed by Aidy Boothroyd and Watford.
The failure to get promotion was a farce, because for long periods of that season Leeds were nicely poised to overhaul the stumbling Sheffield United into second place, but Blackwell’s conservatively defensive tactics often meant they were held back from picking up vital points. The following season was a disaster, and after a three-nil crushing at home to Sunderland he received the sack.
In my opinion, he deserves some of the blame for Leeds’ subsequent demise. The failure to win promotion was in a way down to his archaic tactics in the league campaign generally, and were cruelly exposed by the switched on Boothroyd in the play-off final. That failure had a massive impact on Leeds, as the Premiership parachute money departed, contributing to their debts which forced them into administration. The team he created also crumbled under the weight of too many has-beens and it was the team that was bad enough to get relegated to League One.
After an ill-fated spell at Luton, he joined Sheffield United in February 2008 as Manager. After a fairly decent start, they have fallen by the wayside of late and the test is on to see if Blackwell can take them into the play-offs and beyond. My opinion is that he won’t, and it won’t be too long after that before he is looking for his fourth manager’s job.
Team news
Lupoli, Ward, O’Toole, Beattie (Craig) and Bromby are back after being cup-tied for their replay at Hull in midweek, and Darius Henderson is back after injury. However Kilgallon, Montgomery and Webber are all doubts and Gary Speed is definitely out.
Possible line-up
Kenny, Naughton, Morgan, Bromby, Naysmith, Lupoli, O’Toole, Howard, Quinn, Sharp, Beattie
Key man
Brian Howard is a wonderful player. A player who runs his socks off for ninety minutes. A player who has a great ability to run past players with strength and skill as if they were statues. A player who can propel a shot from forty yards or keep his composure from four. A man who you can build a whole team around. A player who can drag a team by its bootstraps and carry it through games, weeks, months, seasons, an ability only possessed by him and Steven Gerrard.
There is nothing we can do to legally stop him. We can only hope that we crock him, he crocks himself or he has an off-day.
This man quite simply should be a Premiership player.
Tactical strengths
The main strength United have when looking at their prospective side is their attacking strength in midfield. In players such as Howard, O’Toole, Lee Hendrie and Quinn, there is much creativity and the potential for a goal from anyone of them. It might be an idea to stick to deep lying centre-midfielders to try and solidify in the middle of the park for the beginning of the game until we gain a footing.
Tactical weaknesses
As I talk about the attacking strength of their midfield, the lack of a holding midfielder in Gary Speed’s absence must be a concern for Blackwell. Their midfield has a similar mindset to Nottingham Forest’s midfield at St.Andrews, and they evidently struggled. Blackwell has the option of placing Sun Jihai there, but it would be a case of fitting round pegs in square holes, and I haven’t been of the opinion that he has been any good in recent times. Blues could look to exploit this by potentially looking to play a third centre-midfielder to play in front of the two centre-midfielders behind the striker.
A second principal weakness in the Blades’ side is the lack of pace at the back, particularly with Kilgallon being out on Sunday. Therefore we should look to play Jerome, because the Bramall Lane pitch is big and the two centre-halves will leave spaces behind them which they will struggle to cover which Jerome can look to run into. It is noticeable that Jerome tends to score on bigger pitches away from the short pitch at St.Andrews. This could be the place where he can break his goal drought.
My team would be…
I would pick this reason for a few reasons. One is that the back four deserve a game because they did very well to nullify Crystal Palace on Tuesday, so they can stay as they are. Another reason is that the two deep centre-midfielders in Bowyer and Carsley (or Johnson if Carsley is injured) have the discipline, quality and experience to stop their midfield from getting balls through to the strikers. A third reason is that when I was talking about playing a midfielder in front of the bank of four, there is no-one more creative than Keith Fahey, and I definitely think they could struggle to deal with him if he’s given a free role . Another is that the two wingers in Larsson and Bouazza give us the width to stretch the gung-ho midfield, and are more inclined to hug the touchline than Scott Sinclair, who spends a lot of his time trying to cut inside. My final factor is that Jerome is the only striker with the pace and power to really cause problems for the cumbersome centre-halves, which could create space for Fahey, Larsson and Bouazza to flood into spaces, or for him to get his own opportunities to score.
Blades will come at us and with our tendency to start games slow don’t be too surprised with an early setback. However I think we have the quality and discipline to at least nick a point from this one, but we are due a win, especially after our unrewarded good performance on Tuesday.
Blades 1-2 Blues

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