Sheffield United 2020/21 preview: How can Blades build on stunning season?

Ahead of the new campaign, we look at the Blades' strengths, weaknesses and what the targets will be for Chris Wilder's side...

Sheff Utd

Sheffield United made a mockery of last summer's pre-season predictions to finish in the top half of the Premier League.

A side tipped to prop up the pack did not spend a day in the drop zone, instead pushing lofty rivals for a Europan spot until the penultimate round - quite some going for a newly-promoted team packed with Premier League debutants and assembled with the lowest wage bill in the division.

How to build on such an improbable achievement?

Consolidation should be the watchword but Blades boss Chris Wilder is a man loath to stand still...

Chris Wilder
Image: Chris Wilder and his staff will be out for further improvement, despite a remarkable 2019/20 campaign

Where they stand

A string of victories against Tottenham, Wolves and Chelsea had thrillingly kept Sheffield United in touch in the race for Europe after the restart but those wins were sandwiched by lethargic displays as injuries and fatigue belatedly took their toll on a thin squad. The Blades' high-intensity game suffered too, in stadiums shorn of supporters.

A truncated pre-season described by Wilder as a "crash course" has been challenging but the United manager has talked up his players' enthusiasm for the quick turnaround.

Aaron Ramsdale (Left) and Dean Henderson (Right)
Image: After two seasons with a loan player between the sticks in Dean Henderson, Sheffield United have made a permanent signing in Aaron Ramsdale

The £18.5m signing of goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale to replace loan star Dean Henderson has been the club's heftiest piece of business - the summer's budget had already been raided in part for Sander Berge in January, before the financial impact of the pandemic began to be felt. It will please Wilder that Berge, who told Sky Sports in July that he had needed time to adapt following his club-record move, impressed in pre-season before heading off on international duty.

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John Egan, Oliver Norwood and Chris Basham have signed new deals, while extensions for the likes of Jack Rodwell and Phil Jagielka will provide useful cover, but competition in the challenging wing-back role has arrived in the shape of promising Derby pair Jayden Boyle and Max Lowe, while Ethan Ampadu - on loan from Chelsea - is a coup.

Wilder, as usual, has had to trade shrewdly - the club's wage structure is as key a consideration as fees - but their future-proofing business so far adds versatility and athleticism to a previously stretched group. Fresh impetus in attack is still sought, with Rhian Brewster a target, but Wilder for now has a new restoration project in Oliver Burke; the Scot - still only 23 - will certainly provide pace, power and unpredictability.

How George Baldock and Jayden Bogle matched up in the Premier League and Championship respectively last season
Image: How George Baldock and Jayden Bogle matched up in some areas in the Premier League and Championship respectively last season

Sheff Utd transfer business so far

In
Wes Foderingham - Rangers, free
Aaron Ramsdale - Bournemouth, £18.5m
Jayden Bogle - Derby, undisclosed
Max Lowe - Derby, undisclosed
Ethan Ampadu - Chelsea, loan
Oliver Burke - West Brom, undisclosed

Out
Luke Freeman - Nottingham Forest, loan
Leon Clarke - released
Callum Robinson - West Brom, undisclosed

Where they're strong

Chris Basham of Sheffield United controls the ball in the air as Diogo Jota of Wolverhampton Wanderers looks on
Image: Chris Basham was named as the club's player of the season

The Blades conceded just 39 Premier League goals last season - the fewest of any promoted side in the history of the competition.

Only three top-flight clubs let in fewer or kept more clean sheets, and while Henderson's exploits were key, Jack O'Connell, John Egan and Basham continued to be a formidable unit at the level above and the side's shape out of possession was supremely honed on the training pitch by Wilder and Alan Knill; of the sides who conceded fewer shots than their 431, only Everton finished below them. That shift to a flatter three in midfield was certainly vindicated.

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At the other end, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea attempted more than the Blades' 867 crosses, thanks to their enterprising wing-backs and those now-renowned overlapping centre-backs.

The Blades also produced another quirk: only the top four clubs attempted more passes in the final third, even though they delivered a below-average total for passes attempted overall. While they rarely dominated possession stats last season, Wilder's side certainly played plenty of their football in attacking areas - and soaked up pressure effectively off the ball.

Continuity in team selection provided the platform for success: only Burnley made fewer changes to their starting XI than Wilder's 51 - several of which came with injury and suspension issues after the restart.

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Where they need to improve

At the top of the pitch, chiefly. Can they turn more of those good positions into decisive moments?

The Blades' system has always prized the creation of high-quality chances - they proved efficient from a league-low 114 shots on target - but Wilder is still looking for an injection of creativity and firepower to swing a neutral goal balance into positive figures.

Yet that's a delicate tweak to achieve without disrupting defensive solidity - and often requires cold, hard cash.

What has the manager said?

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder
Image: Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder will attack the division again

Wilder admitted he had briefly considered how a difficult end to last season might have drained his players mentally as well as physically.

"They did ever so well last season and then had a little disappointment towards the end," he said after their first run-out - albeit only 45 minutes on a waterlogged pitch - against Dundee United. "We wanted to see if that had affected the lads, if they'd come back with the attitude and desire we're going to need. I'm pleased to say they have."

Further pre-season victories against Hearts and Derby have followed with the Blades maintaining last season's shape tactically for now. "We'll not change our approach, we'll try to get something from every game we play," Wilder has said, yet it will be fascinating to see what subtle changes the Blades employ in what their manager has also conceded is "a game of chess at times".

The United boss has previous when it comes to challenging players and board too - he insisted the club "needed better players" following a final-day defeat to Southampton - and his transfer business has provided another opportunity to set standards yet higher.

"Jayden and Max will put huge pressure on George (Baldock) and Enda (Stevens)... it's game on for everyone, it's not a warning, it's a fact."

Key man

Jack O'Connell Sheffield United
Image: Jack O'Connell created six big chances for Sheffield United last season - bettered only by Lys Mousset

Key men, more like; the collective, the system, the synchronicity underpinned Sheffield United's success last term.

When John Fleck, with his line-breaking runs, and Oliver Norwood, with those pitch-stretching pings, are in the groove, the Blades usually are too. More is expected of Scotland team-mate Oli McBurnie this term, who grew into his role and will hope to hit double figures. Ramsdale, meanwhile, has a defence expertly marshalled by Egan in front of him but still has big gloves to fill.

Yet Jack O'Connell, as it proved after the restart, is pivotal to the Wilder Way. United lost three of the five games the defender - still surprisingly overlooked by England - missed after the season belatedly resumed, their shots- and crosses-per-game count considerably diminished in the absence of a player who sparks as well as repels attacks.

One to watch

Lys Mousset of Sheffield United
Image: Lys Mousset scored six goals in 30 appearances last term

A £10m outlay that prompted some scepticism last summer has already been vindicated in truth; Lys Mousset finished as the club's joint-top scorer with six goals that helped earn the Blades 12 points but he remains a frustratingly enigmatic figure.

Strikes against Everton, Manchester United and Wolves demonstrated a sharp instinct in front of goal while his direct running and quick feet brought needed dynamism, and yet he made only 11 starts and never completed a full 90 minutes. Wilder frequently rotated his forwards in an otherwise settled side but Mousset could be a more enduring threat if mind and body are ready.

What is success for Sheff Utd in 2020/21?

David McGoldrick celebrates scoring his second goal against Chelsea for Sheffield United
Image: Sheffield United finished ninth in their first season back - not since 1975 had they finished higher in the football pyramid

Expectations might have rocketed in some quarters but ensuring a third season in the Premier League would constitute success, even though Wilder will only be looking upwards.

Any talk of second-season syndrome would certainly seem ill-judged; a healthy 78 per cent of sides who survived in their first Premier League campaign have stayed up in the second term and Wilder's Blades will always be competitive; their ambitious boss demands it.

A mid-table finish would be another fine achievement with the modest resources that remain at Wilder's disposal but there are targets off the pitch, too. "The team is ahead of the club and it's important the club catches up," the manager tellingly said at the end of last season. Work has since started on a new training centre, while an academy reshuffle hopes to get a conveyor belt long proud of its products to purr again.

Bettering last season's remarkable achievements is a tall order for the Blades - though anything has felt possible in the Wilder era - but strengthening their foundations as a top-flight club in every sense would be real progress.

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