Forget Chris Wilder - what Sheffield United really need for survival is blatantly obvious

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Sheffield United have sacked Paul Heckingbottom - but the real problem lie elsewhere.

Paul Heckingbottom has been relieved of his duties as Sheffield United manager, and it can’t be described as a shock. The Premier League’s bottom club have just taken a 5-0 pasting away to relegation rivals Burnley and it was clear that either something had to give or the club had to accept their fate and start again in the Championship next year. The Blades’ owner, Prince Abdullah, has apparently not settled on the latter, but is going back to Chris Wilder really going to make any difference? Or is this simply creating a chance for a new captain to go down with the ship?

Sheffield United did not set themselves up for success this season. The best player in their promotion campaign, Sander Berge, was bafflingly sold to Burnley. Their leading goalscorer last year, Iliman Ndiaye, left for Marseille. They were replaced at a financial loss by Gustavo Hamer and Cameron Archer, and neither has been able to replicate their predecessors’ form or production at Bramall Lane. Elsewhere, there was minimal investment in the squad, with a handful of cheap and cheerful youngsters making up most of the additions. Few teams have spent so little after promotion, especially after the loss of key men, and fewer still have stayed up.

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Heckingbottom was asked to win games with a thin, lacklustre squad which was low on quality from the get-go, and he could not replicate his hugely impressive achievements last season – automatic promotion and a run to the FA Cup semi-finals. Instead, Sheffield United have looked tame and lacking identity, not just losing games but rarely showing any real fight or team cohesion in the process.

Wilder, meanwhile, returns to the club where he made his name by achieving promotion to the top flight back in 2019. He kept the Blades up for a year before being replaced by Heckingbottom during what proved to be a difficult sophomore season, and with the club back in trouble we complete a full circle. In the intervening years Wilder has largely struggled, fired from the top job at both Middlesbrough and Watford and showing few signs of being able to replicate his own past masterwork in South Yorkshire.

So they have a bad squad, no sign of an overarching tactical plan and a manager who hasn’t been able to achieve much in other postings – hardly the building blocks of a glorious comeback campaign on paper. But there are still only four points between Sheffield United and safety despite the team only managing one win so far this season. The blunt fact is that Luton Town and Burnley are also quite bad, while Everton have been hobbled by a points deduction. Prince Abdullah is right to think that not all need be lost.

But the number of points standing between Wilder and 16th in the table isn’t the real problem – the squad is. Sheffield United have been the worst team in the division for a reason, not just scoring fewer goals than anyone else but also managing far, far fewer shots on goal than any other team in the Premier League. That can be put down partly to individual quality, but also rests on the lack of a squad built to work to a recognisable strategy – they lack players with the technique and skill under pressure to play a short passing game and lack players with the pace and physicality to succeed with a more direct style. The results are a team who create less than any other side and a team that control possession worse than anyone besides Luton, who hardly try.

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How much of that should be laid at the feet of Heckingbottom? Probably not much, in truth – Sheffield United’s parlous financial state means that they have resisted any urge to spend the windfall generated by their presence in the Premier League after a second-tier season in which the ownership found themselves denying reports that they had turned off the sprinklers at the stadium in order to save money. As a consequence, there has been no recruitment drive to build a competitive side. If that doesn’t change in January, then the man in the dugout won’t matter an inch.

Wilder made his name playing a stylish, pass-oriented game with his trademark overlapping centre-backs, which gave the Blades a free-flowing element to their attack and gave them ways to control possession and progress down the field. Man for man, the side that stayed up in 2020 was worse than most of their immediate competition, but it was constructed around a cogent and ultimately successful strategic vision. Whether he wants to try and replicate those past tactics or simply put a team together than can kick and rush their way towards the goal, Wilder needs to be given players that fit a plan. Almost any plan.

He will have four weeks to persuade the owner to send some more funds his way, and to get his scouts out to find some players who fit the bill for whatever stratagem he deems most suitable – but there are so many gaps to fill for any given gameplan, and the owner has not shown any signs that he is willing to reach into his bank account to provide the required money. To describe it as an uphill battle would be underselling it, and one or two fresh faces are unlikely to make a difference on their own unless they’re spectacularly good.

As it stands, the only player Sheffield United have who can cut open defences in any meaningful way is James McAtee, a fine dribbler but also a young player whose game needs to be rounded out. They don’t have players who have the gift of playing killer final balls, and they don’t have other players with speed and trickery to complement McAtee’s skillset. In Archer they have a striker who has a decent turn of speed, but they don’t have ways to get the ball to him, or forwards or attacking midfielders that can get upfield to join him quickly and effectively.

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Having invested in Archer, they need to find ways to get players up to him, whether it’s by operating with a second striker who can link up play with midfield, or by finding a midfielder who can play through balls, or by buying wing-backs who can get to the byline quickly enough to offer quality low crosses. As it stands, they have none of the above. The shopping list is extensive, but any prognostication over who they should buy and what skills they have will be rendered irrelevant if the ownership can’t or won’t fund fresh purchases.

So what do Sheffield United need to stay up? A new manager might help, and might reignite a dampened dressing room’s ardour, and may even be able to make sense of the players they have at their disposal already – but what they really need is investment in the playing squad, an owner who will provide it, and a manager who can agree with the board on a broader tactical plan that encompasses the club’s work in the transfer market. Two out of the three have nothing to do with the head coach, and if the first two don’t happen then there is very little that Wilder can do. There wouldn’t be much that Pep Guardiola could do, if he was given the job.

Sheffield United don’t need a miracle. The gap is only four points, although it may well be more by the time they can register a new player – Wilder will take on Liverpool for his first game in charge, and Chelsea, Aston Villa and Manchester City all stand between them and the new year. But still, they don’t need a miracle – they just need an owner who is willing to make the investment required to give them a fair chance. As it stands, however, that looks about as likely as any other miracle you could think of.

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