EPL survival first, then Europa League

The successful switching of the versatile Chris Basham (outjumping Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli) from midfield to defence shows that the 52-year-old English manager Chris Wilder has an eye for picking the right players. PHOTO: REUTERS
The successful switching of the versatile Chris Basham (outjumping Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli) from midfield to defence shows that the 52-year-old English manager Chris Wilder has an eye for picking the right players. PHOTO: REUTERS

Promoted Sheff United are surprise side so far but manager says target is 40 points to stay up

LONDON • Sheffield United are nowhere near the relegation zone and are pushing for a spot in Europe next season, but Chris Wilder insisted on Friday that his primary focus is on ensuring their Premier League survival.

The Blades, who won promotion to the top flight last season, are sixth in the table with 36 points after a stellar campaign but the manager's target is 40 points, which virtually guarantees a team stay up.

"It's a push for three points, 40 has always been a big number for a newly promoted side," he said ahead of today's home game against Bournemouth.

"After we get that, it'll always be about the next three points.

"Fans don't want to see us take the foot off the gas. When a player pulls that shirt on, they expect.

"And so do I. Whether it's now, 10 games to go or the last day, it'll be full tilt to go right to the end."

Just five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, Sheffield could even fight for a Champions League spot instead of the Europa League.

The results in their 25 matches so far have been impressive. They have lost just seven fixtures, the fewest by a promoted side at this stage since Fulham in 2001-02.

The Blades have also conceded just 23 goals, the fewest after league leaders Liverpool's 15. They have let in just 11 goals at home, only behind the Reds' nine.

Against today's opponents, Wilder's side have won their last three home matches and have produced a total of 17 goals.

So what is his secret to success?

Wilder, who has taken charge of nearly 900 matches, was appointed as manager of his boyhood club Sheffield in 2016 and led them to the English top flight after overseeing two promotions.

He knew that the Premier League would be a different challenge and, as such, he brought in 10 players for just £43 million (S$77 million) over the summer.

His strategy was that he needed low-maintenance players to build squad depth, to improve the quality of the bench and reserves.

In comparison, fellow promoted side Aston Villa, in 17th place, spent £134 million on 12 players to boost their starting line-up, while Fulham spent £105 million on 15 players last season but were still relegated.

ALL THE WAY

Fans don't want to see us take the foot off the gas... Whether it's now, 10 games to go or the last day, it'll be full tilt to go right to the end.

CHRIS WILDER , Sheffield United manager, on his targets.

Wilder has also innovated a 3-5-2 system which allows his wide centre-backs to go forward and overlap, one at a time.

The wing-backs will then push on into traditional winger positions and the midfield hold the fort.

The idea was to overload the attacking third with their marauding centre-backs linking up with the midfield and the attack - a tonic to teams who sat deep against them.

Wilder also had an eye for picking the right players in this system.

Jack O'Connell was already the left-sided centre-back, but someone was needed on the right, and the Sheffield manager saw potential in switching the versatile Chris Basham's position from midfield.

"As a midfield player, right-back, centre-half, it was perfect for him," Wilder said of Basham last month.

"He's one of my favourite players. As an all-round player, Bash is right up there. The boys could do it. You look at Bash and Jack, with the distances they're covering."

Up front, striker David McGoldrick is back after a foot injury. But the manager hinted at playing on-loan forward Richairo Zivkovic, who scored 16 goals for Chinese second-tier club Changchun Yatai last season.

"He's (McGoldrick) been out on the grass this week but what has been good is that we have players like Richairo putting in great performances in training," Wilder said.

"There always has been competition for places. But when quality players come in, the intensity, tempo and standard definitely increases 5 to 10 per cent."

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 09, 2020, with the headline 'EPL survival first, then Europa League'. Print Edition | Subscribe