The Insight: Has Wilder injection given Sheffield United shock shot in the arm in Premier League survival race?

 | January 23 | 

6 mins read

Sheffield United Bramall Lane

With over half the Premier League season already played, Sheffield United aren’t just odds-on to be relegated - they’re huge favourites to finish rock bottom. The Blades are the lowest scorers (21) in the division, having found the net four fewer times than anyone else, while they also hold the unwanted record of having the most porous defence, shipping 51 goals in 21 games en route to 10 points.

Everton currently occupy the final survival slot and the Toffees are seven points better off than United, despite having been handed a 10-point deduction. Even Burnley, who have won just three league games this term, are two points ahead in 19th.

Chris Wilder returned to Bramall Lane at the start of last month, replacing Paul Heckingbottom in a bid to rescue his boyhood club from relegation, but the 56-year-old’s appointment has not been a transformative one results-wise, with just one Premier League win under his belt so far.

However, the South Yorkshire side battled to the end on Sunday to secure a point against sixth-placed West Ham United, with Ollie McBurnie displaying nerves of steel - in a city famous for it - to score a 103rd-minute penalty in a 2-2 draw. It’s those fighting qualities which Sheffield United became renowned for in Wilder’s first spell in charge, an era which peaked with a ninth-placed finish in the 2019/20 season, having occupied a top-six and European spot for much of it.

So, can the Blades now go on to achieve the unthinkable and avoid an instant return to the Championship, marking Wilder’s greatest achievement at the club?

Sheffield United Premier League Betting Odds:

  • Sheffield United to finish bottom @ 4/9
  • Sheffield United to stay up @ 8/1
  • Sheffield United to beat Crystal Palace (30/01/24) @ 9/2

Sheffield United set themselves a low bar with how they performed at the start of the season under Heckingbottom, but nevertheless their underlying numbers have improved under Wilder. In Wilder’s first six league games before playing West Ham, the side was averaging 1.7 goals conceded, 13.7 shots faced and 1.52 expected goals against (xGA), compared to 2.8 goals conceded, 19 shots faced and 2.23 xGA under Heckingbottom [The Analyst].

There is also cause for optimism at the top end of the pitch, with the Blades having scored twice in each of their last two games at Bramall Lane, registering 21 shots against both Luton Town and West Ham. They’ve not been completely speculative shots either, accumulating 2.78 xG against the former and 2.05 versus the latter, albeit the Irons game included a penalty.

Sheffield United left with just a single point from those two matches, having squandered a 2-1 lead against the Hatters, but it does show that there are goals in this team, with McBurnie scoring in four consecutive games at home. There was also a debut Premier League goal on Sunday from on-loan Villarreal attacker Ben Brereton Diaz, with Wilder now possessing three forwards - Brereton Diaz, McBurnie and Cameron Archer - who enjoyed prolific campaigns in the Championship last season. And if the Stocksbridge-born boss taught us anything last time around, it’s that he can wring every last drop of talent out of his players, raising their level from League One or Championship to the Premier League.

The youthful nature of Sheffield United’s side does suggest that there is scope for improvement, too. Seven of their 10 outfield starters on Sunday were aged 24 or below, with Gustavo Hamer (26), Auston Trusty (25) and Jack Robinson (30) acting as the ‘experienced’ heads. Three of their five substitutes were also aged 24 or under, with Wilder inheriting a squad lacking know-how but possessing real energy.

Academy graduate Andre Brooks (20) was one of the highlights against West Ham, showing real skill and a calmness on the ball. The Sheffield-born midfielder has started every game under Wilder, and looks set for a big future in the Premier League. Jayden Bogle (23) and on-loan Manchester City ace James McAtee (21) also stood out and will be crucial if the Blades are to achieve anything of note this season.

Sheffield United to finish bottom of 2023-24 Premier League at 4-9Still, it feels like Sheffield United are short on quality in some areas, and could do with further additions in January. With stalwarts John Egan and Chris Basham missing most of the campaign through injury, it has been left to defenders Anel Ahmedhozic, Robinson and Trusty to protect Wes Foderingham’s goal. Foderingham has struggled between the sticks, as evidenced in a 65% save percentage which ranks him 18th out of 22 in the Premier League [fbref]. The 33-year-old hasn’t exactly been offered much protection, but when you’re a club in the sort of predicament the Blades are in, you need more.

By contrast, Dean Henderson’s save percentage for Sheffield United in 2019/20 was 75%, which put him fourth in that metric, while his Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed per 90 minutes was +0.17, compared to Foderingham’s +0.05 this season.

That, perhaps, explains the current noise around the goalkeeping situation at Bramall Lane. Ex-Leicester City shot-stopper Kasper Schmeichel was linked at the start of the January transfer window, but recent reports suggest Atletico Madrid’s Ivo Grbic is on the brink of a move to South Yorkshire, and he could be joined by Everton defender Ben Godfrey.

Wilder himself has been vocal about the need to strengthen the squad, and if history is anything to go by, expect another one or two signings in attack. He certainly loves a striker.

Sheffield United to stay up in 2023-24 Premier League at 8-1There are things to like about Sheffield United again, and the seemingly improbable thought of survival has started to bubble - very slightly - under the surface. It still looks a mammoth task, though, with the Blades probably requiring 25 points from their final 17 games to stand a chance. Catching Burnley is achievable, but the next batch of teams - Luton, Everton, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace - are a much tougher prospect. Luton have lost just one of their last four league games, and prior to that, Rob Edwards’ side took both Manchester City and Arsenal to the wire in narrow defeats.

Everton, Forest and Palace, meanwhile, have much more expensively-assembled squads and possess star names such as Jordan Pickford, Morgan Gibbs-White and Michael Olise, with experienced managers - Sean Dyche, Nuno Espirito Santo and Roy Hodgson - to boot.

Palace, though, are seemingly on a downward trajectory, having won just twice since the start of October, while the threat of points deductions hangs over the heads of Forest and Everton. Sheffield United have all three still to play this season, with a trip to Selhurst Park next Tuesday and games with Forest and Everton in the last three matchdays.

Three of the Blades’ next four fixtures after Palace, meanwhile, are against sides they have already taken points off this term - Aston Villa, Brighton and Wolves, with the first two taking place at Bramall Lane. They also play Luton in the first half of February in a clash which could prove pivotal to their slim chances of staying up.

Will the Blades achieve Premier League survival? Probably not. In fact, very, very likely not. But can they? It’s possible, just. The two questions show the distinction between reality and dreams. Neutrals have no need to look away from what’s right under their nose, but Sheffield United supporters do have reasons to be more optimistic about their chances now, so why can’t they dream of the unthinkable? Wilder’s at least given them cause to do so, especially with his past heroics still not completely forgotten.

Sheffield United to beat Crystal Palace at 9-2Check out the rest of our Football Betting Tips here.

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