Sheffield United conceded two goals in their first six minutes of action this season and have been playing catch-up ever since. Playing it more haplessly than pretty much anyone expected. The team that took the Premier League by storm last season, challenging for European qualification straight after promotion, have done little more than break wind so far this term, gaining one point from their first nine matches.
Only two other teams in the Premier League era have made such miserable starts – Manchester City in 1995-96 and Sheffield Wednesday in 1999-2000 – and both ended up going down. On Saturday night Chris Wilder’s men face a fateful duel with West Brom, the only other side in the league without a win. Anything less than their first victory of the campaign will leave Wilder and or Slaven Bilic with a sinking feeling.
It is not that United have suddenly become terrible – it is that they have gradually come to look not quite good enough. Last season they represented a wonderful synergy, a smart and spirited team so well-coached that they performed as much more than the sum of their parts. So far this season, for various reasons, they have been defined by their limitations.
“I don’t think a wrecking ball is needed,” Wilder said. “Belief is key in our quest for our first three points of the season. We haven’t been playing with the same flow and confidence.” Why not? And can they get their mojo back?
There is no obvious solution to one blatant problem: the loss of Jack O’Connell, who is likely to miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery in September. With no comparable replacement for their roving left-sided centre-back, United have suffered huge knock-on effects that have weakened both their defence and attack.
Jack Robinson, Enda Stevens and Ethan Ampadu have all had turns at filling in but none has been close to as accomplished in the role as O’Connell. As a result United have lost solidity in defence and no longer have a centre-back who overlaps down the left. Indeed, that entire flank has suffered, with Max Lowe not as dangerous as Stevens as a wing-back, and Stevens yet to recapture last season’s form when he has played there and, moreover, he is at risk missing the trip to West Brom through injury.
There has been too much disruption to United’s team. Last season Wilder enjoyed playing a settled side, making fewer changes to his starting lineup than any other manager except Sean Dyche. This season only Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton have altered their starting XI more often than United. Wilder has felt the need to tinker to cover injuries and losses of form in nearly all sectors of his team.
United needed to deepen their squad during the off-season but may not have bought enough and none of the recruits, other than the goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, who replaced Dean Henderson, have made much impact yet.
The make-up of the midfield will be interesting at West Brom. Ollie Norwood was practically a guaranteed inclusion last season but this season he has been in and out. John Fleck is still grasping for form after missing more than a month with injury. John Lundstram has generally played well but is at loggerheads with the club over a new contract. Sander Berge seems sure to start because he has the ability to do a little bit of everything, but he has yet to contribute enough goals. Nor has anyone else.
United’s scoring problems are their biggest worry. They have never been prolific but this season, when they have needed to score more because they have been conceding more, their finishing has been mostly wayward. Wilder does not have the squad to change systems even if he wanted to.
David McGoldrick has scored two league goals but is unlikely to reach double figures and has always been more precious to United for the way he connects play rather than finishes. Billy Sharp is 34 and his only goal this season has come from the penalty spot. So most of the onus is on expensive signings.
Oli McBurnie, signed for £20m from Swansea last year, pesters defenders but has been mostly wasteful in his finishing. Rhian Brewster, the 20-year-old who became United’s record signing when he was bought from Liverpool for £23.5m last month, has yet to suggest he is ready to fulfil his undoubted potential and, after three starts in a row, he began on the bench in last Sunday’s defeat by West Ham.
The longer United’s impotence continues, the more it undermines their confidence. Last season they fell behind in 22 league matches but fought back to win or draw 10 of those. This season, by contrast, they have seldom looked like recovering. That must not continue.
So the return to fitness of Lys Mousset may prove well timed. “He’s been a huge miss for us,” said Wilder of the striker who could make his first appearance of the season on Saturday. “He’s got raw pace and there’s something that comes from him that’s out of the ordinary. He’s a game-changer.”