November 23, 2019 | News | No Comments
The 52-year-old has led the Blades to fifth place in the top-flight after 12 games ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Manchester United
When FIFA announced its shortlist for The Best Men’s Coach of 2019 in September, it was made up entirely of Premier League managers.
Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino were rewarded for leading their respective teams to the Champions League final while Pep Guardiola joined them after his Manchester City side became the first men’s team to win a domestic treble in England.
And yet four months previously, when the League Manager’s Association (LMA) was selecting its Manager of the Year for 2018-19, all three were beaten by a man whom they, and the wider footballing world, are beginning to become very familiar with.
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Having led his Sheffield United side to two promotions in three seasons, Chris Wilder now has the Blades sat fifth in the Premier League after 12 matches. On their return to the top-flight for the first time since 2007, the Bramall Lane outfit find themselves above the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham and Sunday’s opponents, Manchester United. It is a position they are more than deserving of, and yet another achievement for which Wilder must be lauded.
Few coaches can claim to have enjoyed a better decade in English football than the 52-year-old Sheffield native. He began the 2010s by returning Oxford United to the Football League after winning the Conference National play-offs before, after three further seasons with the Us, he left for relegation-threatened League Two rivals Northampton Town.
Hired in January 2014, Wilder maintained the Cobblers’ Football League status, and just over two years later led them to the title and promotion after amassing 99 points. He would go one better the next season as, after joining boyhood club Sheffield United, he took them from the bottom of League One to the top, picking up 100 points to seal a return to the Championship after six seasons away.
The Blades’ first season back in the second tier saw them drop from the top of the table in October to just outside the play-off positions in May, but there would be no such heartbreak 12 months on, with promotion sealed on the penultimate day of the campaign alongside champions Norwich City.
To round off a truly memorable 10 years, Wilder now finds himself masterminding a campaign which sees his side still unbeaten away from home despite early-season visits to Chelsea and Spurs. A home win over Arsenal is also under his belt as he prepares to welcome the Red Devils to South Yorkshire. Victory over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side would move the Blades to within, at worst, six points of the top four.
But just how has Wilder managed to turn a squad of players with very little Premier League experience into a potential contender for a European spot?
There is a clearly a spirit at Sheffield United that few other clubs can match. Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, John Fleck and club captain Billy Sharp were all part of Wilder’s squad that won promotion from League One while George Baldock, Enda Stevens and John Lundstram were added ahead of their return to the Championship.
Having that nucleus has proven key to a number of promoted teams avoiding a quick return to the second tier, and is something opposition managers have certainly picked up on.
“What impressed me the most is their belief and togetherness. They have the spirit like a rugby team that fight for each other. That is fantastic to see in a football team,” was Pochettino’s assessment ahead of what proved to be his final match in charge of Tottenham against Wilder’s side in early November.
“That is why they have a good squad, good organisation, a great manager and coaching staff. It is a fantastic job that Chris Wilder has done. Everyone has seen how he is working and the job he has done. The best thing I can say about him is how I described the team.”
And while a strong dressing room can get you so far, that would be to downplay just how tactically astute Wilder is as a coach.
Described by Marcelo Bielsa as the “team from which I’ve learned the most” during the Argentine’s first season in charge at Leeds United, many were intrigued to see whether Wilder could adapt his much-spoken-about ‘overlapping centre-back’ 3-4-1-2 system into the Premier League.
Some pundits expected Wilder to revert back to a more agricultural style so as to ensure survival with a group of players who at first glance did little to inspire hope of any more than a relegation scrap.
“As the season goes on, we might get more credit from pundits when they realise we don’t kick people off the pitch,” midfielder Oliver Norwood told Goal back in August. “There’s a madness to it, but there’s also a system. It takes a lot of hours on the training ground, hard work and attention to detail. We didn’t get caught on the counterattack last season. This is the way we want to play.”
PIC: Sheffield United average position vs Tottenham
That way of playing has seen Wilder remove the No.10 he tended to utilise in the Championship, instead opting for a midfield three for which Norwood (No.16 in the above graphic) acts as the base. Alongside him Fleck (No.4) and particularly Lundstram (No.7) are instructed to move into the attacking third and help create overloads in wide areas alongside both the wing-backs and the overlapping centre-backs that, though less prominent, have not gone away in Wilder’s adapted formation.
Up front, Wilder’s man-management has also been proven, with Lys Mousset having provided three goals and three assists in 11 appearances since his £10 million summer move from Bournemouth, where his record was a far more paltry five goals and one assist in 71 games. Wilder called the 23-year-old a “work in progress” following his goal against West Ham in October, but it is clear Wilder has instilled a belief in a player who regularly looked short of confidence at the Vitality Stadium.
That is not to say Wilder is an arm-around-the-shoulder coach, though. His comments following goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s mistake that cost United a potential point against Liverpool were as surprising as they were seemingly inspirational.
“If he wants to play for the top teams, he wants to play for England, then he needs to do better,” he said in the aftermath of September’s game. “He needs to concentrate more. It’s a disappointing day for him. I am not going to put my arms around him. Simply he needs to do better.”
Henderson has since been in exceptional form, earning call-ups to each of Gareth Southgate’s last two Three Lions squads.
Henderson will not be involved on Sunday given he is on loan from Manchester United, but he has already been earmarked as a potential long-term replacement for David de Gea. Wilder, meanwhile, hasn’t been linked with a future role at a bigger club, with Ed Woodward unlikely to include the dour Yorkshireman on his shortlist of names when the time eventually comes to move on from Solskjaer. But is that a mistake?
Wilder has continually shown he can step up through the leagues, showing innovation both on and off the pitch while doing so. He would likely need to stabilise Sheffield United in the Premier League before talk of taking the next leap up the ladder is even discussed, but the early signs are overwhelmingly positive he will be able to do so.
Beating Manchester United on Sunday would only boost Wilder’s reputation as a bonafide top-tier coach. The next 10 years could prove to be even more fruitful than the last.