By Tim Birkbeck
Reaching the promised land of the Premier League is the goal for pretty much any English football club. For the few that achieve this fate, this is just the beginning of the journey.
Once promotion is gained, attention and focus automatically turn to survival and how they can stay in the top flight of English football.
In the past, there have been many clubs that have been associated with the chase of the Premier League and the lows of relegation. West Bromwich Albion even gaining the nickname ‘Boing Boing Baggies’ for the number of times they would gain promotion and then a season or two later return to the Championship.
This being said, to say clubs aren’t able to maintain themselves in the top tier would be unfair, as we have seen Burnley, Bournemouth and Southampton build a steady foundation in the Premier League and each team have had seasons of progression, but also flirting with relegation.
Of course, who could forget the fairy tale story of Leicester City winning the title?
But when a club comes up from the Championship, how do they hit the ground running and make an impact in the league and make some of the more established squads in the division take notice?
Well, maybe Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United is a good blueprint.
When the Blades were last in the Premier League was the 2006/07 season when a man who has always been associated with the club, Neil Warnock, was at the helm and their stay in the top flight and was rather short-lived.
After this, the Sheffield club struggled to find form, even dropping down to League One, where they stayed for six seasons, for returning to the promised land last year.
The man to lead them back to the dizzy heights of the Premier League was Wilder, who took over the hot seat of his boyhood club in 2016.
The former right-back had built up a fairly reputable managerial CV before taking over at the Blades. Starting at Alfreton Town where he won four trophies in just 27 weeks.
However, the most significant achievement of his previous employment list is what he managed to achieve during his time in charge of Northampton Town.
From 2014 to 2016, the 52-year-old managed to help the Cobblers avoid relegation from League Two and then eventually guided them to the league title, winning with 99 points and all this in spite of huge financial struggles around the club, which for a period of time couldn’t pay their staff or players.
It may have been one of the factors why Wilder’s former club came calling, seeing what he was able to do under tight financial restraints and still being able to succeed is something that would appeal to any establishment.
It was this tenacity which saw Wilder guide Sheffield Untied to two promotions in three years and would lead to the gaffer claiming the LMA Manager of the Year award in 2019.
To prove that what Wilder has been doing while in charge of the Blades isn’t just a fluke, he has been pitting himself again some of the world’s top managers and getting the better of them.
So, what has the former Brighton & Hove Albion player done that has been so significant that has seen the Blades thrive in the top flight this time around, and even potentially push for a European place in their first season back in the top flight in 12 years?
Something a lot of the sports annalists turn to is the manager’s tried and tested favoured formation of 3-5-2, which on the surface may not seem overly exciting and experimental. However, what makes it special for Sheffield Untied is that every player knows their role within the system and they know how to make it work for them in a robust way.
Sheffield United play a possession-based style of football, favouring shorter passes and somewhat revolutionary methods of switching play. Despite having a strong midfield three, only a small amount of their possession in the attacking half comes in the middle of the pitch, opting to prefer the flanks when it comes to going forward against their opponents. As a result, wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens are absolutely crucial to their team.
This also feeds into the tactical approach that the Blades back three has, with Wilder and highly praised number two Alan Knill, who have implemented an overlapping centre-backs system into the team.
This idea first started to surface when the Blades were still in League One and they had to find innovative ways for breaking down the opposition, as a result of opposing teams sitting back and defending in numbers against them. As a result, Knill and Wilder noted that their centre-backs did not have to do an awful lot of defending, that they could be used to create an overload in possession of the ball in wide areas instead. Remarkably, this tactic has now carried on into the Premier League, despite United no longer being afforded as much time in possession.
As well as the creative backbone of the squad through the likes of John Egan, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham, it is their defensive resilience and inspired performances from Manchester United loanee goalkeeper Dean Henderson which has been another feather in the cap of Wilder. Out of the three teams which gained promotion to the Premier League last year, Sheffield United have conceded the least amount of goals and it is mainly down to the consistency of these four, with the majority playing every game so far this season.
But by playing this 3-5-2 it means when United are under the cash, Wilder is able to revert his team seamlessly into a 5-3-2 with Stevens and Baldock tucking in alongside the three centre-backs as the midfield trio become a very tough unit to break down. It is this ability to quickly change shape and tact that has seen Wilder’s men take points from Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham to name a few so far this season.
It is this innovative approach which Wilder and his team have taken, which has been a breath of fresh air in the Premier League. Rather than being the team that gets results against the mid-table teams, but ultimately are lingering at the bottom end of the table, Wilder’s men have decided to back themselves, and it is this confidence in their ability and manager which has seen them steadily climb up the premier league table in their first season back.
As well as having a great tactical mind, Wilder has been shrewd in the transfer market, with the club valuing its squad at just over £117 million. Compare that to the newly crowned Champions Liverpool, whose team value stands at around an astounding £1.83 billion, it is quite incredible how well gelled together the Blades team is.
With the club spending £19.35 million on Sander Berge and striker Oliver McBurnie who looks a steal at £17.19 million it shows that Wilder has an eye for what type of player will fit his system and who will best help to execute it, rather than throwing money at flashy players in the hopes they will help the team stay up.
Even though the praise of how well Sheffield Untied have done on their return to the top flight is deserved, this doesn’t go to discredit how managers like Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche and Nuno Espírito Santo have managed to establish their teams in the league, rather this is a look at an approach clubs coming up from the Championship could take tips from if they are looking to make an immediate impact.
As exciting as the Premier League is and many argue it is the best league in Europe, there is some reliability in that the same teams will be chasing for European spots, others will languish in mid-table and newly promoted teams will either struggle or end up in lower mid-table.
What Wilder’s approach has brought to the league is an element of unpredictability in what to expect from a team who is coming into a new league campaign off the back of a promotion.
Although they’ve only scored just over a goal per game, the Blades remain firmly in the top half of the table and could finish well within a place in the Europa League next season.
The Blades look set to be in the Premier League for longer than many might have thought and undoubtedly could be set for more tactical innovations in the future.