Leaving it late: A glimmer of hope for Sheffield United?

Sheffield United scraped out a draw against West Ham thanks to an Oli McBurnie goal deep into stoppage time.
Sheffield United scraped out a draw against West Ham thanks to an Oli McBurnie goal deep into stoppage time. / Richard Sellers/Allstar/GettyImages

“My side has character, resilience and a bit of bottle.” Talking to TNT, Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder was in fighting talk after his side’s 2-2 draw with West Ham.

It was a frenetic end to a largely drab game. Oli McBurnie turning the hero with a last-gasp penalty after each side had a player sent off in injury time.

A result that may give the Blades a sense of the impossible. That the 7-point gap to safety could miraculously be recovered.

In a season of misery, you’d be forgiven for letting United fans dream. It’s been the kind of year that makes you wonder if it is all worth it.

That desperate drive for promotion. Pining for the Promised Land of the Premier League only to be handed straight back down with barely a whimper to show for it.

In Opta Sports' latest emotionless simulation of the season, they give Sheffield United a 97.8% chance of relegation. The true definition of a slimmer of hope. A 2.2% one at that. Sounds more like an American milkfat percentage than a sporting probability.

Wilder to the rescue?

Not even Wilder, with his endlessly touted Sheffield heritage, looks likely to save them. His 0.71 points per game a clear improvement on Paul Heckingbottom’s 0.36 but far from enough. If repeated, the Blades would end the season on a grand total of 22 points, well below the usually required 38.

Wilder’s appointment itself in December was as much a distraction as a solution for United’s owner Abdullah Bin Mosaad. Having long underinvested in the club, it was easy to make Heckingbottom the scapegoat for the club’s struggles.

A decision that, although feeling inevitable, was hardly a fair reflection of his time at the club. Heckingbottom was a victim of his own overachievement. Arriving with United 16th in the Championship, he achieved promotion and an FA Cup semifinal within his first 18 months in charge despite only signing two players during that period.

For Mosaad, it was the perfect piece of business. At a time when the Saudi prince was trying to sell the club, Heckingbottom had raised the value of Sheffield United by reaching the top tier of English football while expending little of Mosaad’s money in the process.

United emerged out of a poor-quality Championship, demonstrated by the gulf between the promoted sides and the rest of the league this season. So, for any chance of staying up, it was necessary for the club to invest.

Instead, they did the opposite, selling off their top goal scorer and assister Ilman Ndiaye to Marseille and then their second highest assister Sander Berge to Burnley.

Ndiaye’s replacement, Cameron Archer, a largely unproven 21-year-old, has mustered just 3 goals in 20 appearances, less than Oli McBurnie has managed in half of his game time.

Sheffield United: Lacking in attack

It is no wonder the side have struggled in terms of goal creation. A lack of investment left them starting the season with an arguably poorer squad than they had in the Championship.

Wilder, to his credit, has managed to solidify a poor defence since his arrival. Their average goals conceded per game has dropped from 2.79 to 1.7. Yet, he has struggled to improve a languishing front-line, their average goals per game rising from 0.79 to 0.85, a barely registered improvement.

It is a side lacking in creativity but also identity. They simply do not have the players to work with Wilder’s preferred short passing game and they have struggled to prove themselves in a more direct approach.

James McAtee, on loan from Manchester City, is the outlier. A shining light amongst the rubble. His chance-creation and constant presence across the pitch is a lifeline for the club. It is no surprise he was the man of the match against West Ham.

But they will need more than impressive loanees to pull off the remarkable. The arrival of Ben Brereton from Villarreal this January is key. His instant impact with a debut goal against the Hammers provides faint hope of a revitalised attack they so desperately need.

Is it enough? Of course, a draw against top-half opposition like West Ham is one to enjoy, especially when it comes in such dramatic fashion. But it was a game in which, as Wilder said, they more than matched their opponents.

The kind of performance where victory is the only palatable result to achieve survival. This is not to bring a negative light but a realistic one.

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If Prince Mosaad is to continue to get unlikely reward for little input, he will need impressive performances to turn into results. Otherwise, Sheffield United will be fulfilling their widely believed prophecy: relegation.