Even Johan Cruyff, a man so obsessed by possession he thought it was eleven tenths of the law, warned a team unable to perform without it was inherently flawed.
Chris Wilder has been preaching something similar to his players during training this week as Sheffield United, fifth in the table after beating Derby County last month, prepare for Saturday’s game at Sunderland.
“There was a real improvement when we were out of possession,” Wilder, casting his mind back a fortnight, said. “Which was pleasing because it’s something we’ve worked hard on; that and recovery. We won tackles, headers and races. We worked our whatsits off to take control of the contest. But that’s a ‘given’ here. One of the things I liked the most was our awareness when we didn’t have the ball.”
Wilder’s message is especially pertinent because, as they return to action following the international break, United have yet to take a point on the road this term. It is a situation they must address or risk undermining their encouraging start to the new Championship campaign.
“We’re not going to change how we play,” Wilder insisted. “Because we’re a team that wants to be on the front foot and whose fans expect us to be there. What we can do, though, is try and improve a few things and make some adjustments. But the overall mentality does not change.”
Cruyff’s theory about the significance of shape was based upon the notion that, throughout the course of a match, players only spend “three or four minutes” on the ball. “The important thing,” he once told journalists, “Is what you do during those 87 minutes when you don’t. Where to run, when to run, when to move how to move. That determines whether you’re good or not.”
Despite their indifferent form since being relegated, Sunderland, managed by the sagacious Simon Grayson, will still test United’s quality. Aiden McGeady (hamstring) is a doubt but deadline day signings Marc Wilson, Jonny Williams and Callum McManaman should feature.
Wilder confirmed his latest batch of new arrivals - Clayton Donaldson, Ben Heneghan and Cameron Carter-Vickers - are all available for selection following United’s official photoshoot. Samir Carruthers, however, could miss out with a calf injury while goalkeeper Simon Moore, despite returning to training, is unlikely to dislodge Jamal Blackman.
“All of the lads who have come in are ready,” Wilder said. “They’re okay to be involved. Samir is a doubt and we’ll see how he is. But, other than that, I think we’re in pretty decent shape. There’s the usual few bumps and bruises but, other than that, okay.”
Meanwhile, United have reminded supporters without a valid match ticket not to travel to Wearside as the away allocation is sold-out.