Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool defender turned television analyst, made a pretty interesting point during West Ham’s capitulation to Brighton and Hove Albion seven days ago.
“The individuals are better than this team,” he said, shuddering in disbelief at the lack of cohesion among Slaven Bilic’s side. “But what you always want is your team to be better than its individuals.”
Sheffield United supporters can be forgiven their sense of schadenfreude at the Londoners’ demise. After all, it was only a decade ago that an arbitration panel admitted it “would, in all probability, have reached a different conclusion and deducted points” from the club despite the Premier League’s refusal to do precisely that following the Carlos Tevez Affair. Ten years later and West Ham, who finished three points above United at the end of the 2006/07 campaign, have just banked £120m in top-flight prize money, facility fees and solidarity payments. Nearly two hundred miles north, their rivals from Bramall Lane are finally back in the Championship after spending six seasons in League One.
Carragher’s words, however, strike at the heart of what makes Chris Wilder’s such a formidable proposition. They are a squad whose potential, results and performances so far this term are greater than the sum of its component parts.
Make no mistake, for all the talk of character, attitude and camaraderie surrounding Wilder’s side, (and which admittedly makes an easy line for journalists like me), it contains some damn fine talent. David Brooks is being talked about as a £10m player in the making, Jack O’Connell is among the most capable defenders in the division despite being five months short of his 24th birthday. Meanwhile, Paul Coutts and John Fleck must surely be in line for senior Scotland call-ups following the departure of Gordon Strachan who, at times, seemed more concerned with northern Europe’s gene pool than he did the business of winning games. Their domination of Barry Bannan, the former Celtic chief’s preferred option, at Sheffield Wednesday recently only made the duo’s absence from his World Cup qualification strategy even more unfathomable.
Still, despite the presence of these gifted players, United’s greatest strength remains their comradeship. Which makes the January transfer window even more important than usual. Third in the table after 13 matches, United will climb to first if they beat Leeds at Elland Road this evening. If they are still challenging come Christmas, directors might be wise to release some of next summer’s recruitment budget on the understanding that, unless they are promoted or patrons can make-up the shortfall, Wilder must accept less financial backing then. If he agrees, whatever happens between now and the start of 2018/19, United’s manager can have no complaints. The essence must be maintained and, for the sake of clarity, there must be no temptation to indulge in reckless spending. Excellent scouting, allied with equally fine coaching, have seen United prove they can compete with those who have far deeper pockets. But, given the qualities of this group, it would be a mistake not to try and seize what could turn-out to be a glaring opportunity.