Sheffield United always knew the Championship would test their technical and physical capabilities.
But the greatest challenge Chris Wilder’s squad face over the next 43 games is actually psychological.
Until last weekend’s visit to Middlesbrough, a game which thanks to a match official’s woeful grasp of the offside law and the pathetic posturing of some supporters, in both the home and away sections, proved memorable for all the wrong reasons, United had forgotten what it was like to lose.
Now, having also been beaten by Cardiff City three days ago, they enter tomorrow’s derby against Barnsley searching for their first league points and goals since the opening fixture of the new campaign.
At this stage of the team’s development, accepting defeat, without growing used to or accepting it, could help them to prosper in a division known for its financial disparity. Because, unless the floodgates suddenly open and tidal waves of baht, dollars, rupees or yuan begin crashing through Bramall Lane’s coffers, chances are some fixtures will be extremely difficult to draw. Let alone win.
Although the meeting with Neil Warnock’s side was a frustrating experience, it could, if studied, analysed and then acted upon properly, turn-out to be absolutely invaluable. I say that because, more so than the win over Brentford or controversial trip to Teesside, it laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of the options at Wilder’s disposal.
United were not embarrassed and, when the hosts threatened to overwhelm them following Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s superb finish, fought like tigers to remain in the contest. There is nothing wrong with their character or, having created a few good chances of their own, Wilder’s tactics either. But, after spending over an hour-and-a-half huffing and puffing for precious little reward, it is abundantly clear United must inject some pizzazz and, perhaps even more importantly, pace into their attack. Otherwise, against better opposition, they could continue to look a touch pedestrian.
At the other end of the pitch, Richard Stearman’s strained hamstring has exposed a shortage of experienced centre-halves. This, given the fact playing under stress rather than simply coasting through fixtures will inevitably have a detrimental effect upon United’s previously excellent fitness record, explains why Blackburn Rovers’ Darragh Lenihan and Conor Coady of Wolverhampton Wanderers have both been identified as targets in recent months.
Despite the fact they do not have millions available to fund Wilder’s recruitment programme, it would represent a missed opportunity if United’s paymasters do not allow him to sign at least two more proven operators before this month’s transfer deadline.
Having cruised to promotion last season and shown enough to suggest they will survive this term, United have the foundations of a potentially damn good team in place. The club as a whole remains on an upward plane. But, further investment now can eliminate the threat of relegation altogether and, in the long run, increase the chances of their best talents remaining in South Yorkshire moving forward. It is always better to build with momentum and from a position of strength.