Anyone who watched England’s rugby union team struggle to comprehend Italy’s idiosyncratic tactics during their Six Nations clash last month will appreciate the danger of over-coaching.
Hugely talented players, no matter what the discipline, are being drilled to within an inch of their lives on training grounds. But, as professional sport grows increasingly technical, its participants are becoming unable to think on their feet and solve problems themselves.
It is a trend Chris Wilder was mindful of when, having taken charge of Sheffield United during the close season, he began devising ways to revitalise their squad. One way, his assistant Alan Knill explained earlier this week, was to construct a team of not only gifted footballers but, having identified several already in situ, intelligent ones too.
“If you want to do well, players need to be able to adapt and take things on board out on the pitch,” Knill said. “You give them a framework to play in but, obviously, when the ball moves they have to make decisions on their own. If you give them the right framework, one they are comfortable in, then more often than not they’ll make the right decisions. That’s the balance, right there.”
Eight points clear at the top of the League One table and eleven better off than Scunthorpe in third, United have struck it almost perfectly since recording their first victory of the Wilder-era when Oxford visited Bramall Lane seven months ago. The return fixture on Tuesday, which saw them lose Jake Wright to injury before falling behind on a pudding of a pitch, enabled United to showcase their cerebral qualities en route to a 3-2 win.
“We’ve got players who can think for themselves,” Knill continued. “Coutts (Paul Coutts) has played against all types of opposition. (Mark) Duffy us a thinker and Jake is too. But when we change things, it’s not always defensively. Sometimes it’s offensively too. If the opposition is in a flow, you might want to give them something a little bit different to think about such as three up top or two number tens. If you’ve got the right lads on board, it enables you to do that.”
Albert Einstein once claimed “the only source of knowledge is experience” and, after taking a wrecking ball to the group he inherited from Nigel Adkins, Wilder has ensured United have a breadth of it within their ranks. Basham, whose performances have improved as the pressure level increases, has played in all four divisions since progressing through the ranks at Bolton Wanderers. Duffy served his apprenticeship at non-league level before competing in three. Coutts helped Peterborough claw themselves out of the third tier a year after winning the Highland League title with Cove Rangers. Samir Carruthers and James Hanson, who arrived at Bramall Lane during the January transfer window, also boast promotions on their CV’s.
Knill used last weekend’s draw with Rochdale to illustrate the importance of bringing clever, flexible players on board.
“We probably changed the formation about five times there,” he said. “We’ve got players who can play in different positions and various positions, it always helps when you are changing shape. Bash can play in a number of positions, Duffy can play in a number of positions, it just helps. Not only when you are reacting to something the opposition are doing. For and against. That’s why it’s nice to have players like that.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the squad Wilder has assembled, however, is its ability to fight as well as think.
“You’ve got to dig in as well,” Knill added. “We showed we can do that at Bristol Rovers too. You aren’t going to play fantastically well every week but you’ve got to try and make sure you come away with something. If you can’t win, then make sure you don’t lose.
“You just deal with pitches and situations, not look for excuses. We’re fortunate with our pitch but the majority of players have played for clubs where the pitch isn’t great, where it’s not a bowling green. You just adapt, it’s English football. If it’s soggy, you don’t roll it about. You just get on with it.”
With only ten matches of their season remaining, United are well-positioned to reach the Championship. But Wilder, whose side return to action at Swindon Town on Tuesday, acknowledges promotion is not secured yet.
“Right now, our thoughts are on the game coming-up,” Knill said. “Not what’s happening next year. We’re looking at the squad we’ve got here right now, full focus on that, and then decide the other stuff in the summer.
“We’ve never been a group that sets monthly points targets. I know this sounds terrible but, really, all we do is look at the next game. There’s got to be a new cliché, surely. We’ll have to come up with one. Try and win it and then move on. That’s how runs get built.”
Although United’s coaching staff have locked their calculators and form guides locked away, Knill accepted supporters and commentators alike have been analysing the possible permutations for weeks.
“We know others don’t, it’s around us all the time, what we want to do. If we’ve looked after ourselves, because the games are running out, then we should get to where we want to be.
“I’ve been involved in a few games as a player where the opposition has supposedly had nothing to play for and we had to win. We lost and they looked like Real Madrid. I’ve never met a footballer who doesn’t have anything to play for, they always want to prove they are the best players on the pitch.
“I’ve done coaching courses where people say ‘set this total for the month’ and then, when you don’t reach them, the players are always deflated. Where do you go if you don’t reach it? Obviously, there are points totals out there that everybody knows about. But, to be honest, just go and play.”