Sheffield United: New signings must help reduce reliance on Leon Clarke

Leon Clarke has been in superb form this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Leon Clarke has been in superb form this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Ensuring their four new signings, including Ryan Leonard, Lee Evans and former Charlton Athletic forward Ricky Holmes, are fully briefed on the team’s systems and tactics will feature prominently on Sheffield United’s agenda during training this week.

But manager Chris Wilder and his staff will also dedicate numerous sessions to improving its returns in front of goal after citing a failure to translate possession into points as the reason why, despite producing some irresistible football since the turn of the year, Bramall Lane’s first team squad enters Saturday’s game at Norwich City sixth in the Championship table, not fifth, fourth or even third.

Chris Wilder has made four signings since the transfer window reopened: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Chris Wilder has made four signings since the transfer window reopened: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Last week’s derby against Sheffield Wednesday, which finished goalless following United’s failure to prise apart the visitors’ stoic defence, prompted Wilder to change the focus of their preparations for the trip to Carrow Road. The phrase “from tee to green” has become a familiar part of his vocabulary over the past month but it almost became a mantra during Friday’s post-match media conference.

“We’re not a million miles away,” Wilder said. “Not at all, because I think we’re playing some really good stuff. But what we’ve got to do, what we have to do if we want to keep pushing on and making sure we get our rewards, is make the most of that play.”

The decision to press ahead with a deal for Holmes after failing to secure his release from The Valley last summer represents an attempt to do exactly that. United, despite being able to call upon the services of the division’s joint leading goalscorer Leon Clarke, have found the back of the net only nine times in their last nine outings and once in three. Thirty-three per cent of those efforts, have been converted by the 32-year-old. Although James Wilson’s arrival on loan from Manchester United increases Wilder’s attacking options, coupled with Ched Evans’ imminent return from injury, United have become increasingly reliant upon Clarke to prise apart opponents following Billy Sharp’s relegation to the bench. No player in English football hit the target from outside the box more times than Holmes in 2017; a skill which is likely to become increasingly useful as Wilder’s side, now regarded as a major scalp, find themselves confronted by packed rearguards. Although Evans, previously of Wolverhampton Wanderers, is more of a continuity player in the Paul Coutts-mould, Leonard, most recently of Southend United, is also capable of striking from long-range.

“We’ve got numbers and people who bring different things to the table,” Wilder said. “That competition is important, without a shadow of a doubt, because it keeps everyone on their toes. But it also gives us (the coaching staff) more room for manoeuvre.”

One of those, James Wilson, made his debut during the Steel City derby: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

One of those, James Wilson, made his debut during the Steel City derby: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“We’ve seen it numerous times already,” he added. “Even, with all due respect, when we go to some of the clubs who aren’t powerhouses at this level but who, when you look at the back of the programme, have experienced options going all the way through. That’s been part of our learning process, after coming-up last year.”

Norwich are likely to prove another test of United’s accuracy and patience having demonstrated a strong grasp of the game’s darker arts en route to a 1-0 victory in South Yorkshire four months ago.

“We always show the opposition respect and look at their strengths,” Wilder said. “But, as always, the aim is to do what we know we can do.”