When George Baldock joined Kieron Freeman on the treatment table earlier this season, Chris Wilder immediately summoned Chris Basham to the Steelphalt Academy’s bootroom.
Losing one wing-back was a problem. Losing two, given Sheffield United’s commitment to their 3-5-2 system, could have necessitated a complete change of strategy at Bramall Lane.
But Wilder, despite telling Basham at the beginning of the campaign that he would be deployed predominately at centre-half, was able to avoid wholesale changes to his team’s formation and shape because the 29-year-old can perform a variety of different roles. Which, when the question was posed earlier this week, made him wonder why players who can fill a variety of positions are becoming an endangered species.
“I don’t know why there aren’t as many,” Wilder said. “If you are a good player, you can play elsewhere.
“Bash is athletic and is a talented, modern day footballer. If managers don’t want to do it, that’s their call. Players do want to get in a rhythm. You’ve seen it in the past, when the utility player is the first out when everybody is fit. But not Bash and that shows the value of having someone like him.”
The demise of versatile footballers becomes even more unfathomable given the modern game’s focus on technique and tactics. With Wilder and his managerial counterparts now making countless subtle adjustments during the course of a match, perhaps as a direct result of improved intelligence gathering and scouting methods, the likes of Basham and his ilk should be flourishing. Yet, particularly in England, adaptability is regarded as a weakness. One of the reasons Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reportedly joined Liverpool rather than Chelsea during last summer’s transfer window was because he feared Antonio Conte would ask him to provide defensive cover at Stamford Bridge.
Wilder, reminding that Basham is not the only multifaceted member of his squad, believes working with players like Basham makes financial as well as sporting sense. Southend’s Ryan Leonard, one of United’s targets during next month’s transfer window, can operate in midfield or centre-half.
“Whatever club I’ve had, there’s always been two or three because of the numbers I run with,” Wilder said. “I think we’ve got that here.
“Enda (Stevens) can play centre-half, Jack (O’Connell) can go left-back, Brooksy (David) can go in the middle of the park and (Mark) Duffy can play as a ten. I think it’s important, regarding the numbers in the group and also financially.
“In an ideal world, you’d have 22 players and if one goes out, another comes in. But it’s not ideal and so this is why we do it.”
After deputising for Baldock against Hull City, Fulham, Birmingham City and Millwall, Basham returned to his preferred position when the 24-year-old recovered from a hamstring problem in time to face Bristol City last week. Wilder recently acknowledged United, now sixth in the Championship table after going four games without a win, are a more formidable proposition with two specialist wing-backs in their starting eleven.
But, as they prepare for Saturday’s visit to Preston North End, he said: “The wing-back thing has slightly affected our rhythm because we had to move Bash too. He was playing one position and then has gone into another which is played differently by other players.
“It’s not an excuse because we’ve won games with Bash there. The Hull game, our second-half performance was right up there and he played in that position. Birmingham, we did well and he played there too.”