Long before he became Sheffield United manager, Chris Wilder once told an audience of journalists about his recipe for footballing success.
“Yes,” he acknowledged, “Tactics are important. But if you don’t compete, if you don’t win your tackles and if you don’t win your headers they don’t count for much.”
Little wonder, then, that Ethan Ebanks-Landell is Wilder’s type of player. The centre-half, signed on a season long loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, celebrated his first start in United colours with a commanding performance against AFC Wimbledon last weekend. Although the visitors produced some intelligent football at Kingsmeadow stadium, it was the defender’s industry and athleticism which build the platform for their third straight League One win.
“He’s a ‘man’ player,” Wilder, assessing Ebanks-Landell’s contribution, said. “A proper ‘man’s’ footballer if you like. They had some big lads up at the top end of the pitch but I think we dealt with it and Ethan was a big part of that.”
United’s next match - they host Peterborough on Saturday - is expected to pose an altogether different type of test. But, barring injury or illness, Wilder’s theory about what it takes to succeed in the professional game suggests Ebanks-Landell will again partner Jake Wright and Jack O’Connell at the back. Grant McCann’s side have scored six goals during their last three outings in the competition and conceded four. News that midfielder Jermaine Anderson is set to miss the rest of the season after damaging knee ligaments represents a bitter blow for the Northern Irishman. But Peterborough are unlikely to change their attacking, expansive approach.
“In the last three or four minutes at Wimbledon, they were taking unbelievable chances,” Wilder said. “You do think ‘how are we in this position.’ But, the fact is, we were. There were enough players sticking their hand up to clear it and also put their bodies on the line though. And that’s vital. No matter what is happening in the game.”
“We created good chances by opening them up,” Wilder added. “Our shape offers the opposition a chance to put the ball into our box but, on the flip side, it gives us a chance to get on the ball.”
Wilder was referring to his decision to play with three centre-halves and two wing-backs in recent weeks rather than a traditional flat back four. The arrival of Daniel Lafferty from Burnley has also helped facilitate the switch although Ebanks-Landell’s mobility helps United get further up the pitch.
“If you want to achieve and go forward, you have to come to places like this and slug it out,” Wilder said. “Break it up and slug it out.
“Their goal came from taking our foot off the gas because we were in complete control. Generally, there were good performances all over the pitch.
“The next step is to go from 2-0 to 3-0. But I’m not going to complain because the players passed the test I gave them. I’ve got a really good, hungry, competitive squad.”
Ebanks-Landell’s arrival underlines the importance of adopting an imaginative approach towards recruitment. Last season, United spent over six months vainly pursuing Dan Burn despite Fulham’s insistence that the 24-year-old was not for sale. Following Paul Mitchell’s appointment as head of recruitment, United are now spending less money but delivering better value in the transfer market. Although they have an option to retain his services for a further year, Wolves could choose to release Ebanks-Landell from his contract at the end of season. If that scenario materialises, Wilder would presumably be in pole position to secure the youngster’s services.
“Players become available for all sorts of reasons,” Wilder said. “Just because they’re available, it doesn’t mean they’re not good players.”