Twelve months ago, I posted a Half Term Review of Danny Wilson's initial spell in charge. In what was a tense time, with supporter opinion divided on the new man in charge, United were hitting a bit of a blip in terms of results and were struggling for form against those clubs around them. Rolling forward 12 months and some of the comparisons are interesting and common themes emerge.
United started last season with much of the previous season's squad intact and that certainly played a key part in the relative success we enjoyed last season. This season it is very much different. With the departure of four key players, three of which were wholly necessary to enable the club to comply with the SMCP (salary cap) rules and another at Her Majesty's Pleasure, Danny was always going to need to work miracles in the transfer market. At the same time, the onus was on blooding young players.
Of those coming in, three have settled into first team action. Tony McMahon was seen as a great signing by many and has taken up the right back slot vacated by the departing Matt Lowton. And therein lays the problem. As steady as McMahon has been, he is not Lowton and the absence of marauding runs forward like Lowton offered, probably tars opinion of the new man.
Nick Blackman is the Blades top scorer and certainly possesses more than enough talent to be a success in League One. But as Irecently suggested to the Football League site The Two Unfortunates, you can't help feeling he could be achieving so much more if he applied himself and his energies better.
Dave Kitson was an unusual signing and one that the manager seems to have had little influence in. After all, we had five strikers on the books when he signed his short term deal until January and at the time fans wanted the diminishing salary pot used elsewhere. Also a friendship with the McCabe family seemingly had a defining impact on his decision to join. Until his injury he has looked the pick of our strikers. Whilst the legs have not always been able, he has still worked incredibly hard, across the front line and tracking back, offering an outlet ball and someone to hold the ball whilst others joined in support. His footballing brain has set him apart as a class above from many of those around him.
John Cofie started the season with plenty of energy, but has lost his way and his place in the team, displaying a disappointing level of physical strength on the ball and a naiveté when taking up positions and running at opposition defences. His lack of senior football clearly playing a part and whilst all players have to make that step up somewhere, I don't feel that we have the time and can be patient enough this season.
Shaun Miller has demonstrated a striker's intuition when making rare forays from the bench and took two magnificently finished goals at Notts County in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. His chance must come, sooner rather than later. Whilst Darryl Westlake has had rare opportunities, playing out of position in midfield to plug gaps, but may now have a run in his natural right back position following McMahon's injury at MK.
Overall, Danny has done okay with his signings, but the failure to address clear deficiencies in wide areas, aside from the short term loan signing of Paul Gallagher, are my main criticism.
Faith in Youth (C+)
One of the most exciting factors of our pre-season was seeing the opportunities being given to graduates from our FA Youth Cup final squad of 18 months ago. Tenacious and attack minded midfielder Elliot Whitehouse impressed until a broken foot ruled him out of the start of the season. Whilst he was unlikely to have dislodged Doyle and McDonald from the first XI, he would have been a natural fit when Doyle suffered a three game suspension and may have offered impetus off the bench late in games.
Callum McFadzean would add something badly missing out wide and I fail to see how he could not improve our play in that area. Not least because he would be a round peg in a round hole! George Long has taken his opportunity magnificently following Mark Howard's injury, keeping clean sheets in 5 out of 9 games and pulling off some saves that bely his age and experience. Yet you get the feeling that this has surprised Wilson who would have been just as happy bringing in a loan player, only for the youngsters form to negate the need.
Over the last couple of years much has been made of our "Development Squad", but many of these players are not given a chance, even in cup games. There also appears reluctance from other clubs to take them on loan and when they have it has hardly been a measured success. Some are now approaching an age where if they are going to forge a career they ought to be pushing for the matchday squad.
For many you don't sense that is the case and if so it is questionable why some have deals to the end of the season and beyond. Whilst they will be on relatively low salaries and take up little of our budget, you can't help feeling that this money could be better used on a loan winger. Their movement onwards would also free up opportunities for younger academy players to join the Under 21 squad.
Style of Play (C)
If you lose quality players and have little funds to replace there will clearly be a deterioration both in terms of style of play. You can try to do the same, but when you lack players like Ched Evans, Stephen Quinn and Lee Williamson, you also lack the creativity and imagination that these players brought to our play last season and not least their goals.
Whilst United went goal crazy last season, there is a relative dearth of goals and chances this season. Of the 92 goals last season, 52 were scored by the now departed quartet of Evans, Williams, Lowton and Quinn. Together these four players set up 35 of them. Take them away and it places a huge onus on the shoulders of Kevin McDonald as our chief creator and Ryan Flynn on the wing.
There has been mumbled criticism of McDonald this season, his influence not as noticeable as last season. This is down to a number of factors including the deterioration in quality and movement around him and the tighter marking he now receives as the single focal point of our team.
Tactics and Substitutions (C)
Having already touched upon Danny Wilson's reluctance to play youth, what makes it all the more frustrating is his insistence in playing square pegs in round holes to plug the gaps. This has seen Marcus Williams deployed in a left wing position, Darryl Westlake played in central midfield and David McAllister played wide. Whilst not wanting to decry their effort, which cannot be faulted, they are not natural fits and the team play suffers as a result.
A major frustration last season was the use of substitutions late on in games and our tendency to sit back on leads. I described it as thus;
"At times they have removed the impetus we had when taking the lead, probably causing us to sit deeper, invite teams on and anxiety spreads from stands to pitch."
Sadly we are seeing it again this season and when the margins are so tight it makes it all the more annoying. Whilst defensively we appear more solid this season it only takes one lapse in the final seconds for 3 points to become 1 and 1 to become 0. The focus on strengthening the backline has left fans feeling that we have set up in a much more negative manner this season. I suspect there is an element of being more defensively minded, combined with the lack of creativity that we had last season.
The stats back this up. Relatively shot shy at home and the least attacking side away from home, it is our defensive stability and fortitude that leaves us where we are.
Ave. Shots For
Ave. Shots Against
Overall League Ranking
* Figures taken from PA data as published on BBC Sport and kindly compiled by Ron of the Swindon Town site The Washbag
Top 8 clashes (C+)
Last year our record against the teams around us was patchy and poor. This season, in what many agree is a weaker division; it is much harder to judge. Of those in the Top 8 United have faced just four; disappointing home draws with Notts County and Doncaster and away draw and a defeat at Swindon and MK respectively. Further tests come in the next month or so, starting with a home game against Stevenage on Saturday. Games against Tranmere and Crawley follow in December. Where United find themselves mid-December could well set the standard for what we can expect this season. The one positive is that only one team has gained on us from these games so far.
Dealing with the media (B+)
I have only really disagreed with Danny once this season. On the whole his dealings with the media have demonstrated a level of pragmatism and an acknowledgment of the grim reality of managing a club with financial issues to address.
That pragmatism, although not widely shared amongst the fan base, sees Wilson taking the positives from a grim 1-0 win, i.e. it is a win, rather than being bogged down in public debate over what could be improved. We all know money is not available to fix some of the frustrating things we have seen on the pitch this season; it will require continued hard work on the training ground.
My disagreement came in the wake of a particularly sterile 0-0 home draw with Doncaster. Having watched United pump long diagonal balls on to the heads of defensive giants Jones and McCombe all evening, I failed to see how he could say that was our best tactic, given we rarely tried to take the ball wide past their full back and hit a low cross from a more difficult position for the defenders to deal with. We had just played into an average side's hands for 90 minutes.
I have said it on twitter a few times in recent weeks, but United really remind me of Charlton Athletic last season. Didn't overly impress when I saw them, but efficiently did the job. There was little between the two sides at Bramall Lane, but a couple of defensive lapses cost us. Away, we probably deserved a draw and should have had one but for a goal ruled out for offside. What Charlton did to us and others last season, we are doing to teams in this division. If anything we lack the ruthlessness up front that Charlton displayed.
It is true we have dropped points particularly at home, but our away record more than compensates and all this without ever feeling like we have hit top gear. This could be United's season; automatic promotion is in our own hands. Playing the way we are few teams will beat us, the important factor will be converting tight games into victories. Teams miss out on promotion and some are relegated, by drawing too many games. Throughout Huddersfield’s long “unbeaten run” they were drawing lots of games; in the end it cost them.
It is a fine line we are treading. As the match at MK showed on Saturday, you can be seconds away from a good away draw and one mistake, be it from an official or player, can cost you. There is an argument that says one point from Swindon and MK away might have been three with a more positive game plan.
Having said all that, we have 32 points after 17 games and sit 2nd; 3 points and 3 places better off than we were at the same stage last season. 32 points last season would have placed us 4th, still a point behind Wednesday in 3rd. These facts lend credence to the argument that the division is weaker this season. Sadly, so are the Blades.
Last November, I suggested the following:
"The drop in standard from the Championship has been notable and it is only our own failings that have stopped us achieving a higher position. There is still plenty for Wilson to work on and where we end up this season will largely depend on what he has to work with in terms of a squad come the end of January and an ability to wheel and deal in the loan market to provide adequate cover when required.
Wilson's time at Swindon turned sour when some of his better players were sold on. He needs to ensure the same doesn't happen at Bramall Lane"
I think the same applies this time. We are reportedly at 60% of turnover in terms of wages, against a limit of 65%. The board are saying that, although there is little we can do now, there may well be movement in January. There needs to be movement for United to progress, however that movement shouldn’t mean losing our best young players.
I fully back Wilson to deliver promotion this season. I have seen nothing so far to suggest we cannot achieve it, but we need to do more to ensure that we tip the scales slightly more in our favour. Fortune favours the brave and so far we have been more than a little timid.