Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Expecting to Fly?

The Blades kick off the new Football League season live on Sky Sports, welcoming the League's oldest club Notts County to Bramall Lane, but will be another season of same old, same old for United?

United fans seem to be approaching the season in a state of warm expectation. While the appointment of David Weir shows welcome initiative and forethought, there is a lot resting in the hands of a rookie manager. 

In what became a hectic pre-season, the manager took a look at players from across the first team squad and development/under 21 teams. Clearly trying to develop the players' comprehension of his tactics and playing style. A transition to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-2-1-1 isn't going to just happen and it will take a few competitive games for this to be properly embedded. 

Hopefully with attacking wide players and Kevin McDonald playing in the hole behind a central striker, we will see a bit more pace and fluidity to United's play. However, Weir has assured us he has a Plan B and this was something vitally lacking last season, as first Danny Wilson and Chris Morgan failed to find a way to break down teams who took advantage of our deep lying midfield, lack of pace and pedestrian play.

The goal scored in the pre-season game at Mansfield promises much. As the ball was passed from one end of the pitch to the other with slick movement and simple passing. Whilst the finish was a simple tap in and there were elements of luck as some of the passes and first touches were loose it showed a confidence and variation of thought absent throughout much of last season.

Pre-season has ended with the Blades unbeaten, although that is said to count for little when the focus is on fitness, match sharpness and team understanding. Anyone who takes comfort from results against League 2 and Scottish lower league opposition should do so with caution. 

Perhaps the one concern from pre-season if you were to judge results is the lack of goals. Although again we are adding key players in this position who will need time to adapt. The signing of Lyle Taylor is the right kind of signing and the hope has to be that he finds the switch from Scottish Division 1 to League 1 a smooth transition. Certainly arriving on the back of a 30+ goal season won't do his confidence any harm. 

Febian Brandy has a far less impressive goals to game ratio, but he will provide pace from wide positions and his play off a front man will be key to how we play. Maybe this formation will draw the best out of Jamie Murphy and Ryan Flynn who ought to weigh in with more goals and a greater all round contribution. 

Too often we relied on clean sheets for wins last season and in the end succumbed to low scoring draws, particularly at home. With a largely unchanged defence, we have to find more goals this season and they need to be delivered from every position, not just the strikers.

Of the five things I asked from the club at the end of last season, there are signs that several are either falling into place, or the club at the very least is improving its efforts. 

We have a young, ambitious manager with fresh ideas; possibly too inexperienced but time will tell. He has signed the young, hungry players with a point to prove. Whilst there could rightly be concerns with Stephen McGinn's injury record and Sean McGinty's lengthy disciplinary issues, there can be little doubt there is raw talent there. Weir will have seen plenty of Jasper Johns whilst at Goodison and across Merseyside Connor Coady will be keen to justify the rave reviews of Reds' followers.

I also asked for a clear way of playing that permeates every layer of the club and Weir's wide pre-season squad rotation bodes well. It will be interesting to see if the under 18s adapt to this formation as well. 

The other two facets to my five point plan were a long term strategy and honesty about our ambitions. Whilst I don't doubt the former is in place, there is an understandable reluctance to talk beyond getting back up this season and amongst talk of long term development, Weir was quick to add that promotion this season is our target. The sooner the better. 

Club communication seems stronger, with greater opportunities to quiz manager, backroom staff and board members. The  fact that Lee Carsley recognised the importance of message boards and fan forums in approaching the administrators  of www.s24su.com for a chat about what he and Weir were trying to achieve, shows a welcome wider awareness beyond player management and coaching skills. The club still has some way to go, particularly around social media, but the first signs are promising and I hope Julian Winter delivers on his words. 

The only negative for me? That Michael Doyle retains the club captaincy. I have talked before about his apparent negative manner with team mates, particularly the youngsters. A player that for me can hardly claim to lead by example. Sadly,I think the rest of the squad lacks a vocal organiser. Neill Collins would seem a potential candidate, but perhaps is too quiet a personality on the pitch.

So what for the Blades this season? Despite the positive signs, I stand by my view that this is a 2 season project. The relegated teams are all strong, PNE are forming a strong squad and are rid of the cancer that is Graham Westley and a Brentford strikeforce of Donaldson and Grigg is one to be feared in League 1.

The first few weeks should give us a good guide. Notts Co look weaker on paper than last season, particularly without Alan Judge, but are still a stern test to open the season. Brentford away is one of the toughest trips in the division and we can only hope they are slow starting after their negative double whammy at the end of last season. In the first month we also face an always awkward MK Dons and Yorkshire derbies against newly promoted sides Rotherham United and Bradford City. 

Since I wrote brief previews and answered the questions for World Soccer's 'Football 2014' and When Saturday Comes, my expectations have increased. A play off spot is a possibility for me, although it may be a late push to achieve it. Having a team firing as it enters the latter stages of the season could be a good thing and I think it suits club and fans not to be a favourite for promotion this season. In my mind I think that two play off spots are up for grabs and little happening elsewhere makes me think we aren't capable. 

Expecting to fly? Maybe. It could be more of a steady ascent than a soaring take off. Let's just remain patient. I think we might reach our target destination, as long as we don't fret too much en route.

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