Sunday, 21 December 2014

Consistently Inconsistent - Sheffield United in 2014

Consistently inconsistent. I can think of no better way to describe Sheffield United's 2014.

They have given me moments of joy and exultation, both sat/stood in the stands and sat by the radio at home. Those moments that see you shoot up to your feet, the blood rushing so fast to your head that your legs shake and your temple feels like it might explode. The adrenaline rush keeping you upright as your body feels like it might collapse underneath you.

At other times they have left me angry. So angry that at times the words that are in my head, as I rise to my feet to hurl some well thought out invective, somehow disappear between brain and mouth. All that I manage is a sharp "For God's sake", before the insightful comments then fail to leave my lips. My mouth makes the shape to speak more words but they just never make it out. Arms flail, fingers pointed, fist waved, but no words and I flop back into my red plastic seat utterly flummoxed by both the team and my inability to say what I want to.

There have been times that I just haven't fancied going and when I have missed games, a rarity over the last 25 years but a more common occurrence these days. I didn't miss it like I should do. Or like I used to. Absence did little to make my heart grow fonder.

As we pass the end of the calendar year. There is much to be proud of. United have  made many a back page headline this year. Making news for reasons that bring that flush of pride to your face and a smile of satisfaction.

From thrilling cup exploits to unbeaten runs and ten consecutive victories. The euphoria of beating Villa in the FA Cup at Villa Park in January, but never for one moment anticipating it would end with the immense pride of watching the Blades play so well at Wembley, tinged with slight disappointment at what might have been, at what nearly was. Then the League Cup campaign this season. High flying Premier League clubs despatched, another semi final awaits in 2015.

Yet, despite this success, there has been on pitch disappointment. United are a team that are playing in the margins where success and failure have little to separate them and where cup success is easier to achieve than league consistency. After the lows of David Weir's brief reign there have been moments and games to match any low of the Weir tenure. The football has at times, been as un-entertaining as that seen under the much derided Kevin Blackwell.

The turgid, pedestrian football has lacked the spark and initiative to break down the most stubborn of League One defences and those that other clubs seem to open up at will. Matches where you leave feeling you could play until midnight with 4 strikers on the pitch and still not score.

The pleasure at seeing the club do its transfer business early in the summer, with all bar two of Clough's named targets secured, was quickly decimated by a hotch-potch of a preseason. Whilst fitness is a clear aim of the matches in July and August, it is also a time for the manager to identify his preferred eleven. The fact that he doesn't appear to have achieved this at the turn of the year is a huge concern.

Everyone is a football manager. Everyone knows better. From Sunday league to junior football, from FIFA to Fantasy Football, we all think we have the answer. Yet there are common themes in criticism, in amongst the bluster and Mike Bassett-esque calls for Four Four Fucking Two.

Whilst injuries have bitten hard at times, there has been an insistence in putting square pegs in round holes. No greater example being against Bristol City in the opening game of the season. Some of these problems have been caused by the manager's own stubbornness. Andy Butler and Neill Collins are unlikely to play for the club again, Summer signing Butler has barely played for us at all. The manager took a view in the flawed pre-season programme and that was that.

If you had told me, when we suffered relegation from the Championship, that Collins would still be with us now I would have laughed. Now his longevity can well be linked to our longevity in this division, but his contribution last season when he covered Harry Maguire as much as Maguire covered him seems to have been quickly forgotten by fans and management alike.

Meanwhile, we have seen full backs in the middle of defence, a youngster making errors as he learns his trade played both in the middle and out of position at right back. We have loaned a cart horse from the Premier League and found that our best central defensive partnership so far comprises a left back and a central midfielder.

It is probably fair to say every manager has his favourites. Clough is no exception. Players like Scougall and Baxter have both had spells in the team when form ought to have seen them left out. Baxter has played at 9, 10, out wide, deep central midfield, the manager doesn't know how or where to use him for the best.

Clough is proving to be a manager who is stubborn with a degree of pride that sees him making unpopular decisions and refusing to bow down to fan pressure. Marc McNulty is a raw talent, with a need to be more game savvy, but the frequent and public fault finding, even after game saving contributions seem spiteful, rather than productive. Especially when others are seemingly exempt from such scrutiny or criticism.

Last season the 4-5-1 / 4-2-3-1 formation worked. We had a solid central defensive partnership and progressive full backs. A settled back four gave us a platform that allowed us to hit teams on the break. We started the Clough era a side lacking in confidence and sides were more willing to attack us, taking the game to us.

There were false starts when you thought we might go on a run, but it didn't last. Reading the thoughts of those committed enough to be at Gresty Road on February 1st you could not have predicted what would follow. No one would have.

From that we had a Plan A. It worked for those final few months, it has worked against better opposition in the cup this season, it hasn't worked in the league this season. Teams are wiser and more wary,sitting deeper and inviting us to find the nous to break them down. More often than not we don't find it. We lack bodies in and around the box, that killer instinct, that incisive final pass or willingness to take a shot from outside the box. Frustration mounts on the pitch and in the stands.

There were signs of this against Wolves towards the end of last season. The general feeling was that we lacked one or two players, yet the way they zipped the passes around and the quality play in possession is still something we lack. The common denominator in the three promoted sides last season was goals. Whilst Rotherham and Wolves had individual strikers who contributed significantly to the tally, all three had goals throughout the team.

Only three of the four relegated sides scored fewer goals than United last season. This season our goal difference is way behind that of the Top 4, so even if the significant points gap can be breached, the paucity of goals could be costly. There has been talk of the towsing a team might get when we hit proper form, but that is as long way off. You don't win matches with possession percentages and neither with shots that are off target. A number of times I've left Bramall Lane this season bemoaning dropped points and the relaxing afternoon enjoyed by the opposition goalkeeper.

Throughout the year our support has been nothing short of magnificent in numbers, however the lack of positivity in our tactical set up has reduced the positivity and volume from the fans at times. The grumblings about the manager are increasing in volume. Ill thought out comments, regarding his league targets and the fans support have done little to temper frustration.

Whilst 2014 delivered several high points and treasured memories, it hasn't been without its problems. We start the year with another FA Cup third round trip to a Premier League team and fans are snapping up tickets for the semi final matches in the other cup competition. We are 11 places and 8 points better off than when we ended 2014, but with just as big a task facing us. We are further adrift of the top two, than the bottom four are to us.

The players we have got are good enough to be several points and places better off than we are. That they are not is as much down to them as the manager and their should be a period of self scrutiny from the squad themselves. Money and wages do not guarantee success, but given United's relative size and budget there is no doubt we are below par in terms of results and league position.

Our 2015 will be largely defined by the end of January. In 31 days we may have started another cup run with an underdog victory, we may have finally reached a cup final for the first time in 80 years, we may have made the signings that will give us that added impetus which will see us converting league draws and defeats to wins, we may actually see a home league win for the first time since October. And in 31 days we may not have achieved any of this. You know how to manage your  expectations watching Sheffield United.

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