In a strange season overall, definitely the most stunning thing to see has been the rise of Sheffield United. The Blades were promoted from the EFL Championship last season but with no outstanding talent – on paper at least – and a tight transfer budget, Chris Wilder’s side were amongst the most heavily tipped for relegation.
However, they have flipped the script on its head this season, and with just 11 games remaining, they now sit in 8th position in the Premier League. The Blades have a game in hand on the majority of their rivals, and if they were to win that one, they’d sit just 2 points behind Chelsea in 4th place.
So can Wilder and his team really secure an unlikely UEFA Champions League berth for 2020-21? Here we take a look at their remaining fixtures and analyse their chances.
The Blades have been among the Premier League’s most consistent sides this season when it’s come to getting positive results. With just 7 results to their name, only Liverpool, Manchester City, Wolves and Arsenal have lost fewer games, and they’ve also proved adept at taking points from the league’s traditionally bigger sides.
Liverpool and Manchester City have both beaten them twice, but the Blades were able to beat Arsenal and take a draw from them at the Emirates, while also taking draws from Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United.
The Blades have a relatively poor number of goals scored to their name; their figure of 29 pales in comparison to all of the sides that currently sit above them, while strugglers like Aston Villa and West Ham have also scored more. But their tight defence means they’ve conceded just 25; only Liverpool can boast a meaner defence.
Wilder’s men are not a direct, defensive unit though; they play attractive football and have been known to slice opposing defences open at times, as they did at times against the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham. And fascinatingly, they’ve also seen a total of 6 VAR decisions go against them – the most in the league.
However, despite their success, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that they’re going to be found out at some point in the near future; Wilder’s tactics, which include innovations like overlapping centre-backs, have been hard for the Premier League’s giants to get a handle on, but there’s also a nagging feeling that players like Chris Basham, John Lundstram and David McGoldrick are playing far better than their previous abilities would suggest. How long can they keep it up?
The Blades’ remaining fixtures actually seem relatively favourable. They have some tough opponents in the form of Manchester United, Tottenham, Wolves, Chelsea, Leicester and Everton, but to their advantage, 4 of those games will be played at Bramall Lane.
Elsewhere, they face off with just two of the Premier League’s real strugglers in Aston Villa and Norwich City – with Newcastle also being an outsider to face a relegation battle. Their games against Burnley and Southampton – on the final day – mark their only matches against genuine mid-table opponents, meaning that if they want to gain a top four spot, they’ll basically need to take points from those around them.
So can they do it? Well, their results against their remaining 11 opponents earlier in the season gave them a total of 15 points – and if they were to repeat that haul, then they’d end up on 55 points at the end of the season. It’s certainly not impossible to imagine that 55 points in the current season would be enough to cement 4th place, or in the least 5th – which could be a ticket to the Champions League due to Manchester City’s upcoming ban from the competition.
However, it’s worth noting that the Blades actually lost to Southampton and Newcastle in their earlier fixtures – sides that any team chasing a Champions League spot would probably need to be able to defeat. If they can turn those losses into wins this time around while continuing to bloody the nose of their bigger opponents, then they could even end up with more than 55 points.
More slip-ups against those sides though – and poor results against their fellow contenders should those teams find a way to make their more highly-rated players get past Wilder’s band of journeymen – and they could easily end up with far less than that 15 point haul, too.
Of all of the Premier League’s Champions League-chasing sides, Sheffield United are undoubtedly the hardest to really quantify. Chris Wilder has undeniably done a tremendous job with what is frankly a limited squad, and we have seen surprise packages fly up the Premier League table before – Nottingham Forest in 1994-95 and Ipswich Town in 2000-01 for instance – so for them to make the top four isn’t impossible.
However, their lack of goals is worrying, particularly as they appear to have been scoring less and less in recent games, and should the bigger sides they have left to face – Spurs, Man United, Chelsea and so on – find a way to breach their defence, then they could end up losing perhaps half of their remaining games, which would almost certainly scupper their chances.
It’d make for a nice story but it’s just difficult to see a side so full of unheralded players continue to keep up their form against the Premier League’s giants, particularly in the business end of the season. They lack the top-level experience of their rivals, and most notably, lack the players with the ability to conjure goals up from very little.
Any top half finish would be a triumph for Sheffield United, but to make the top 4 would likely take more than they have in their arsenal.