Sheffield United’s unbelievable Premier League campaign continued on the weekend as John Lundstram came off the bench to hand Chris Wilder another victory in their unprecedented quest for European football.
The English manager, who is currently sitting fifth on the Premier League table ahead of heavyweights like Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal, would be hoping that his side continues their form through the last third of the season.
Sheffield were promoted to the English top-flight after 12 long years at the end of last season, but many believed they would not be able to compete with the country’s top-dogs. Pundits and fans alike predicted that they would face relegation in their first season back in English football, largely due to their inexperienced group of players who have only taken part in the country’s lower league competitions.
However, in what has been a fairytale story so far, Wilder’s men are now dreaming of an incredible Champions League spot for next season. In the modern Premier League era, Ipswich Town are the only promoted side to finish as high as fifth place. Interestingly, George Burley’s side were only pipped to a Champions League spot on the final day of the 2000-01 season, and finished just four points behind runners-up Arsenal.
There is no doubt that finishing in the top four would demand some incredible athleticism and consistency from this Sheffield United side in the remaining dozen matches. But given their displays this season, one cannot rule them out completely.
The Blades have been one of the league’s most organised and hard-working teams defensively, having conceded only 24 goals. Only runaway leaders Liverpool have let in fewer goals than them.
In attack, the team has managed to score 28 goals, two fewer than 18th-placed West Ham United. John Fleck, Lys Mousset, Oliver McBurnie and the match-winner against Bournemouth have all contributed to Sheffield’s goals this campaign, but that only showcases how much praise their defense deserves.
Keeper Dean Henderson has been one of the finds of the season with his impeccable performances in the Sheffield net. The Manchester United loanee is on top of the clean-sheets chart, battling with Nick Pope and Alisson for the Golden Glove award.
In front of Henderson, Wilder’s defensive three of Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’ Connell have been equally sensational.
The wing-backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock have also gone under the radar, but their defensive stability and attacking prowess have been lauded by the club's supporters. In midfield, Oliver Norwood has been a solid presence, releasing the likes of Fleck and Lundstram to join the rotating attackers comprising of veteran forward Billy Sharp, McBurnie, Mousset and David McGoldrick.
Highly-rated Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge was recently brought to Bramall Lane in a club-record transfer fee of €26m last month, further showcasing the club's intent to push for a Champions League place.
Sheffield United are not playing explosive football like Leicester City did in their 2015/16 Premier League winning campaign. However, their passionate and fearless style of play has helped them churn out results against the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, United and Arsenal.
Their 1-0 loss against Liverpool in September was perhaps one of the best performances by any team against the Reds this season.
Jurgen Klopp’s side has no doubt been unassailable this season, having won 73 out of a possible 75 points. The inevitable Premier League champions are now on their way to beat the 100-point record set by rivals Manchester City in Pep Guardiola’s second season. Another record, which Klopp has repeatedly refused to comment on, is the prospect of going unbeaten for the entirety of the season - a feat now not looking impossible.
The German, as a result, has won five out of six Premier League Manager of the Month awards this term, and is a front-runner for the Manager of the Season prize. However, Liverpool’s dominance this season has not come as an outright surprise given their Champions League triumph and the fact that they were only two points away from winning the Premier League trophy last season.
City’s dip in form following their back-to-back league crowns and domestic treble success was not foreseen, but it has not come as a huge shock either. Moreover, Liverpool have spent close to half a billion under Jurgen Klopp, laying out more than €70m each on two of their most important players Virgil van Dijk and Alisson.
There is no doubt that Klopp’s side deserves every bit of the credit they are receiving. But what Wilder has managed to achieve so far, and could achieve come the end of the season, demands even more respect and recognition.
If Wilder is to secure Champions League qualification with this unseasoned team, he should get the coveted Premier League Manager of the Year award over Jurgen Klopp come May. That would be a dream scenario - and a deserving one - for the lifelong Sheffield United fan and former Blades player.