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Sheffield United 2020/21 preview: How can Blades build on stunning season?

Sheffield United made a mockery of last summer's pre-season predictions to finish in the top half of the Premier League.

A side tipped to prop up the pack did not spend a day in the drop zone, instead pushing lofty rivals for a Europan spot until the penultimate round - quite some going for a newly-promoted team packed with Premier League debutants and assembled with the lowest wage bill in the division.

How to build on such an improbable achievement?

Consolidation should be the watchword but Blades boss Chris Wilder is a man loath to stand still...

Where they stand

A string of victories against Tottenham, Wolves and Chelsea had thrillingly kept Sheffield United in touch in the race for Europe after the restart but those wins were sandwiched by lethargic displays as injuries and fatigue belatedly took their toll on a thin squad. The Blades' high-intensity game suffered too, in stadiums shorn of supporters.

A truncated pre-season described by Wilder as a "crash course" has been challenging but the United manager has talked up his players' enthusiasm for the quick turnaround.

The £18.5m signing of goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale to replace loan star Dean Henderson has been the club's heftiest piece of business - the summer's budget had already been raided in part for Sander Berge in January, before the financial impact of the pandemic began to be felt. It will please Wilder that Berge, who told Sky Sports in July that he had needed time to adapt following his club-record move, impressed in pre-season before heading off on international duty.

John Egan, Oliver Norwood and Chris Basham have signed new deals, while extensions for the likes of Jack Rodwell and Phil Jagielka will provide useful cover, but competition in the challenging wing-back role has arrived in the shape of promising Derby pair Jayden Boyle and Max Lowe, while Ethan Ampadu - on loan from Chelsea - is a coup.

Wilder, as usual, has had to trade shrewdly - the club's wage structure is as key a consideration as fees - but their future-proofing business so far adds versatility and athleticism to a previously stretched group. Fresh impetus in attack is still sought, with Rhian Brewster a target, but Wilder for now has a new restoration project in Oliver Burke; the Scot - still only 23 - will certainly provide pace, power and unpredictability.

Sheff Utd transfer business so far

In
Wes Foderingham - Rangers, free
Aaron Ramsdale - Bournemouth, £18.5m
Jayden Bogle - Derby, undisclosed
Max Lowe - Derby, undisclosed
Ethan Ampadu - Chelsea, loan
Oliver Burke - West Brom, undisclosed

Out
Luke Freeman - Nottingham Forest, loan
Leon Clarke - released
Callum Robinson - West Brom, undisclosed

Where they're strong

The Blades conceded just 39 Premier League goals last season - the fewest of any promoted side in the history of the competition.

Only three top-flight clubs let in fewer or kept more clean sheets, and while Henderson's exploits were key, Jack O'Connell, John Egan and Basham continued to be a formidable unit at the level above and the side's shape out of possession was supremely honed on the training pitch by Wilder and Alan Knill; of the sides who conceded fewer shots than their 431, only Everton finished below them. That shift to a flatter three in midfield was certainly vindicated.

At the other end, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea attempted more than the Blades' 867 crosses, thanks to their enterprising wing-backs and those now-renowned overlapping centre-backs.

The Blades also produced another quirk: only the top four clubs attempted more passes in the final third, even though they delivered a below-average total for passes attempted overall. While they rarely dominated possession stats last season, Wilder's side certainly played plenty of their football in attacking areas - and soaked up pressure effectively off the ball.

Continuity in team selection provided the platform for success: only Burnley made fewer changes to their starting XI than Wilder's 51 - several of which came with injury and suspension issues after the restart.

Where they need to improve

At the top of the pitch, chiefly. Can they turn more of those good positions into decisive moments?

The Blades' system has always prized the creation of high-quality chances - they proved efficient from a league-low 114 shots on target - but Wilder is still looking for an injection of creativity and firepower to swing a neutral goal balance into positive figures.

Yet that's a delicate tweak to achieve without disrupting defensive solidity - and often requires cold, hard cash.

What has the manager said?

Wilder admitted he had briefly considered how a difficult end to last season might have drained his players mentally as well as physically.

"They did ever so well last season and then had a little disappointment towards the end," he said after their first run-out - albeit only 45 minutes on a waterlogged pitch - against Dundee United. "We wanted to see if that had affected the lads, if they'd come back with the attitude and desire we're going to need. I'm pleased to say they have."

Further pre-season victories against Hearts and Derby have followed with the Blades maintaining last season's shape tactically for now. "We'll not change our approach," Wilder has said. "We'll try to get something from every game we play."

The United boss has previous when it comes to challenging players and board too - he insisted the club "needed better players" following a final-day defeat to Southampton - and his transfer business has provided another opportunity to set standards yet higher.

"Jayden and Max will put huge pressure on George (Baldock) and Enda (Stevens)... it's game on for everyone, it's not a warning, it's a fact."

Key man

Key men, more like; the collective, the system, the synchronicity underpinned Sheffield United's success last term.

When John Fleck, with his line-breaking runs, and Oliver Norwood, with those pitch-stretching pings, are in the groove, the Blades usually are too. More is expected of Scotland team-mate Oli McBurnie this term, who grew into his role and will hope to hit double figures. Ramsdale, meanwhile, has a defence expertly marshalled by Egan in front of him but still has big gloves to fill.

Yet Jack O'Connell, as it proved after the restart, is pivotal to the Wilder Way. United lost three of the five games the defender - still surprisingly overlooked by England - missed after the season belatedly resumed, their shots- and crosses-per-game count considerably diminished in the absence of a player who sparks as well as repels attacks.

One to watch

A £10m outlay that prompted some scepticism last summer has already been vindicated in truth; Lys Mousset finished as the club's joint-top scorer with six goals that helped earn the Blades 12 points but he remains a frustratingly enigmatic figure.

Strikes against Everton, Manchester United and Wolves demonstrated a sharp instinct in front of goal while his direct running and quick feet brought needed dynamism, and yet he made only 11 starts and never completed a full 90 minutes. Wilder frequently rotated his forwards in an otherwise settled side but Mousset could be a more enduring threat if mind and body are ready.

What is success for Sheff Utd in 2020/21?

Expectations might have rocketed in some quarters but ensuring a third season in the Premier League would constitute success, even though Wilder will only be looking upwards.

Any talk of second-season syndrome would certainly seem ill-judged; a healthy 78 per cent of sides who survived in their first Premier League campaign have stayed up in the second term and Wilder's Blades will always be competitive; their ambitious boss demands it.

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