Surely Wigan Athletic aren’t going to do it again, are they? Despite the odds being stacked hugely against them it still feels like we’ve got a chance. Let’s be honest, if any team in the country is capable of pulling off a miracle escape from the jaws of relegation it’s probably us. After all, our season only usually starts in late March…
The 1-0 win over QPR last Saturday was much needed and showed a slightly different side to Latics than what we’ve come to know. Having led for the majority of the game we had to use our game management skills which if we’re honest haven’t been great this season so it was good to see us see out a game properly for a change.
Sheffield United are looking good for automatic promotion and will be looking to take a step closer with a win against Latics on Good Friday. They’re very impressive at Bramall Lane and have a tendency to win by any means necessary which is always important in a promotion push. However, nerves could be creeping in and all the pressure will be on them.
Latics Team News
Unfortunately it wasn’t all rosy on Saturday afternoon. Danel Sinani was replaced early on in the first half with what looked like a hamstring strain so I can’t imagine he’ll be featuring anytime soon. That’s a real shame as he started the game really well and was finally looking like the quality player we’d all hoped he’d be. Fingers crossed it’s not too serious.
Now in my last match preview I spoke about the importance of having a capable and confident goalkeeper during the run in. Despite starting the game poorly and looking shaky with the ball at his feet Ben Amos made a couple of match winning saves in the second half that have been long overdue. I really hope this is the start of a good run of form for him as he’ll certainly be tested by the Blades.
Ben Amos will also be hoping the three defenders in front of him put in a similar performance to Saturday. Charlie Hughes, Jack Whatmough and Omar Rekik were immense in defence and wonderfully productive in possession against QPR, playing a big part in securing the 3 points. This game will offer up many more challenges for us though so performance levels will need to increase yet again.
There were also some pretty impressive performances at wing back from the experienced pair of Tendayi Darikwa and James McClean. Defensively they were good enough to keep things tight and going forward they showed a bit more incisiveness. Again though we need to see more improvement in this game as opportunities to get forward will be few and far between.
Unsurprisingly the engine room was on top form again. Max Power and Christ Tiehi continue to impress on and off the ball and where the driving force behind most of what we did. They’ll probably see less of the ball in this game and the defensive side of their games will be on show more than usual but it’s the best unit we’ve had in any area of the pitch this season.
I do wonder if they’ll be joined by Tom Naylor in this game for a bit more steel in the middle. He usually comes on late in games to ease the pressure and prevent the opposition overloading us centrally but against a three man Blades midfield he might get the nod from the start. it would free up Christ to be slightly more advanced which he’s capable of too.
With that in mind, and with Danel Sinani’s injury concerns, we may well be left with a two man strike force. My guess would be Callum Lang partnering Ashley Fletcher as that gives us the best blend of power and pace. The counterattack will be key for us and I’d say that’s the best pairing available. Will Keane could also play Fletcher’s role but his lack of form is a concern.
An Opposition View
As always I’ve called in the help of somebody far more knowledgeable about Sheffield United than myself to contribute to this section of the preview!
1) It’s been a wonderful season for Sheffield United so far with automatic promotion looking more likely by the week. Can you sum up what it’s been like following the Blades this season?
“It’s been a fun season but one fraught with injuries to key players. I actually feel we could and possibly should be breathing far easier at this stage of the season, had it not been for injuries. Jack O’Connell is probably one we didn’t expect to have back. Rhys Norrington-Davies has been a big miss. Ciaran Clark has been out as well, we wanted to see more of him. Rhian Brewster is a loss and has meant we are very thin up front. Billy Sharp has had to play more minutes than I’m sure was the intended plan at the beginning of the season. I’ve just picked a few but there’s been loads. Despite those injuries we have managed to forge a team under Paul Heckingbottom, Stuart McCall and Jack Lester. It’s been a long season but an enjoyable one. I think a lot of us are just praying it ends in automatic promotion. The playoffs is NOT a Blades option.”
2) We last faced each other in December during Kolo Touré’s disastrous time as Latics boss. The game was still relatively tight though, would you say we’ll be in for a tougher test on Good Friday?
“For many reasons it always seems playing away from home is tougher, so I believe Wigan will be in for a tough test but teams have come to the Lane this season and made it uncomfortable for us. Defended deep, forced us to dictate and in some cases, as we’ve gone searching for that elusive goal committing bodies forward, we’ve been caught on the counter. It hasn’t always cost us goals but it has given us a wake-up call. Wigan will not be taken lightly by me or any other Blades fan. We know we’re in for a game.”
3) Sheffield United have a very distinct way of playing that has worked for you more often than not for the past few seasons. What can Wigan fans expect from Paul Heckingbottom’s team at Bramall Lane?
“United play a three at the back system which isn’t quite as expensive as it once famously was with our overlapping centre backs but you do still see some of our more defensive minded operators push forward when you’d not usually expect it. We’ll hopefully play front foot football. Go for the jugular and get an early goal, then look for a second, not sit on it. Or we’ll play patient, dull football and see out an uninspiring and unmemorable match. That’s happened a couple of times at home this season too!”
4) It’s a squad packed with talent but who would you say Blades fans will be pinning their hopes on to secure victory against Latics and push you one step closer to the Premier League?
“Iliman Ndiaye. No more words needed!”
Hal Stewart – co-host of the Sheff United Way YouTube channel.
As I touched on earlier we may well have a tactical change in the offing at Bramall Lane. Considering the gulf in quality between the two sides I wouldn’t be surprised to see us start the game with a slightly more defensive 3-5-2 rather than the 3-4-2-1 we’ve seen more often than not under Shaun Maloney.
Matching Sheffield United’s 3-5-2 formation is something teams have done on 12 occasions this season. Of those games the Blades have won 8, drawn 2 and lost 2 which suggests it’s a pretty risky move to make. However, they’ve won all 7 games against a 3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1 so it would appear that’s an even bigger risk to take!
Essentially Sheffield United are very good and we’ll have to defy the odds if we’re to get anything from this game. However, if we’re being brutally honest a draw isn’t that much use to us when you consider the fact that teams around us are guaranteed points this weekend so pushing for victory is something we need to do at some point.
I guess this is where personal preference comes in. Some managers would look at this game and, whilst obviously hoping to win the game, would be happy to take a draw and would set up to do so. Others will approach the game looking to win regardless of opposition and accept the increased risk of defeat that comes with that.
Based on what we’ve seen from Shaun Maloney so far I’d suggest he falls into the latter category. We’ve seen him make really aggressive substitutions in a lot of games, sometimes as early on as half-time, and that’s against a variety of different teams. So whilst we may go for the more defensive 3-5-2 option to begin with I have no doubt aggressive changes will be made if needed.
I think starting slightly more solid will be necessary as they’ll come flying out of the blocks in front of their home crowd. They average over two shots in the first 15 minutes at Bramall Lane, conceding just under one shot too, so remaining calm and focused early on is key. Considering the pressure they’ll be under if we can stay in the game for a while their crowd might start getting twitchy and we can pounce as we did at Elland Road in 2019!
The Blades are a threat from set pieces as we discovered at the DW so having Naylor on the pitch adds height to our dead balls. He’s also getting better on the ball and if we can construct some more impressive combinations like we did against QPR we’ll have our chances I’m sure. The key part will be whether or not we take them, as we’ve been guilty of spurning too many opportunities recently.
This is the toughest game we’ve got left so there’s absolutely nothing to lose. I don’t think we should start the game aggressively and go all out from the off but if it’s level with 20 minutes to go I’d like to think we’ll risk the single point in search of all three. I genuinely believe we’ve got a chance in this game.
It’s obviously not going to be easy but we might as well give it a go. There’s no pressure on us whatsoever from now till the end of the season because we’re the hunter not the hunted. And if there’s one team you don’t want hunting you down late on in the season it’s Wigan Athletic!