Chris Wilder has hinted Sheffield United could change formation for the first time this season at Manchester United.
The Blades travel to Old Trafford in the Premier League this evening in their third match in a week since ‘Project Restart’.
It has been a slightly disappointing return to action for Wilder’s side so far. A 3-0 defeat to Newcastle United followed a 0-0 draw with Aston Villa.
Yet it is less the performances that might see the Blades boss move away from 3-5-2 and more a lack of defensive personnel.
Wilder could be without four fewer centre-backs for tonight’s clash with Man United, in comparison to who he had available before professional football was put on hold.
Panos Retsos has returned to Bayer Leverkusen following the end of his loan, Meanwhile, John Egan is suspended after being sent off against Newcastle.
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Both Phil Jagielka and Jack O’Connell are injury doubts for the game as well. Jagielka was on the bench at the weekend, though, and is the more likely of the two to be fit.
However, if neither are available then Wilder has a problem trying to find players to occupy a three-man defence.
What changes will be made to the Sheffield United formation?
“We’ll look at everything and we’ll just try and pick the best side,” Wilder told BBC Radio Sheffield.
“There’s a thought process of letting them go again and just replacing like for like. Simon (Moore) or Michael (Verrips) coming in (for Dean Henderson, who is ineligible) and most probably Jags coming in as the middle centre half.
“There’s a situation where I might change the shape.”
While tweaks have been made during matches, the Blades have stuck exclusively with 3-5-2 from the start of this season.
That is also only a slight variation on the 3-4-1-2 that served them so well in the Championship and League One. In fact, since Wilder switched to three at the back just five games into the 2016/17 campaign, the 52-year-old has barely deviated from it.
Yet in the scenario of having no Jagielka or O’Connell, he is left with only two options to maintain it. That would see either Enda Stevens or Jack Rodwell coming in, with Chris Basham or Jack Robinson having to move to the central position.
This is something Wilder is unlikely to be comfortable with. His centre-backs have specialist roles and the flanking players operate very differently to the anchor.
None of the four players mentioned fit that latter spot – usually occupied by Egan. In his absence, Jagielka is the only other natural fit in the squad.
What are the alternatives?
The other option is switching to four at the back. This has happened during games this term and was seen against Newcastle on Sunday following Egan’s red card. The Blades were admittedly down to ten men, but it was not a system Robinson in particular looked comfortable with and they conceded three goals after shifting to it.
The defence would need more protection from midfield. This could therefore perhaps be the ideal time to move Sander Berge into his more familiar role in front of the back line.
However, the other issue is that with no wide midfielders to call upon, the formation could become very narrow. In Wilder’s usual system the width is provided by wing-backs. Yet in a four-man defence, George Baldock and Stevens would have less licence to go forwards.
What it could lead to is the reintroduction of a number ten – which served the Blades well last season. With Berge or Oliver Norwood at the base and an attacking midfielder at the tip, a diamond is an option.
The deepest midfield player could always drop in between Basham and Robinson at points to create a three-man defence. This would also allow Baldock and Stevens more scope to venture up-field.
But any drastic change like this are difficult to implement in just a few short days. It will be interesting to see exactly what Wilder goes with.