Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder says Jack O’Connell could potentially return for Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final with Arsenal.
O’Connell has not played in any of the Blades’ three games back since ‘Project Restart’ because of injury. Yet Wilder is hopeful the defender could make his comeback at the weekend.
“He’s improving by the day. He wants to get back out there and play his part,” the United boss said in his pre-match press conference.
“To get him back involved boosts us tremendously, and hopefully he’ll be available for selection.”
With Wilder’s side having conceded three goals in each of their last two outings, having one of their key defensive players back will certainly be a huge boost.
This will be further enhanced by the return of John Egan and Dean Henderson, who missed Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester United due to suspension and being ineligible to play against their parent club, respectively.
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Yet in a unique system under Wilder, the absence of O’Connell is felt further up the pitch too.
The importance of O’Connell to Sheffield United attack
Perhaps the most famous United tactic in what has been a hugely successful return to the top flight is the use of overlapping centre-backs.
It is certainly a unique role and one which both Chris Basham and O’Connell have taken nearly four years to master.
It involves creating overloads, with the flanking central defenders pushing high up the pitch during attacking phases. Often Basham or O’Connell will be the player furthest forward during these times.
It causes confusion among opponents, but relies on players being in complete synchronisation.
Therefore, expecting someone to fill in seamlessly is unrealistic. Especially a player like Jack Robinson, who only signed for the club in January and has since had almost three months away from training with his new teammates.
Without O’Connell, the Blades have scored no goals in their three fixtures back and barely threatened to do so. They have managed just one shot on target in each of those games.
Robinson does not venture forwards as much as O’Connell. The 26-year-old isn’t fully confident in his role as yet and it’s completely understandable.
Many will look at United’s poor recent defensive record and say they need O’Connell back to improve that. That’s true, but his specialised role means he is just as important to helping a failing attack as well.