Midfield is the area which is creating the most problems for Sheffield United this season.
It’s not the only one, of course. There’s no doubting the issues at the club stretch beyond that.
Recruitment ahead of this season has been questionable. Dean Henderson returning to Manchester United after two successful years on loan is another problem. As is losing Jack O’Connell for 2020/21 through injury.
Yet on the pitch currently, it is in the middle where things have most taken a downward turn compared to last term.
In their first Premier League campaign in 12 years in 2019/20, the Blades impressed many as they finished ninth.
This time around they are rock bottom and winless with just two points from 17 games.
So, what’s gone wrong?
Why midfield is the issue at Sheffield United
The Blades are also currently the lowest scorers in the top flight with just eight goals.
It’s therefore easy to blame the strikers and they certainly could be doing better.
Club record signing Rhian Brewster might be a fine player one day, but is still very much developing.
Lys Mousset has had more fitness issues this season and Oli McBurnie is also currently sidelined.
Oli Burke has shown promise but isn’t a natural centre forward, while captain Billy Sharp appears to be out of favour.
Only David McGoldrick has found any sort of form, scoring five times in all competitions.
Yet even when the South Yorkshire club was flying high last year, their strike force was still relatively goal-shy. McBurnie and Mousset finished as joint top scorers with six apiece.
However, unlike last term there are now no goals coming from midfield. In 2019/20, John Fleck and John Lundstram excelled as box-to-box players rushing forwards into the final third.
They bagged five goals each, but with Fleck having been injured this campaign and Lundstram looking to leave, that form has all but disappeared.
Defence also not the main concern
The Blades are yet to keep a clean sheet in 2020/21. For a side who relied on a solid back line last season and finished with the fourth best defensive record in the division, this is a problem.
Yet Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace was only the fourth time this term they’ve lost by more than a single goal.
They may be rock bottom, but West Bromwich Albion in 19th have conceded 10 more than the Blades. Leeds United have also let in more.
The Blades’ defence isn’t as strong as last campaign, that’s for sure. Not helped by the loss of O’Connell.
But with seven of their 15 defeats having been by a goal to nil and four more the result of a single strike, again this isn’t the primary issue.
Where the problem truly lies is in midfield. We’ve already mentioned Fleck and Lundstram being shadows of the players they were last season.
Yet Ollie Norwood, who started every league game in 2019/20, is also being used much more sparingly.
Norwood has started just six times this campaign and his absence is felt.
What the 29-year-old provides is a range of passing from deep that’s unmatched elsewhere in the squad. Norwood can move the ball quickly into attacking areas, leaving opposition defenders with less time to adjust.
Instead, Ethan Ampadu is playing as a converted defender and it shows. Ampadu does not have the same range of passing, meaning play slows right down whenever the Chelsea loanee is in possession.
Ben Osborn is a willing runner, but doesn’t have the same attacking drive as Fleck and Lundstram showed last season.
Losing Sander Berge to a long-term injury is another massive blow, as the Norway international was the only positive from midfield in 2020/21.
Without that energy and zip in the middle, the Blades are sluggish and predictable. Rarely catastrophic, but never threatening.