Oli McBurnie has played just once for Sheffield United since December 13 due to injury.
McBurnie was forced off during the 3-0 defeat at Southampton – arguably the Blades’ lowest point this season – after injuring his shoulder.
The striker returned a few games later for the 1-0 loss to Everton on Boxing Day thanks to a painkilling injection, but only lasted until half-time after aggravating the problem.
Having played a part in every match up until that sorry afternoon at St Mary’s, McBurnie being out has forced manager Chris Wilder to change his plans.
Including that defeat to the Saints, United picked up just one point from their first 12 Premier League games. Since then, they have secured seven from eight fixtures and also won twice in the FA Cup – albeit against League One opposition.
It’s not the only factor, of course, but being without McBurnie has coincided with an upturn in form and results.
Why McBurnie injury has actually benefitted Sheffield United
This isn’t an attack on McBurnie as a player. The Scotland international works hard whenever called upon and is a sometimes underrated finisher.
But when he doesn’t play it greatly reduces the temptation to go long. Something that had become increasingly common for the Blades as losses stacked up.
It’s a natural reaction – fear of conceding leads to getting it up the other end of the pitch as quickly as possible.
Yet it’s not what brought United such great success last season as they achieved their highest league position since 1992.
It’s not McBurnie’s game, either, with the 24-year-old good with the ball at his feet and running in behind. See his winner at Brighton and Hove Albion last term as evidence for this.
Unfortunately for McBurnie, he’s tall and therefore instantly becomes a target-man. The Scot is pretty strong and very good in the air as well.
What’s changed since?
Without McBurnie, Wilder hasn’t moved from his trusted 3-5-2 formation. Yet the personnel has changed.
With Rhian Brewster, Oli Burke, David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp sharing duties upfront, the style’s had to change.
Going long to any of that quartet is ineffective. McGoldrick drops deep and Burke works the channels well, but essentially they all either want to run in behind or receive the ball to feet.
Each of those tactics have led to recent winners against Newcastle United and Manchester United.
Against Newcastle at Bramall Lane, a ball over the top to Sharp forced Federico Fernandez into a mistake leading to the penalty and winning goal.
At Old Trafford on Wednesday, the Blades moved the ball quickly in and around the box. Eventually Burke found some space and had the time to fire in the second to secure a shock 2-1 victory.
It’s tough on McBurnie because it’s not really his fault. But being without him has helped improve the attack greatly.