Sheffield United 2020/21 Season Preview: Strengths, Weaknesses, Key Man & Prediction

Chris Wilder
Chris Wilder oversaw Sheffield United's best ever Premier League finish in their first season following promotion last year | Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images

Five games in to Chris Wilder's reign as Sheffield United manager back in the heady days of 2016, the Blades had already lost four matches and sat rock bottom of League One.

Four years and two promotions later, Wilder had not only restored his boyhood club to the top tier but had led Sheffield United to the dizzying heights of ninth place - their best league finish since 1992.

Most campaigns following promotion involve some hint of a relegation threat but - from November onwards - Sheffield United never dropped lower than ninth and were even among the European places with just three games to go.

A post-lockdown dip in form - the Blades lost half of their ten games behind closed doors - left the slightest of bitter tastes in a truly sensational season of overachievement.

Strengths

Organisation

FBL-ENG-PR-SHEFFIELD UTD-ARSENAL
Sheffield United defenders Chris Basham and John Egan both played more than 3,000 minutes for the Blades last season | OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

It might sound like a back-handed compliment, but the cohesion of this Sheffield United side was a key factor in their success last season, which was largely founded upon a parsimonious backline.

Having won promotion with a 3-4-1-2 formation, Wilder got rid of the attacking midfielder and exclusively deployed a resolute 3-5-2 - often leaving opponents with nine players to bypass in order to score. Wilder rarely strayed from his first-choice set of defenders and midfielders - seven of which played more than 85% of the available Premier League minutes.

Few additions were made to the defensively-minded players in the squad and this familiarity saw United's final tally of 39 goals conceded only bettered by the division's top three.

Shot Quality

While the Blades were good at defending, they weren't necessarily a defensive team. Admittedly, they weren't the quickest to pull the trigger last season but when they did, these efforts were invariably from excellent positions. No side took shots from closer to goal than Sheffield United last term and only Manchester City could better their expected goals per shot average.

Weaknesses

Lack of Goal Scorers

Oli McBurnie, Joao Moutinho
Ollie McBurnie finished the season as Sheffield United's top scorer but only mustered half a dozen strikes | Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

While the quality of the chances Sheffield United created was superb, the team from the Steel City struggled to create opportunities - no Premier League side took fewer shots than the Blades last season.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their top scorer Ollie McBurnie mustered a measly six league goals. Wilder's side may have shared the scoring burden - 12 players in red and white found the net last season - but it would hardly harm their campaign if they could boast a striker in double figures next term.

The Loss of Dean Henderson

A lack of firepower up front shunted even more pressure on the defence standing firm. United did prove adept at limiting the number of chances their opponents created - the Blades ranked eighth in the Premier League for shots conceded - yet the opportunities that did crop up were threatening.

However, in Dean Henderson, Sheffield United could point to one of last season's most impressive goalkeepers, enjoying the best form of his career. In fact, Henderson was maybe too good - at least from the Blades' point of view - as Manchester United have ushered him back into the fold at Old Trafford and handed the 23-year-old a new five-year contract.

Wilder has replaced Henderson with Aaron Ramsdale. The former Bournemouth shot stopper is a decent young prospect but Henderson has left some sizeable gloves to fill.

Key Man

Sheffield United's strength resides in the collective rather than one stand-out player. If one individual at the club were most deserving of being singled out it would have to be manager Wilder but on the playing staff, defender Chris Basham sneaks it.

The club's reigning Player of the Year started each and every one of United's Premier League matches last campaign. The sight of Basham charging down the flank on the overlap soon turned from a noteworthy novelty to a serious threat as the 32-year-old's fleet of foot belied his age.

Prediction

Chris Wilder
Sheffield United last improved upon a top flight finish when Chris Wilder was a player at the club in 1992 | Pool/Getty Images

As unfair as it would be to attribute Sheffield United's success to merely a 'surprise factor', if they weren't already, the Premier League will be all too familiar with the threats the Blades have to offer and - crucially - their weaknesses.

Recording the fourth-best defensive record in the top tier and challenging for European places deep into the season may be beyond Wilder's side next campaign. However, given the cohesion of the squad and ingenuity of their manager, there is little reason to expect the threat of anything as gloomy as relegation next season.

Prediction: Mid-table finish