Tuesday 4 February 2020 5:11 pm

Sheffield United: Europa League qualification is ridiculous yet looks achievable for Chris Wilder's never-say-die Blades

Discussing a recent game, Chris Wilder made the point that football is not all about tactics – and I agree.

More than anything it’s about players’ commitment to their job; the raw materials that go into being a professional.

After that, extreme talents can make the difference for top sides but, as an example of how far a strong team ethic will get you, they don’t come much better than Wilder’s Sheffield United.

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In three and a half years under the former Blades defender they have risen from the third tier to the top flight and, 25 games in, lie sixth and on course for Europa League qualification.

United’s extraordinary success is down to a combination of factors, all bearing Wilder’s fingerprints and none more so than their never-say-die attitude.

That can be a difficult quality to preserve in the Premier League.

It only takes a couple of players to lose confidence and a squad like United’s – which looks, on paper, like one destined for relegation and lacks top-flight experience – will suffer.

Chris Wilder
Wilder has led the team he supports and used to play for from the third tier to the top flight

But they’re very fit, extremely well-drilled and play the style they’re comfortable with, so everyone knows what they are meant to be doing. They keep to a good shape in their 5-3-2 system and don’t get stretched.

This makes them very strong defensively – only runaway leaders Liverpool have conceded fewer goals, and it’s just as well given that United don’t score many either – and very hard to beat.

It also helps that Dean Henderson, on loan from Manchester United, is an excellent goalkeeper. His displays have seen him touted for England selection and it’s hard to argue with that.

While Bramall Lane is a great home ground, they are not reliant on form there. Their four away wins is twice as many as Tottenham and shows how good they are at absorbing pressure.

They haven’t suffered any thrashings – 2-0 has been their heaviest defeat – and have held Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester United as well as beating Arsenal and Everton.

No-nonsense approach

Last summer they wouldn’t have dreamed of anything more than finishing 17th, while their transfer business was focused on adding depth to the squad rather than big-money buys.

Having got through the first few matches without any embarrassments they grew in confidence, however.

They probably surprised themselves and realised that they could hold their own in this division.

Now, with safety all but assured, they can think bigger – hence the club record £20m signing of young Norway midfielder Sander Berge.

Wilder’s no-nonsense approach has won him many admirers and he deserves full credit for instilling that team ethic, achieving two promotions and keeping them on a roll.

He may get linked with other jobs but I think the lifelong Blades fan is at the right club already – and, if they can stay up, the size of their fanbase means they have more potential than some other Premier League teams, such as Bournemouth.

As for European qualification, my slight concern is whether they will score enough goals to stay in the top six.

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Burnley and Everton have in recent years struggled with the extra workload that the Europa League brings, so in some ways it may even be better if Sheffield United finished eighth.

But they have a great run of games coming up and neither Liverpool nor Manchester City still to play.

A top-six finish would be ridiculous and yet it looks achievable.