The Blades shred the playoff hopes of Preston North End on what was a desperately frustrating afternoon in Lancashire.
PNE huffed and puffed but to no avail, the game decided by just the one goal – the seventh time this has happened in the last 17 meetings between the two clubs.
The last time we faced off with our Yorkshire rivals at Deepdale was back in December 2017.
That time we were on the right side of a cagey 1-0 scoreline: Hugill breaking free at the back-post to stab home a floated Robinson cross. You’ll be forgiven for not remembering that one.
Ten players from those two squads also featured today, but this game had a completely different emphasis.
Sheffield United are enjoying a remarkable season, as they continue to jockey for a place in the automatic promotion spots. And I think it’s fair to say that this was largely unexpected.
Relatively, Preston have also had a remarkable season when considering their woeful false start. A start which saw them sitting rock bottom with just ten games played.
Without that early capitulation, we would be in the playoffs right now, no question about it. Oh, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Today the two sides fought each other for the 40th time since 1999 and therefore we are certainly no strangers to one another.
Back then, Moyes was at the helm and in between Moysie and Alex Neil, we’ve had thirteen other managers. A pint for anyone who can tell me which two managers have a 100% record. And before you ask, no, you can’t use Wikipedia.
The Blades have always been a staunch opponent of ours and this game was no different.
Aged tactician Chris Wilder has an admirer in youthful Scotsman Alex Neil, who lauded his managerial counterpart’s “unique” style earlier in the week.
The Blades are well-drilled and flaunt a nuanced 3-4-1-2 formation which gives the two wide centre halves license to overlap their wing backs and launch attacking sequences. Centre halves overlapping… Now that just doesn’t sit right with me, but it works.
It has been a fruitful system for the Blades, although it would be wrong to overlook the role of clinical finisher Billy Sharp, who has etched a tally of 23 goals to his name so far this season.
Take those goals away and things would be looking a bit more bleak for the Blades. And when I say a bit I mean a lot.
From my brief calculations I’m talking around 16 points, give or take, to be attributed solely to Sharp. Now that’s quite an ignorant stat on my behalf for a number of reasons, but you get the point.
Preston have not had the luxury of that sort of player. It was looking like Callum Robinson could be that guy, but a prolonged spell on the sidelines dashed those hopes.
In fact, Billy Sharp has netted almost double the amount of Moult, Maguire, Stockley and Nmecha combined.
Sharp was not on the scoresheet today, but his striking partner David McGoldrick was.
The Irish international forced the ball home just past the half hour mark, after stopper Declan Rudd had tipped an Egan header against the bar. Delirium in the Kop, the 5,000+ United fans basking in the April sun.
A few more popped off in the Finney executive area, but that one is something the club will have to resolve. Unruly scenes which could have been much uglier if they were in the Town End or Invincibles.
From that point on, Preston just couldn’t get going. They looked flat, leggy and lacked a creative spark.
The opening 20 minutes saw the Lilywhites come tantalisingly close to breaking the deadlock, but this was their best spell in what would be an end-to-end sparring match.
The dazzling feet of Lukas Nmecha caused United all sorts of problems in those early stages and he physically got the better of his man on a number of occasions.
Fullback Fisher marauded down the wing too, giving Nmecha that extra boost as Preston potently pressed their visitors.
The best chance in this spell of pressure came in the 17th minute, when the ball broke to the feet of CR7.
Robinson composed himself before striking the ball hard and low, only for Dean Henderson to palm it clear for a corner. A fully fit Robinson and it’s 1-0 Preston. Fine margins.
But that was all we really had to write home about.
Once McGoldrick found a way through, United managed the game impeccably.
They maintained a rigid structure and pressed high up the pitch, giving Preston little room for maneuver.
Wilder’s front two just didn’t stop running, forcing PNE into hasty decisions and misplaced punts.
But this was to be expected and explains why they are where they are.
The Blades run, run and run. They hassle and harry, push and pull. They are relentless and whenever Preston picked up the ball, you could be sure a man in red and white was alert to the danger.
It just seemed like we ran out of options in the end and you really don’t want to be chasing the game when playing a side with the nous and know-how of Sheffield United.
In their previous eight games, they had won six when scoring first.
Wilder knows how to control the narrative of 90 minutes, in part due to the experience his side ooze. Something we lack in comparison.
The average age of their starting XI was 27.6, compared to the youthful ranks of Preston who stood today at an average age of just 23. Brilliant for the future, but something which can hinder us in the present.
That was the difference today, as we looked naive, trying to force our way through a team with an incredible knowledge of the game.
A couple of things that really impressed me about United was their ball control and their energy.
Even in the last ten minutes, our defence were forced to go long and this was simply because they had no other option.
As they say, sometimes attacking is the best form of defence.
Two defeats on the bounce seems to have pretty much ended our playoff hopes.
A real shame, certainly not helped by the brief international interruption which sapped the momentum out of the team.
It’ll take an 08/09-style miracle now. Hey ho, you never know…
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