Chris Wilder is an unusual Premier League manager in all sorts of ways. Not least because he lives so close to his club that he often avoids Sheffield’s traffic jams by either running or catching a bus to work. Saturday was a jogging day but Wilder, disguised by a hoodie and Blades scarf, found himself interrupted by an earnest young man clutching a clipboard and pen who clearly did not have a clue who he was.
What did he think about the matchday experience at Bramall Lane? Could it be improved? How was it for him? It would be a great help if he contributed to the survey.
By 5pm Sheffield United’s manager could probably have given his interrogator a one word answer: “Frustrating.” Back in August Wilder would have probably been delighted to think his side would reach the magical 40-point mark by late February but expectations have been heightened to the point that there was dismay at having to settle for staying sixth, behind José Mourinho’s Tottenham on goal difference.
These things are relative though and Graham Potter would happily swap places with his South Yorkshire counterpart. Brighton’s manager – without a league win in 2020 – was not best pleased to see social media footage of four of his first-teamers apparently inhaling from balloons in a bar in Tenerife during the club’s winter break. Three of that quartet – Leandro Trossard, Pascal Gross and Alireza Jahanbakhsh – found themselves on the bench as their manager switched to a 3-4-3 formation. Shane Duffy survived the cull.
It would have been a very big call to drop such a defensive cornerstone – particularly with Brighton only three points clear of the relegation zone – and Potter certainly needed Duffy’s nous, not to mention no-nonsense aerial prowess, as Sheffield United spent much of the first period with their tanks parked firmly in the visitors’ half.
As scores of blue balloons – apparently a little joke on the part of travelling Brighton fans – floated haphazardly across the pitch, Wilder’s team looked formidably recharged by their own winter interlude in Dubai.
Potter’s sole consolation was that, bar an early chance dragged wide by Billy Sharp, his back three generally shielded Mat Ryan so well that the goalkeeper sometimes seemed to exist in a footballing oasis, somehow detached from the attacking blitz raging all around him.
Or at least, he did until Duffy and co momentarily lost concentration, only half-clearing Oliver Norwood’s cross following a short corner, and Enda Stevens directed an angled half-volley beyond Ryan’s grasp.
Brighton had paid the price for leaving Stevens unattended but they atoned three minutes later when the recalled striker Neil Maupay scored his first goal since December. Maupay was rewarded for reacting quickest when Adam Webster flicked on a long ball, the Frenchman dodging Dean Henderson’s reach to head home. On a day when he was being watched by Gareth Southgate, the Manchester United loanee could arguably have done with responding a millisecond faster.
Punctuated by bursts of torrential rain, the icy winds battering South Yorkshire were hardly conducive to measured passing. Those conditions perhaps mitigate some poor final balls from both sides as the second half turned a little helter-skelter.
Brighton mounted a forlorn penalty appeal when Yves Bissouma’s ball seemed to brush Ben Osborn’s hand, Sheffield United’s Oli McBurnie directed an inviting opening wide and, much to Lewis Dunk’s disgust, John Lundstram survived a VAR red-card review after a dangerous-looking lunge on the visiting defender.
With Lundstram still on the pitch Wilder’s side finished as strongly as they started but, despite the best midfield efforts of John Fleck, lacked the guile to find the goal that would take them above Spurs.