Second in the league and in the Quarter Final of the FA Cup, you have to be pleased with how things are going this season?
You’d think! Our manager, Paul Heckingbottom, said as much: that if we’d been offered this at the start of the season we’d have jumped at the chance. However, this ignores the context of our season post-World Cup. Compared to before the International break, there’s been a severe lack of positive play and cohesion. We were incredible up until the break, playing some truly outstanding football. The difference has been obvious.
It’s been the classic “nick the game” for a while now – all well and good when you’re on the right end of that, but against teams around us in the table, it’s not gone the way we wanted. A 14-point gap between us and third has collapsed three points, with form making this look easy to overcome. Then again, we have some fantastic footballers at our disposal and form can switch very quickly. If the season ends with promotion and a trip to Wembley (although we’re even more unlucky than you lot there…), those negatives will be entirely forgotten!
Who’s been your standout player this season?
There have been a few. Centre-back Anel Ahmedhodžić has been an inspired signing from Malmö, and will certainly be playing in the Premier League next season regardless of the club’s position. Oli McBurnie is a new striker this season, having settled in his personal life and taken on an impressive dedication to both goalscoring and team play – statistically, he’s performed almost on a par with last-season’s Mitrović.
However, you simply can’t look past Iliman Ndiaye. He’s our Starboy. His progression over the summer was unprecedented: last season, he had the tricks and raw talent, but over the break he worked on his strength and came back a man, proven by his thrilling cameos for Senegal at the World Cup. When he gets in full flight, you can’t get the ball off him. We’ve had plenty of young prospects make it to the top once they’ve left, but Ndiaye is perhaps the most talented player I’ve seen play in a United shirt. Scouts have been circling all season – he’s destined for the top. I just hope it’s with us, at least for a few more years.
Will the FA Cup Quarter-Final play in the head of the manager when he decides his line-up?
Team selection has been a hot topic the last few weeks, with many questioning some relatively confusing omissions. I don’t think the upcoming cup match will have much of an impact on selection – we’re getting into “every game is a cup final” territory now, especially as the teams below us in the table are much closer than they should be. There’s also something to be said for consistency, especially when form is faltering, although I’m hoping a couple of players who performed so well against Spurs in the last round of the cup make their way back into the team on Wednesday.
Where are the Blades weakest?
It’s pretty holistic at the moment. The defence is looking much shakier than earlier in the season, the midfield isn’t forging forward as readily, and our forwards are struggling to link up with the players behind them. Apart from that, we’re doing well! We’re probably lightest up front when it comes to pace. Injuries and suspensions have made it difficult for the sort of successful partnership we saw earlier in the year with Ndiaye and McBurnie. I do have a feeling they’ll both manage a decent run between now and the end of the season, though. On paper, we have one of the strongest squads in the league, but sometimes this isn’t used to its full potential. Your forward pace could also cause some real issues for a central defence that won’t be winning any sports day races.
When we last spoke, Sam from DEM Blades said if he could sign any player he’d sign Dan Neil, would you agree or would you opt for someone else?
Neil is a talent, but I think we currently have decent options in his position. I’ve been a fan of Jack Clarke since his start at Leeds, and was impressed that you managed to sign him permanently. He has the natural standing of a top-flight player, one of those footballers that you can build a team around. His versatility is also a huge asset – I’d like to see us make an offer next season, were we to go up.
Did Sheffield United make any key signings in January that we need to keep an eye on?
Unfortunately, we were under a transfer embargo due to non-payment of a scheduled transfer fee chunk. We’ve been under that since the start of the window, but have a prospective new owner in the wings to save us from stagnation (not counting our chickens yet, though…). This lack of movement has been an issue for fitness, with tired players not getting a chance to rest. However, the players at our disposal are more than good enough to beat anyone in this division: they did beat Burnley 5-2 at the start of November, after all.
Your last five games have ended 1-0! Do you think tonight will be a case of first goal wins?
It very well could be. With our current struggles with attacking verve and efficiency, and the unfortunate injury to Stewart, it might become a game primarily bogged down in midfield. However, both sides have plenty of flair when they feel like it, so two confident teams could play out a real end-to-end match full of fun for any neutral with a good VPN…
What do you think the final score will be? And who will grab the goals, if any?
If United can start the game how they intend – on the front foot, looking to prove a point – then we could see a few goals. As has been so often the case this year, it’s difficult to look past Ndiaye and McBurnie for the goals, but wily Billy Sharp still has the killer instinct. Sunderland are great to watch, and have some impressive players, but United’s defence can keep the best in this league at bay (on their day). A positive United can win this 3-1.
Not too long to go now in the season, so with what you’ve seen so far where do you think both sides will finish in May?
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sunderland make the play-offs. You have the talent, and arguably would be at the top end of the play-offs already with a fully-fit strike force. As far as first seasons back in the Championship go, you have very little to complain about – if you don’t go up, next season could be a fun one.
I still think United will finish in second. The run-in isn’t kind, especially over the next few games, but this team has dismantled almost every other team at some point this season, and has some real Premier League quality throughout. An upturn in player confidence and tactical aptitude should see us over the line, despite the form of others around us. It’s the hope that kills you, eh?