Sheffield United 3
(Sharp 11, Salmon 59, Edgar 63)
Bradford City 1
Monday 28th December 2015
By Alex Scott
City went into their impromptu Christmas fixture at Bramall Lane well rested and with confidence high. The terrible rainfall in Lancashire and West Yorkshire did for both sides fixtures on Saturday, though given the terrible impact at Apperley Bridge and beyond, a free weekend will have come as little consolation for Parkinson and his men. At this point I should pass on the best wishes of WOAP to all those affected over the past week in West Yorkshire and beyond.
To match City’s uptick in form, United had also begun reaching their potential over recent weeks, with three straight 1-0 victories heading into the fixture.
The Blades have over recent years become a caricature for the faux-Swansea aristocrats, short to the pass and soft to the touch.
Bill Simmons has often promoted the idea of the Good Bad team – the bad team each year that is just good enough to beat all the other bad teams, and then be mischaracterised as a good team themselves. Sheffield United have in fact been the opposite for years, the Bad Good team. They spend a lot of money, play good football, but they don’t intimidate you – their repeated failures when it matters supporting this again and again.
But this season under Nigel Adkins, reports conflicted, and the recent run of clean sheets indicated an extra steel to the Sheffield blade. This has been aided by the return of right back John Brayford, signed for £1.5m in January. Brayford was integral in their playoff run last season, before injuring his knee ligaments in last year’s playoff semi final against Swindon, being withdrawn at half time of the first leg when his team were 1-0 up. They proceeded to concede 7 in the next 135 minutes, losing the tie 7-6 on aggregate.
Brayford has missed the majority of the season, returning in late November to see his team languishing in midtable, with the 16th best defence in the league. In his four games this year heading into today, United had conceded only one goal, winning 3 and drawing 1, including a win at Coventry. You don’t want to ascribe this much influence to a right back, especially given the small sample size, but his battle with Kyel Reid was the key one to watch.
This game also held special significance for Reid, given this was the ground two years ago where he injured his knee in what would later become The Gary Jones Game. That injury was one of the key triggers to the implosion in the second half of that season, and would lead to him being released from the club in that summer before returning on loan this year.
Phil Parkinson kept faith with the side that had carried them through their recent good run, with Gary Liddle preferred over Billy Knott in the centre and Greg Leigh retaining his place at left back ahead of James Meredith.
The game started in an even fashion with both sides beginning brightly. There was little in the way of goalmouth action, but it was a full blooded local derby in front of 24,000 fans with a referee willing to let the game go. Just as an aside, referees get an incredibly poor deal with City (on the radio, at least) but I thought today’s referee handled a very difficult game exceptionally well.
After a succession of half attacks and hard challenges, Billy Sharp appeared in space about twenty five yards out, before firing into Ben Williams’ far corner. This came completely out of the blue, but it was a terrific strike. There wasn’t really any fault to attribute for it defensively; it appeared more of a ‘cost of doing business’ goal against a decent team. Sometimes, it just goes in.
Sharp did not endear himself to the City faithful today, but was unquestionably the best player on the pitch throughout and was the difference for United.
City maintained their composure following the goal, and regained their rhythm. Chances were not in abundance and they were not playing exceedingly well, but on the balance of play did not deserve to be behind.
Approaching half time Sharp got the better of Leigh on City’s left flank, before hitting the byline and sticking the ball right on substitute Connor Sammon’s head three yards out. From my angle in the left corner of the away stand, I don’t really understand how it didn’t go in.
This letting off the hook was talked up as a turning point in the away end at half time. 0-1, we can come back from no problem. 0-2, away from home? Not so sure.
City had played well enough in the first half for us to talk ourselves into a comeback at half time, with minutes to spare. They didn’t play badly by any means – just sometimes, it goes in.
Unfortunately, Sheffield United were soon in the ascendancy. The second goal was only a matter of time, Sammon atoning for his earlier gaffe and bundling home at the far post.
City, now well on the back foot, looked out of ideas and were in the process of being overwhelmed. The aforementioned Brayford had Kyel Reid nullified for the most part, and without him as an out ball on the left, Parkinson’s team looked out of ideas.
As City spluttered, United killed the game with a David Edgar header from a set piece, the City defence uncharacteristically leaving him completely unmarked at the near post.
Soon after falling 3-0 down, Parkinson moved to bring in the cavalry, with James Meredith replacing Leigh, who for the first time in a City shirt had become to look overwhelmed, as well as introducing Billy Knott and Devante Cole.
City regained the momentum in garbage time, with Hanson hitting the post with a header before a Gary Liddle header made it 1-3. Meredith was the standout player for the final quarter of the game, so it would not be a surprise at all to see him return at Gillingham on Saturday.
But despite this quiet comeback, the game had already gone, and City were consigned to their second defeat in three – or second defeat in ten – depending how you want to look at it.
3-1 defeats are never fun, especially in local derbies. Though for the most part City played OK. This wasn’t a breaking of the system. They don’t need to go back to the drawing board.
Whilst everyone wants to look for a scapegoat, sometimes you just get beaten by a better team, playing better than you. Sheffield United played better football than City did and even looked to bully them at times. They fully deserved their victory.
Parkinsons main concern, as I’m sure it has been throughout the year, is that with a subdued Kyel Reid, it’s hard to imagine this pragmatic City team threatening the opposition goal outside of set pieces. They simply don’t create enough chances, as they haven’t for two seasons now.
The Blades conversely looked no longer the caricature they have been for the past few seasons, but a solid, tough team with the ability to turn on the flair when they needed too. They had a pragmatism to the dreaminess that has thwarted them for years.
After a long while finding his feet at the underachieving club, Adkins appears to have added the requisite steel to his Sheffield charges, and on today’s evidence, they look a real threat to the top of the division.
Bradford didn’t see anything today that should give them too many concerns. Not every team has a multi million pound defender to combat their main threat and, more importantly, they kept their heads at 0-3, when things could have got out of hand. With a bit of luck, they could have got themselves back into the game at the end, as United failed to shut up shop.
Though, the extent of the resignation you felt at 0-2 does linger as we enter the second half of the season. City have scored more than two goals only once all season long and the unsustainably solid defensive record notwithstanding, you feel this will eventually come back to haunt them.
In the book Soccernomics, Kuper and Syzmanski write about the recruitment strategy of strengthening the weakest link to progress. Parkinson has followed this to a tee, establishing a squad with no weak links to speak of, with even players at the bottom of the rotation like Greg Leigh able to come in and contribute.
But games like today do make you wonder whether it will be enough. Only two teams have scored fewer goals than City this year. They play every game close and low scoring, but as we saw today, sometimes long shots go in. Sometimes someone makes a mental error at a set piece. Then what?
City’s top goalscorer – and only true goalscorer – is the third man off the bench, on a good day. Their midfield sits deep, and their front line isn’t prolific. If Kyel Reid has an off day, then what?
I wouldn’t by any means call City a Good Bad team; I think they are a bonafide Good team. But is this team, playing this way, going to be good enough to achieve their ambitions?
They don’t need to go back to the drawing board, but with how impressively Nigel Adkins has married pragmatism and flair today, perhaps the balance for Parkinson’s men needs to be looked at.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Burke, Leigh (Meredith 69), McMahon, Liddle, Evans (Knott 69), Reid, Hanson, B. Clarke (Cole 76)
Not used: N. Clarke, Marshall, Bowery, Cracknell
Categories: Match Reviews