Sheffield United: Chris Wilder acknowledges the huge demands being placed on his wing-backs

George Baldock (front) and Kieron Freeman have it tough as wing-backs: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
George Baldock (front) and Kieron Freeman have it tough as wing-backs: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Charge up the pitch, sprint back and repeat, over and over and over.

Even Chris Wilder, a manager who describes being ready to shed blood, sweat and tears as a pre-requisite, admits playing wing-back for Sheffield United is a damn gruelling job.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder expects a lot from his players

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder expects a lot from his players

It explains why, when the 49-year-old and his staff sat down to devise their strategy during this summer’s transfer window, bolstering the club’s options along either flank was identified as a top priority. Daniel Lafferty and Kieron Freeman had performed wonders during United’s march to the League One title. But the stress being required to build attacks and repel opposition forwards placed upon their bodies meant cover, not to mention serious competition, was required.

It was a decision which proved the catalyst for Enda Stevens’ arrival at Bramall Lane and, a month later, the purchase of George Baldock too. Although his team mate quickly won a place in Wilder’s starting eleven, injury meant Baldock was forced to wait until Tuesday night before making his United debut.

“It’s a tough, tough job,” the United manager, speaking ahead of Saturday’s fixture against Derby County, admitted. “You’ve got to be fit, as close to 100 per cent as possible, to do it properly because the work is constant. There’s very little let up for those lads and we’re a group that demands you give everything, no matter what. You don’t get pats on the back for doing that here. Because that’s expected anyway.”

A recent study by FIFA revealed wing-backs cover an average distance of nearly 12km during matches and, most tellingly, benefit from less rest than any other position between “maximum, high intensity, sprints.” Baldock’s return to action - he fractured a bone in his foot during pre-season training in Spain - has presented Wilder with a selection dilemma which, given the position’s importance in United’s system, will influence the outcome of the result with Gary Rowett’s side. Because United employ a 3-5-2 system in its purest sense, Stevens and Freeman, or Baldock and Lafferty, will effectively decide whether the hosts’ attacking work has enough width to trouble a defence anchored by the vastly experienced Curtis Davies and Andy Keogh. But, as events during the Carabao Cup defeat by Leicester City three days ago highlighted, ensure United possess enough cover during those crucial few seconds after possession is surrendered.

Kieron Freeman is one of four wing-backs at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Kieron Freeman is one of four wing-backs at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Although he expressed concerns about their failure to “put the game to bed”, Wilder said last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Barnsley provides the template for his squad to follow tomorrow.

“We needed a little bit more positivity in the final third which, possibly in the last two games, we’ve not shown,” he acknowledged. “We’ve had a lot of play but needed to work the opposition’s defence and goalkeeper more. We’ve done that there. It’s a slight criticism of my team that we didn’t stretch our lead. But we played some good stuff and started with real purpose and intensity. We were better when people were looking to break on us, when we are going forward.”

Enda Stevens is another, together with Daniel Lafferty: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Enda Stevens is another, together with Daniel Lafferty: Simon Bellis/Sportimage