Motivational posters adorn the walls of Sheffield United’s training complex but, among the quotes from Muhammad Ali and Zinedine Zidane, is a banner which perfectly encapsulates their manager’s approach.
“There’s a sign up in the dressing room there,” Nigel Adkins said. “It reads ‘Basics done well to an elite level.’ Every single day. You must have that foundation, that desire, to give yourself an opportunity to achieve.”
Doing the basics well, and to an elite level, will be of critical importance against Peterborough tomorrow. Graham Westley’s side, League One’s most potent attacking force, arrive at Bramall Lane ranked sixth but having scored more goals (49) than any other club in the division. United enter the match knowing a fifth consecutive win could see them regain a top six place for the first time since October but that the visitors, beaten 3-1 at London Road four months ago, represent arguably the greatest test of Adkins’ new tactical approach.
“We know it’s going to be a challenging fixture but, I’m sure, they’ll be thinking exactly the same too,” he said. We’ve got to do the basics well. We know we’ll create opportunities, that’s always been a strength of ours here, but we’ve got to keep clean sheets too. Peterborough are a good team. They’ll attack and be open in that sense. We need to nullify their threats and I’m sure the supporters here will get right behind us when we don’t have the ball.”
In a sense, Peterborough are the team United wanted to be before a catastrophic home defeat by Shrewsbury prompted Adkins to suppress some of his attacking ambitions and place greater emphasis on their defensive responsibilities instead. The decision has injected fresh impetus into United’s campaign and, as demonstrated during Monday’s 3-1 victory over Bradford City, makes perfect sense given the options presently at Adkins’ disposal.
“Against Bradford, when you looked at the game, what happened in the middle of the park was so important,” Adkins, speaking at the Steelphalt Academy earlier this week, continued. “We had the work-rate of Dean Hammond and Chris
Basham. There was Paul Coutts alongside them, getting on the ball and pinging it about, while Martyn Woolford had a good game too. They are experienced players and they do the horrible things well. The nasty, unfashionable things, if you like, that are necessary to win games. Things like work ethic and graft. We’ll need those against Peterborough.”
Together with Hammond, Woolford has arguably been the greatest beneficiary of Adkins’ revisionism. The winger, who worked with the 50-year-old at Scunthorpe, made a disappointing start to his career in South Yorkshire but has impressed both coaching staff and supporters alike of late.
“Martyn got a standing ovation coming off in the Bradford game and maybe that was a turning point,” Adkins said. “So far, it’s not quite happened for him but we all know what he can do and the qualities he’s got. The new additions we’ve brought in have rarely, off the top of my head, all been on the pitch together at the same time. They are experienced and they have ability. Sometimes, whether people like it or not, it does take a period of time to settle in. Hopefully our fans can see how hard Martyn works.”
Peterborough are a different proposition to the one United, in eighth, encountered earlier this term. Westley, who replaced Dave Robertson at the helm soon after that match, forged a reputation for devising game-plans rooted in the dark arts. But, having inherited a squad containing the prolific Conor Washington, urges the visitors’ players to pour forward rather than harass and frustrate. It guarantees excitement - Peterborough have netted five times in a game on three occasions - but, as United discovered, also comes at a price. They make the journey north with the competitions’ best frontline but eighth worst defence.
Something Adkins, describing United’s second-half performance against City as the best of his reign so far, will look to exploit.
“That’s getting towards where we want to be. There was an enthusiasm to keep moving the ball and we had a threat going forward too. We had a tenacity and there was some excellent game management from David Edgar and Dean Hammond in how to contain James Hanson which is an art in itself. Everything came off the back of that defensive resolve.”