Sheffield United: How blending old-school thinking with sports science has helped resurrect a club’s fortunes

Sheffield United employ a mixture of traditional and new scientific methods to achieve success: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Sheffield United employ a mixture of traditional and new scientific methods to achieve success: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Eighteen months ago, when Chris Wilder had just taken charge of Sheffield United, he sat down with journalists to outline his footballing philosophy.

“I want players to win tackles, headers and races,” he insisted, over and over and over, during a series of round table interviews. “If they can do all of those things then, the chances are, they’ll win more games than they lose.”

It was a comment which struck a chord with the club’s supporters and made an easy line for the assembled media. But a year-and-a-half later, with United positioned second in the Championship table, Wilder could be forgiven for wishing his words had not resonated quite so well.

“It does my nut in when we are sometimes tagged as old school,” he admitted after Saturday’s 4-1 rout of Hull City, “Because who has played the football, who has created the chances and who has scored the goals in recent weeks? Us, that’s who.”

At first glance, given his 63 per cent win ratio and with a League One title already under his belt, Wilder has no reason to worry about how his methods are portrayed by sections of the press. Indeed, the fascination with United’s team spirit and industry, is a back-handed compliment.

But neither does it present an accurate picture. Focusing purely on attitude ignores the work which has enabled United, despite their relative lack of financial resources, to compete with and beat big-spending clubs like Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds.

Chris Wilder is a forward thinking manager in more ways than one

Chris Wilder is a forward thinking manager in more ways than one

“We’ve got to fill the box, that’s basics as well,” Wilder, revealing how his strikers had studied Manchester City’s attacking patterns before the meeting with Leonid Slutsky’s side, said. “You’ve got to do that and get across the near post. You pick up things. You can’t stand still in this game.

“We have video analysis and we are always studying things. Especially teams that score goals. We’re always looking at things like that to try and improve. We want to keep driving forward.”

Pep Guardiola, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are not the only source of inspiration for Wilder and his squad. In July, when United visited the Marbella Football Centre to step-up their preparations for the new campaign, the 50-year-old shared numerous conversations with AFC Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe as the Premier League club trained on an adjacent pitch. Although the subject of their chats remain a closely guarded secret, the gestures and sage nods which punctuated them suggested the two were doing more than talking about the weather or swapping jokes.

“The Bournemouth model is one I like,” Wilder acknowledged recently, “Because they’ve brought players through the divisions with them. We’re not at their level but what Eddie’s done proves there are good players across the leagues.”

Pep Guardiola's tactics fascinate Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder

Pep Guardiola's tactics fascinate Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder

Despite expressing his frustration at some of the labels used to explain United’s success in recent months, it would be a mistake to pretend Wilder does not employ traditional methods too. But those who describe qualities like desire and commitment as old-fashioned ignore the fact that, unlike Moneyball and gegenpressing, there is a reason why they have stood the test of time.

“Stuff like that, giving everything and working hard, are fundamentals for us.” Wilder said. “If people don’t show that, then they won’t play. You can dress it up how you want but if you’ve got a group without desire then, chances are, results are going to be tough to come by.”