Buried deep within Chris Wilder’s analysis of their defeat by Preston, which included an overall assessment of Sheffield United’s poor recent run, was an admission that shape is one of the subjects under consideration as he attempts to arrest his team’s sharp decline in results.
It was a surprising disclosure, given Wilder’s faith in the 3-5-2 system since being appointed 19 months ago. But the manager’s confession also underlined how activity during next month’s transfer window could decide whether United sustain their challenge for Premier League football or slide back into mid-table.
Although the loss of Mark Duffy and David Brooks placed further pressure on a squad already missing the likes of John Fleck and Paul Coutts, the bug which prevented Wilder from selecting either at Deepdale exposed a weakness in his squad. John Lundstram has impressed after stepping into the breach created by Coutts’ knee injury but fitness issues surrounding wing-backs George Baldock and Kieron Freeman have caused more disruption than necessary elsewhere in the squad.
Alex Neil, whose Preston side condemned sixth-placed United to a fourth loss in five Championship games, said: “To be fair to Sheffield United, their middle three didn’t play - Paul Coutts, John Fleck and the boy Duffy normally play through the middle and didn’t feature. So it was probably a good time to get them.”
Wilder, having accused his players of feeling sorry for themselves after Jordan Hugill’s winning goal, did not want to provide them with a ready-made excuse but admitted: “It’s been tough.”