Chris Wilder may be a highly innovative tactician but Sheffield United’s manager is no fan of unnecessary change and knows disruption has its downsides.
“I’ve not changed my mobile phone number for about 30 years,” he jokes before explaining that, despite two defeats out of two games in the Premier League, he remains resistant to altering a hallmark formation configured around audaciously overlapping centre-halves or his wider attacking strategy.
“I’m not changing our approach and Leeds won’t be altering theirs,” says Wilder as he prepares to entertain Marcelo Bielsa’s team on Sunday lunchtime. “Both sides have good technical players and a lot of energy and we’ll both be going for a win. We haven’t changed our philosophy since coming back into the Premier League and Leeds won’t be doing so either. It will be very, very interesting tactically.”
It will also be the first time two clubs separated by 41 miles have faced each other in the Premier League for 26 years, since they drew 2-2 at Bramall Lane in March 1994.
In a normal year this would have been the loudest of big occasions, with Bramall Lane packed to the rafters and Woolley Edge services on the M1 between Leeds and Sheffield thronged with devoted Bielsaites.
“Bramall Lane’s like a ghost town,” Wilder says. “You don’t feel the vibe but we have to find a way to adapt.” Every club feels the ache of their supporters’ absence but Sheffield United are arguably struggling with the silence more than most.
Billy Sharp feels it acutely. “I’m gutted there’s going to be no fans on Sunday,” says Wilder’s 34-year-old former Leeds striker. “I’m not going to lie, you don’t get the same buzz on a matchday. You don’t get the buzz when you drive into an away ground on the bus and when you warm up; you don’t get the same adrenaline.
“Fans are the biggest part of the game, it’s not the same sport without them. The players are frustrated – we want them back. I see coffee shops all over Sheffield filled with people and I get frustrated. With the measures we’ve got in place now, there’s no better, safer place for them than a football ground.”
Sharp, a close friend and golf partner of the Leeds captain Liam Cooper who may well end up marking him, played under four managers in his sole season at Elland Road but appreciates Bielsa’s advent has changed everything.
“Sunday’s a match between two great clubs from two great cities,” he says. “We haven’t got a point on the board yet so we’re going to have to up our game against them.”
Sheffield United fans fear “second season syndrome” and fret over the tendency of teams who impress in the first year after promotion to succumb to gravity’s pull the following year.
It remains very early days but the defeats by Aston Villa – when the Blades played with 10 men for 80 minutes after John Egan’s controversial red card – and Wolves ensured Wilder’s wife had to remind him Wednesday was his 53rd birthday. “When you haven’t got a point, celebrations don’t come into it,” he says. “We need to improve in both boxes.”
Although Patrick Bamford has confounded the doubters by doing so well in front of goal that on Friday a slightly astounded Bielsa was asked whether the striker deserved an England call-up. The Leeds manager knows his side cannot keep scoring at the same rate.
“We can’t maintain such efficiency so we have to not concede so many,” he says, before suggesting he has found something of a soulmate in Wilder. Although, in many ways, the two men are very different, both have long steered clear of tactical groupthink and dare to be different.
“Sheffield United set themselves up unusually, with uncommon tactics but they’re very loyal to their style of play,” says Bielsa, who sent Wilder congratulatory, and classy text messages when Sheffield United pipped Leeds to promotion in 2019. “The way Chris Wilder manages and sets his team up awakens a lot of interest in me to learn from him. He has a clear concept. He can ingrain his ideas into players and make the way they play look comfortable. He’s a very good manager.”
Given Wilder’s conviction that Bielsa speaks infinitely better English than advertised, their post-match conversation promises to be the stuff of an Amazon football documentary-maker’s dreams.