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Behind Enemy Lines: Sheffield United (A)

It will be a huge opportunity for Everton to continue their winning ways in the Premier League when the Toffees square off with bottom dwellers Sheffield United at an empty Bramall Lane on Boxing Day.

The Toffees will look to right the wrongs of their Carabao Cup Quarter-final disappointment at the hands of Manchester United, while Sheffield United will look to at least avoid defeat for only the third time this season. No Premier League side has ever gotten off to a worse start than the Blades.

On paper, with Everton sitting 4th on Christmas Day and Sheffield United firmly rooted in 20th place, it should be an easy victory for the Toffees. However, I’ve been an Evertonian long enough to know that it is never that simple.

The confirmed absences of Allan and Lucas Digne may prove to be an important factor in the game, and should Richarlison and James Rodriguez also miss out, it may end up being a big opportunity for Sheffield United to pick up their first win of the season at home against a team missing 4 of their 5 most important players.

At the time of writing, Richarlison and James’ statuses are currently unknown after the Brazilian took a blow to the head in the early second half on Wednesday, while Everton’s Colombian superstar has been missing since the draw at Turf Moor with an undisclosed issue. Should even one of the two play, it’s safe to say that anything but three points on Saturday will be a big disappointment for Carlo Ancelotti’s Blues.

This week on Behind Enemy Lines, I spoke to Callum Cheswich, a commentator for Sheffield Sports Comms and a fan reporter for BT Sport. Without further ado, here’s our discussion:

Q: Sheffield United currently sit dead bottom on just two points from 14 games. What has gone so wrong for the Blades this season, and what happened to the captivating side we saw light up the league last season?

A: I think there are a few factors that have seen United capitulate in comparison to the last few years. This season, we’ve not been as good in both boxes, simple as that. We’ve underperformed our XG and XGC. We’ve not been as clinical this season as we were last campaign, and if you struggle to score, you struggle to win games. We are also conceding goals which we wouldn’t have last season; losing Jack O’Connell for the campaign has been huge both defensively and offensively. We don’t have Dean Henderson in goal this season, and while I think Aaron Ramsdale is a decent goalkeeper, he’s nowhere near the quality of Henderson. While we aren’t scoring, we are also giving up costly chances which we weren’t last season and if you can’t keep the ball out of the net, you’re always fighting a struggling battle; I mean we’re still without a clean sheet this season which I think says it all.

For what happened to the side from last season, as I said before, losing Dean Henderson has been a big miss. He was worth at least 10 points alone. But in terms of losing players, injuries have taken a huge toll on us. We’ve had a lot of injuries to first-teamers this year, meaning we’ve been unable to play a settled side and have also been limited as to which system and style we can play. Off the top of my head, we’ve had injuries to six starters alone. If any side had that, they’d struggle as well, and we’ve been unlucky that it’s hit the areas of the side we have the least amount of quality depth in, specifically at left centre-half and up top. However, the main reason we aren’t able to replicate the same form as last year in my opinion has been playing without fans. Going from 30,000 fans at Bramall Lane to 0 has had a huge impact on the players. While some people may say that the players should just get on with it, it’s clear to see what supporters add to our game. The ground backing the players adds extra aggression, extra intensity, and a bit more sharpness in our play. The fans being there and involved in the game gave us that extra 10%, and we know we aren’t a technically gifted side, but with those added things we were a match for anyone. I believe when you see fans back in the stadiums, you’ll see the Blades back close to their best. Hopefully anyway…

Q:  It’s been made clear that Chris Wilder will not be leaving the club amidst what seems to be a probable relegation for the Blades. What does he mean to the club and why is his job so secure despite the worst start in Premier League History?

A: Without Chris we wouldn’t be here to begin with, simple as that. He’s a fan, he’s been a ball boy, he’s been a player, and now he’s our gaffer. He’s one of us, he loves the club, and we love him and what he’s done for the club. Before he came in, we finished the lowest the club had in over 30 years, and the club was rotten from top to bottom. The fans hated the players, the players hated the fans, the club was disjointed, and the only direction we were going was down. I won’t lie, that year before Chris came in it was so bad that I started to fall out of love with football. I didn’t care how we were doing, and going to games was more of a chore than a joy. Wilder has turned the club around and it has never been more together both on and off the pitch in all my years of being a supporter. Since then, we’ve had two promotions in 3 seasons, looked close to getting European football, and playing some of the best football I’ve seen watching the Blades in 15 years. While we’re going through a really tough spell right now, where relegation is all but certain, I wouldn’t want anyone else in charge to deal with the predicament we’re in right now. We know CW is hurting like the rest of us, but we also know he will put the club before anything else, and whatever he chooses will have the club’s best interests at heart. That’s why we’ll always back the bloke while he’s the manager of Sheffield United.

Q: Sheffield United broke their transfer record this summer with the £23 million arrival of Rhian Brewster from Liverpool, yet he has only started 4 games for a team who have scored a joint low 8 Premier League goals all season. Why isn’t Rhian Brewster one of the first names on the team sheet and do you expect him to play more as Sheffield United’s relegation scrap continues?

A: I think Rhian has been dealt a bit of a bad hand. We aren’t able to attack the way we were last year due to injuries, especially the one Jack O’Connell suffered. Our overlapping centre-half wing play system has been limited and our chance creation has taken a huge impact because of that. In my eyes, there are three types of forwards, and United need to start two of the three in every game in order to pose any sort of threat. That’s either a deep-lying forward that drops deep and helps link our midfield to attack, which has primarily been David McGoldrick, or a target man that allows us to break lines of play without playing through them, which then allows us to gamble on drop balls and start our attacks further forward; that player has been Oli McBurnie. The third could be a pressing pacy forward who is willing to both press defenders in possession and make selfless runs down the channels and in behind to give the opposition more of a headache. That duty has come to Oliver Burke. 

If United start to play with a 10 like they’ve started to do more, then that sacrifices one of the forward spots as David McGoldrick would play in the 10. I think the only way that Rhian gets in the team on a consistent basis is if we do that, and I would look to do that, as you can clearly see when he plays that Brewster is a fantastic player technically, but needs the opportunities both playing time and chances wise to get the best out of him. I think we will see the best of him at some point, whether it be this season is a different matter.

Q: Everton talisman Dominic Calvert-Lewin, of course, joined the Toffees from Sheffield United back in 2016. What are your thoughts on his development at Everton and how big of a difference could he make for the Blades this season had he stayed at the club?

A: Every person I’ve spoken to in the past about Dom has been delighted with how he’s progressed at Everton and I have been as well. It’s always good to see one of your own do so well. This season, DCL has been sublime even more so since Carlo Ancelotti came in and had the team play to the striker’s strengths. I’ve seen Dom play pretty much every position in the Blades youth teams and adjust to them so comfortably, and I think that sums him up in terms of his mentality and quality. He could’ve played in so many areas and been a class player. Now we’re really seeing that come to fruition as he’s been Everton’s talisman this year and I think we’re only seeing the start of a lot more to come from Calvert-Lewin.

For the impact he could’ve made for us, it’s a bit of a difficult one to call really. His quality would’ve undoubtedly helped, but I don’t think our position would be helped much by having him in the side, simply because we haven’t created so many chances so we would’ve been reliant on him scoring every opportunity he would’ve had which is very unlikely, nothing against DCL, more down to our own problems.

Q: Sheffield United come into this Boxing Day matchup off the back of holding out for their second point of the season despite being down to 10 men, while Everton enter the match licking their wounds after being dumped out of the Carabao Cup at home by Manchester United. Who will win the game at Bramall Lane on Saturday and why?

A: I mean obviously it’s hard to look past an Everton three points on boxing day, as the Blades are dead last with two points, and the Toffees are in the Champions League places. Looking at that, there is only one winner. However, football games are not won on league position and the last few of United’s games have been encouraging bar the Southampton game. We took Manchester United to the final whistle and were unfortunate not to get something from that and we managed to get another point on the board against Brighton, with 10 men, as you said.

For me, the deciding factor on Saturday will be how the Blades set up. We’re without Sander Berge, John Lundstram, Jack O’Connell, Lys Mousset, and Oli McBurnie so we’re definitely low on quality at the moment. But, when we’ve set up with an attacking midfielder instead of a flat three, we’ve looked so much more threatening and dare I say it, the better side against both Man U and Brighton. We don’t have anything to lose anymore; I’d love us to play with a 10 for the rest of the season and just go for it. If United do go with a 10, I think we’ll definitely pose Everton a problem, but if we play with a flat three we’ll be beaten with relative ease. I think it’ll be a close encounter but I reckon the away side will come away with the points with both teams to score.

So there we have it! I’ll predict a 2-0 win for Everton, regardless of injury news that we will likely receive on Christmas Day. I do want to note that if both James and Richarlison are unavailable, I will be absolutely fuming if Anthony Gordon doesn’t get a run-out after what we saw from Bernard on Wednesday. My thanks to Callum, who you can find on Twitter @CallumCheswick. I’ll see you for my post-match Player Ratings on Saturday, which you can now participate in yourselves! We will hopefully be back with a Behind Enemy Lines for West Ham on New Year’s Day, but the quick turnarounds involved in these Festive Fixtures may make that tough. Either way, thank you all for reading, and as always, Up the Toffees!

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