We continue our Premier League team previews, and today Alex Keble wonders how Sheffield United fans will feel about existing in the limbo of mid-table Premier League...
"It will be interesting to note how United fans react to a season of mid-table obscurity. After so many successive years of entertainment and over-achievement, how will it feel to be in Premier League limbo, locked in the middle like so many others, too good to go down but not rich enough to make progress?"
The difficult second season awaits Sheffield United. Their rise through the divisions under Chris Wilder has been truly astonishing, but surely their ninth-place finish in the 2019/20 Premier League season is their ceiling, and surely their gradually declining form towards the end of Project Restart hints at a regression coming up.
Not that United should be too concerned. A year to consolidate themselves as a middle-class Premier League side is all they need in these financially uncertain times, and there is no chance whatsoever that Wilder will preside over a relegation battle this year. But an assault on the top six or seven is equally unlikely.
State of play
United are not in a financial position to build on their recent success in the way Wolves did before them, and that means a potentially quiet and uneventful campaign ahead. Supporters will be excited to see what record-signing Sander Berge can do now he has had time to settle in, but other than that it is surely just more of the same.
And so it will be interesting to note how United fans react to a season of mid-table obscurity. After so many successive years of entertainment and over-achievement, how will it feel to be in Premier League limbo, locked in the middle like so many others, too good to go down but not rich enough to make progress?
Strengths & Weaknesses
United's organisation makes them incredibly difficult to break down. Wilder's conservative 3-5-2 shape when off the ball limits space in behind and between the lines, while the patience they show when in possession, and the narrowness of the shape, means United are regularly in control of low-scoring matches.
In attack, they have benefited from Wilder's unusual use of over-lapping centre-backs, although their importance is often overstated. There is plenty of positional rotation throughout the team as United looked to bunch up on one side of the pitch, either attacking by causing overloads on one flank or by suddenly switching to the emptied opposite wing (via long balls from John Fleck and Oliver Norwood).
There is a danger these techniques will eventually be understood and found out by opponents, who particularly in the first half of last season were caught out by Wilder's novel approach. They also lack cover in many key positions, often relying on the same 11 throughout the campaign, plus United could really do with a more efficient goalscorer to help convert some of those crosses.
The club are not expected to add significantly this summer, but rather to boost numbers with a few new additions from the Championship or on loan deals. Dean Henderson's departure has seen the Blades approach Aaron Ramsdale, but reported moves for Nottingham Forest full-back Matty Cash and QPR's Eberechi Eze have fallen short as Aston Villa and Crystal Palace swooped. Rhian Brewster could join on loan from Liverpool.
Sadly, it seems likely United will be out-bid by more established Premier League clubs for many of their targets, leading to a disappointing window in which a couple of loan additions are all Blades fans can get excited about.
What supporters expect
No doubt Sheffield United supporters will simply enjoy the ride this year, hoping for a few marquee wins along the way, because even the most optimistic fan will understand that the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, and Wolves (without Europa League distraction) will all be stronger this season than last.
That being said, Wilder's side are in a good position to go on a cup run, not least because they are extremely difficult to beat. A semi-final appearance in either the League Cup or FA Cup is a realistic target.
Look out for...
Berge becoming a key player: The 22-year-old was one of the most highly rated young players in Europe when Sheffield United pulled off a huge coup with a club-record £22 million. He has started tentatively across 12 league appearances, but with more than six months under his belt should be ready for a key role in 2020/21.
A tough start to the season: Having lost their final three games of 2019/20, Sheffield United need a bright start to put that form behind them. Unfortunately, their first eight games of the Premier League season include five of last season's top eight. The Blades could be near the relegation zone come November.