In every Premier League season, three teams are relegated to the second tier of English football (known as the Championship) and three teams are promoted to replace them. Last season, Cardiff City, Fulham and Huddersfield Town were relegated and they will be replaced by Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa.
Having previously looked at Norwich City, it is now time to take a look at the second promoted team mentioned – Sheffield United (aka The Blades).
How did they fare last season en route to promotion?
The previous season was Sheffield United’s first time back in the Championship after 6 consecutive seasons in the third tier (League 1), finishing a very respectable 10th place – though the club were clearly determined to improve on that finish.
They spent a club-record fee to sign Irish defender John Egan from Brentford for a reported £5m, and in addition they signed goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who had impressed for Shrewsbury Town in League 1 the previous season, and Oliver Norwood, on loan from Manchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion respectively (the latter later making the move from Brighton & Hove Albion); the money spent was mostly offset by selling Welshman David Brooks to AFC Bournemouth for a reported £11m.
Their season actually started off disastrously, as they lost both their opening two games against Swansea City and Middlesbrough, but they improved markedly afterwards.
Their form between Christmas and the middle of March was incredible as they only suffered one defeat and heading into the last international break they had leapfrogged Leeds United into second place after grabbing a 1-0 victory at Elland Road.
The Blades then had a slight wobble, suffering a defeat to Bristol City and being held to two successive draws against Birmingham City and Millwall, leaving them three points behind Leeds United with just four games left. However, they rallied and registered three successive wins whilst Leeds United could only register one point, confirming Sheffield United's promotion to the Premier League with one game to spare.
Club captain Billy Sharp proved to be an inspirational leader both on and off the pitch and finished as the club’s top scorer in the Championship with 23 goals. The signing of Dean Henderson also proved to be very astute as the Blades finished the season with the most clean sheets (21) and joint-fewest goals conceded of any team (37).
In addition, David McGoldrick proved a very able strike partner to Billy Sharp and a bargain signing as he joined on a free transfer from Ipswich Town, bagging a total of 15 goals.
A local boyhood supporter and former player of the club, 51-year-old Chris Wilder began his managerial career in 2001 with Alfreton Town, leading them to a promotion, and then managed Halifax Town.
He then took charge of Oxford United in December 2008 and during the 2009/10 season he led the side to promotion from the fifth to the fourth tier (League 2), before he left to take charge of Northampton Town in January 2014. During his time there he guided them to the fourth-tier title to gain promotion to League 1 despite financial turmoil at the club.
However, after gaining promotion he left Northampton Town to join boyhood club Sheffield United and during his first season he guided them back to the Championship after six years away as they won the League 1 title with an impressive 100 points. They then consolidated themselves in the Championship, finishing 10th during their first season back, before they achieved promotion to the Premier League last season, beating some very prestigious clubs in the process.
In achieving promotion to the Premier League, Chris Wilder became the first manager to win promotion from the second, third, fourth and fifth tiers of English football. His achievements last season certainly did not go unnoticed, as he won the LMA (League Managers’ Association) Manager of the Year Award, beating the likes of highly-decorated Premier League managers Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp! He was also named EFL Manager of the Season.
Wilder tends to a favour a 3-4-2-1 formation with the unique feature of having his central defenders overlap the wing-backs, with midfielders John Fleck and Oliver Norwood dropping back to cover for the advancing centre-backs. This overlapping tactic proved effective as the centre-backs claimed a total of 5 assists during the season. It will certainly be interesting to see how Chris Wilder fares in the Premier League given his tactical intelligence and ability to make the best of limited resources.
Player to watch: John Fleck
Aged 27, Fleck began his playing career with Glasgow Rangers and made his first-team debut in 2008. During his time in Glasgow, he won a Scottish Cup, 2 Scottish Premier League titles and made a total of 41 appearances, whilst also spending a brief time on loan to Blackpool, before moving to Coventry City.
He then joined Sheffield United in 2016, and during his first season helped guide the Blades back into the Championship, getting named in the PFA League 1 team of the year for the 2016-17 season.
Last season he proved an influential player for Sheffield United, both going forward and defensively. Going forward, he managed to score 2 goals and provide 10 assists, whilst he successfully managed 59 dribbles and completed 71 key passes. He was also key defensively, averaging 1.3 successful tackles, 1.2 interceptions and 1.1 clearances per game.
Despite many of the plaudits going to players such as Billy Sharp and Oliver Norwood (key players), Fleck was an unsung hero in the middle of the ground and it will undoubtedly be interesting to see whether he can cope in the Premier League next season, though on previous evidence, one would back Fleck to make the grade.
Where do they need to strengthen?
Despite all their successes in the Championship last season, Sheffield United will definitely need to bolster their squad going into the more challenging Premier League.
Although strikers Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick performed very well in the Championship last season (scoring a combined total of 38 goals), it is certainly debatable whether they can make the grade in the Premier League, and an upgrade in the attacking department for next season will most likely be needed.
Dean Henderson is a very capable goalkeeper, but was only on loan last season and has returned back to Manchester United. However, the club do intend to extend his loan spell; keeping him on loan would be a massive boost for the team as otherwise a replacement goalkeeper will most certainly be needed.
Although last season they only conceded 41 goals, the Premier League is a step up in quality and whether their defenders would all be able to cope is debatable. For that matter, to boost their defence they have signed former Everton defender Phil Jagielka, a vastly experienced defender at Premier League and former Sheffield United player too.
It is important that Sheffield United do not just spend money for the sake of it and should do so wisely. Given Chris Wilder’s track record for recruitment of players at Sheffield United and his ability to get the best out of limited resources, one would back the Blades to get their transfer business correct.
Can they survive in the Premier League?
The key question that always hangs over teams who achieve promotion to the Premier League is whether they can cope at the higher level and if so, how. Chris Wilder is a very talented manager, and guiding Sheffield United to promotion to the Premier League last season was unquestionably his proudest achievement.
The Premier League, however, is an entirely different challenge and Sheffield United will probably start the season with one of the weaker squads, and most will consider them relegation favourites. On the other hand, their impressive team harmony, Chris Wilder’s managerial know-how and shrewd recruitment skills, one would back the Blades to survive their first Premier League season in 12 years.