After two seasons in the second division wilderness, the Blades are back in the topflight – but can they emulate the success of their 2019/20 season? Or will they repeat the failures of their relegation campaign?
When Paul Heckingbottom took charge of Sheffield United in November 2021, the side were a far cry from Championship promotion, languishing in 16th. Winning 15 of their final league games shot them into the promotion places. But it would be 12 months before they secured a return to the Premier League promised land.
They may not be as interesting as Chris Wilders’ Blades, who took Europe by storm in 2019-20 with their overlapping wide centre-backs, but Paul Heckingbottom’s men won’t be a pushover.
A tight defence – the second best in the Championship – and a flurry of attacking talent led their charge to promotion, but can their feats be emulated in the 2023/24 Premier League season?
Here’s everything you need to know about the Blades before the upcoming season.
The lowdown on Sheffield United
Nicknamed the Blades due to Sheffield’s history as a cutlery production heartland, the side were formed way back in 1889 and have competed at Bramall Lane since that date. Top-flight success has evaded Sheffield United, with their one First Division title coming in 1897-98.
Not many Premier League fans will be overly familiar with 45-year-old Paul Heckingbottom. His only experience in the top division, either as a player or manager, came as interim head coach following Chris Wilder’s sacking at the back end of Sheffield United’s ill-fated relegation campaign in 2020/21.
He was vastly impressive last season, winning the Championship manager of the month three times, and yet controversially failed to make the manager of the season shortlist.
His attitude towards coaching is perfectly exemplified by his pre-game message before their FA cup semi-final defeat against Manchester City in April.
“We’re not just going there to make up the numbers. We’ll go there to attack the game and try to have a go,” he declared.
Style of play
And attack they do. Only Burnley and Middlesborough bettered their attacking output last season. Sheffield United’s 73 goals came at a rate of 1.6 per game. On top of this, they created 2.3 big chances per game and took nearly 14 shots – only better by Norwich City for the latter.
When the ball is at their feet, Sheffield United prioritise moving it as quickly as possible towards their opponents’ goal – they ranked third in the Championship for direct attacks last season – although their 51% of possession indicates the incisive movements contain the care and control all great sides possess.
On the defensive end, they kept 19 clean sheets throughout the season, aided by their back-three system that morphs into a solid back-five without the ball and an emphasis on pressing that saw them win over half their duels last season and make more tackles than any other side.
Sheffield United’s notable players
Not only did tricky Senegalese winger Iliman Ndiaye top the Blades’ goalscoring ranks with 14, he was also their most creative force; laying on 10 assists for his teammates. A crucial fulcrum in the attacking fabric of Heckingbottom’s side, he is also a supremely talented dribbler and energetic presser.
The Premier League’s plethora of world-beating Norwegian talent will be bolstered by the return of midfielder Sander Berge to the top-flight. Highly rated in his formative years in Belgium, the 193cm man was stellar last season, nabbing six goals and five assists while making over one tackle a game and winning 50% of his duels.
And burly Bosnian centre-back Anel Ahmedhodzic often finds himself on the right of United’s back three. Not only a proficient defender who wins 54% of his duels, Ahmedhodzic averages two tackles a game and clears his lines almost three times per 90 minutes. He is also skilled with the ball at the feet, often licensed to push deep into opposition territory when in possession. His six goals last season will prove crucial if they can be emulated in the Premier League.
Sheffield United Stadium
Bramall Lane has housed Sheffield United since their inception. The 32,000-seater was formerly a cricket ground, with Australian turn-of-the-century stalwart Monty Noble nabbing two 5-wicket hauls there during the 1902 Ashes.