Sheffield United have deliberately built attacks through the middle of the pitch this season, benefitting Billy Sharp, who naturally prefers a ball into his feet rather than a cross from the wing. Admittedly, the untimely departure of Jamie Murphy may have had a considerable influence. In an FA Cup third round tie with Manchester United, however, exploiting the wings with pace is the Yorkshire side’s best chance of going toe-to-toe with the Premier League title contenders.
Outplaying the Red Devils in the centre of the park is nigh on impossible, with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin likely to dominate possession and distribute the play from those regions. The Blades have traditionally packed a punch from the flanks; nippy wingers and wing-backs have been a common feature throughout recent generations – Keith Gillespie, Kyle Walker, David Cotteril, Stephen Quinn and Murphy have been notable creative outlets from wide areas in the last decade.
Playing with positivity is something every fan expects from their side as they pass through the turnstile; cup matches are all about playing without fear of losing. There is a genuine belief amongst Blades supporters that the fourth round of the FA Cup is not beyond them, despite a run of three wins ending in defeat to Peterborough last weekend. The Yorkshire side cross the Pennines to Old Trafford with nothing to lose – Blades fans will be hoping the players transmit this fearless attitude on the field.
Pace, skill and a solid end product are essential qualities when trying to reach the top echelon of the game. In the current squad, Jamal Campbell-Ryce is the man who immediately springs to mind – he certainly possesses pace and experience. Whilst Paul Coutts and Martyn Woolford have been consistent performers for United, they are unlikely to cause Louis van Gaal a headache. With Luke Shaw out for the season, Daley Blind is Manchester United’s best option at left-back and, without trash-talking an esteemed international footballer, the Dutchman can be exposed by speed. Campbell-Ryce hasn’t been given a lot of playing time recently but his pace could threaten, if given the green light by Adkins.
Che Adams too. Remember him? The last time Sheffield United met a Premier League side – Spurs, in the Capital One Cup – Adams scored his first two professional goals out of nowhere, only for Christian Eriksen to spoil a heroic fightback. Whilst some call him unproven and inconsistent, his unpredictability could be a key ingredient for the Blades. Adkins may just take a chance.
Winning is everything in the cup, but how pleasing it would be to see an expressive Blades performance, and the likes of Adams and JCR causing issues for the Premier League giants. Will they start? Perhaps the New Year will come with a new-look Sheffield United.