Nigel Clough has warned that his efforts to turbo-charge Sheffield United’s attack must not threaten the League One club’s reputation for defensive stability.
Clough, the United manager, is poised to sign a new striker during the forthcoming transfer window as he attempts to equip a squad which averaged only 1.04 goals per game last term with a cutting edge.
But the former England international told The Star: “Other teams have to work incredibly hard against us to try and score a goal or create a chance. That’s something we think can continue because, even though we’d like to become a little sharper going forward, a little more expansive, we feel we can do that without sacrificing that solid base.
“We want to keep that foundation. We shouldn’t have to give that up.”
Although United enjoyed a remarkable upturn in fortunes following Clough’s appointment in October, winning 54 per cent of his 41 matches at the helm, improving those returns in the opposition’s final third could hold the key to their promotion hopes next season.
United, who eventually finished seventh despite flirting with relegation for much of the campaign, were outscored by the likes of Notts County, Tranmere Rovers and Crewe Alexandra, with only Shrewsbury Town, Stevenage and Carlisle United claiming fewer goals.
Away from home, United hit the target only 17 times in 23 outings, with Clough acknowledging after last month’s stalemate at Prenton Park that “we might have won” had they been “more clinical”.
“What they have got is a really resiliant streak now. They don’t like getting beat and if they’ve got to roll up their sleeves and dig in then that’s exactly what they’ll do,” he continued. “It’s things like that which, providing we keep on improving, will stand us in good stead for the future. Where we do want to improve, however, is in trying to turn these results into wins. That’s that’s the next phase of our development.”
Despite prioritising United’s frontline, Clough has also made it plain that he wants a back four which outperformed 19 of its divisional rivals to remain intact, although renewing John Brayford’s loan from Cardiff City could yet prove problematic.
Neill Collins and Harry Maguire, voted United’s Player of the Year, were instrumental in helping Clough’s charges claim 17 clean sheets in 46 matches; a figure bettered only by Wolves and Brentford.
While United’s forward line averaged 1.35 goals per game at Bramall Lane last term, their rearguard was breached on only 18 occasions despite the Blades winning just one in seven before Clough took charge.
Collins and Maguire played alongside each other in all but two of the 10 fixtures which saw United concede only once as they clawed themselves out of trouble and reach the FA Cup semi-finals following a 3-0 defeat by Crewe on February 1. Clough said: “Harry has been good for Neill but Neill has been good for Harry too. You always need that experience around you.
“Look at Burnley and what they’ve done with regards to getting into the Premier League. They’ve had a settled back four and that’s something we want.”
Terry Kennedy has also flourished under Clough’s tutelage following the 48-year-old’s arrival, after a 12-month spell on the sidelines.
“Terry is the the type of lad who will do whatever it takes for the team,” Clough said. “That’s exactly what you want to see. Where Terry has got to improve is on the ball. Distribution is important at this level.
“He’s done ever so well in all the other areas. And his attitude is spot on too.”