There are those who insist Sheffield United got “found out” in the back end of last season. To say they “found themselves a little short” is much closer to the truth.
Whatever the tactical variations next season, the principle by which Chris Wilder looks to impose United’s style on the opposition – rather than adapt accordingly – is sure to remain. And we are overlooking a fairly significant detail here – Paul Coutts.
Certainly, opposing sides never got the measure of a United with Coutts at the hub of it. United went top on the night of November 17th last year when the midfielder suffered a grotesquely shattered leg.
If Coutts is fit to start 2018-19, as most around Bramall Lane hope and believe, you might just be able to forget those “tactical variations.” In the circumstances, United adapted manfully to the loss of a key player, operating more of a 3-4-1-2 system than the 3-1-3-1-2 of hitherto. It looks and sounds like a fractional difference. In reality, it was much more fundamental.
John Lundstram and Lee Evans, who both showed their quality in the new central quartet, are more traditional midfielders, getting in and amongst it. Coutts had a more tailored, self-styled role that proved the perfect catalyst whether the team was defending or attacking.
Sitting just in front of the back three, the Scot orchestrated attacks and was also a pressure valve when the side was under the cosh.
While Wilder naturally underplayed the loss – as did the player himself – the effect was considerable.
Crucially, Coutts had played the role before – he wasn’t coming new to it. “It was at the start of my career at Peterborough under Darren Ferguson,” he tells me. “He was a really nice footballer himself as a central midfielder and he was brilliant for me. A lot of time spent one-on-one after training, which taught me a lot.
“Here, last season I’d agree it was the best form of my career. I found myself managing to get on the ball easier by going deeper. I was dropping right out of it. Then it was. . . give it to Flecky (John Fleck). . . ‘have a run with that.’”
Simple as it sounds, the ploy underpinned some of the club’s best football in living memory.
While the entertainment continued, the balance was never quite the same again. Which is not to say it can’t be in the future.
The temptation for Wilder to restore that system and formation, with Coutts at the hub, must be irresistible, fitness permitting.
Whoever United sign this summer, none is likely to prove more influential.