It was as though the footballing gods had taken the decision out of our hands.
Following the battle of Bramall Lane – spilt claret, flying water bottles, blubbing managers et al – it was written somewhere (in the stars presumably) that Sheffield Utd would win by the odd goal and see it home with the exact same level of gamesmanship employed by Daniel Farke’s troops in the first ‘leg’.
And fair play. I didn’t see or hear too much complaining from the faithful over the Blades’ own take on sh*thousing. It was one to be sucked up and be taken on the chin, just as the 2-1 defeat was.
Where yesterday differed from that day back in September was the post-match reaction of the respective coaches. Back then Wilder lost it; kicked things around, blamed the City coach driver, blamed Farke, blamed the City players, As described perfectly by Zoë Whitford in LYBP’s match preview, his face turned a ‘delightful shade of puce’. Man was he angry.
Farke meanwhile was magnanimous in victory four months ago, gracious in defeat yesterday and made little of the tactical rough-stuff dished out on James Maddison.
I know which type of leader I’d prefer. Wilder’s backtracking and faux contrition at the post-match presser fooled nobody. He’s Neil Warnock plus some.
Yet there was no debate to be had over United deserving the three points. They controlled the majority of the game, looked more of a threat in the attacking third and bossed the engine room. No sour grapes from us.
The mitigation for a very flat, ordinary performance lies in west London of course. The Stamford Bridge exertions clearly played a part in a leggy, lethargic opening and with the Blades being afforded an extra five days of freshness it was backs to the wall stuff in what proved a fairly fraught first half.
James Wilson’s earlier opener for the visitors was ugly in its conception and a little soft from a defensive point of view but it set the tone. The Blades, with their Wilder-inspired version of power-football, smelt blood and in truth it was a relief to go in at half-time just 1-0 down.
The limbs looked weary but it was the minds that appeared to be suffering even more; compared to the vibrancy and energy displayed by United. It was always going to take more than a few soothing words from Team Farke to turn it around and much of the half-time discussion in Carrow Road centred around whether tactical changes were needed.
Regulars on MFW (cheers Mum) will know my reservations over playing a back-three consistently. When it works it’s a dream but when the opposition line up with the intention of pressing high and wide you all too often end up playing with a back five and as a result have difficulty getting out. The alternative is that the wing-backs ‘pass on’ their assigned attacker, which then stretches the back three much wider than is ideal.
During yesterday’s first half it felt like we were caught between those two stools, and did neither too effectively. Coupled with the lack of energy, it made for a difficult 45.
The second half was a definite improvement on the first and the decisive changes made by Farke did have an impact, but with Nelson Olivera clearly struggling for form – not helped by there being no viable alternative – we offered very little in the final third. It was all too comfortable to defend against.
Alex Tettey has been magnificent this season and has been lauded as such but yesterday was a tough one for him; one that got considerably tougher when he horribly under-hit that back-pass. For once Angus was left stranded and was unable to do anything about Clayton Donaldson’s cool finish.
The character is still there though and from somewhere – from Mario Vrancic’s whipped in corner and Ivo Pinto’s fine looping header to be precise – they conjured up an equaliser and did press late on for an equaliser.
Still though City struggled to get a sufficient number of bodies into the box to make like really difficult for United and the reticence to whip in a cross – especially from Pinto’s side – when in a decent crossing position is starting to hurt. But, again, it boils down to insufficient numbers in the box.
The calls to play two up top will almost certainly go unheeded – and I’m not sure it’s the answer – but within the system, Farke has to find a way of getting more bodies forward to join Oliveira and make us harder to defend against, particularly at home.
Yesterday, despite playing a 3-4-3 we still managed to isolate Oliveira and get over-run in midfield; an unholy combo that was only going to end one way. Throw into the mix a lack of zip and a subsequent inability to win enough second balls and it spelt trouble – with a big gob and a puce face.
That Sheffield United enjoyed their day in the sun is good for them, and they deserved it (even if they celebrated as if they had just won the league), but for City this simply cannot be the start of another post-Emirates type downturn.
This squad is out on its feet and in need of both numbers and invigoration. The three new faces Farke spoke of post-match will be very welcome, but more will be needed if others are to depart. The one-striker situation is something else that clearly needs addressing, as does Oliveira’s apparent unwillingness to be here unless it’s in the shop window of national TV.
We’ve shown in the last week that when it clicks, we’re a decent side – certainly a decent side in the making – but we’ve also shown our vulnerable side; the one that finds it hard to win home games, especially in adversity.
On this occasion though it feels like support rather than brickbats are the order of the day. Yesterday was a tough one for a whole variety of reasons but there was no lack of intent or desire. What transpired was what many foresaw.
Just a shame the man in puce had the last laugh.