Where Next For Chris Wilder? A summary of his approach to management.
On March the 12th 2021, Chris Wilder departed Sheffield United allegedly due to ongoing tension and dispute with the clubs board. After 5 largely successful years he departs with his side seemingly being taken as far as they were capable of going particularly following the clubs past 2-3 years of remarkable over-achievement. The Blades at the time of writing are languishing at the bottom of the Premier league table nailed on for relegation, with a measly 14 points with just 4 wins all season and a demoralising 22 defeats.
Wilder's Managerial career so far
Wilder has had humble beginnings as a manager, after 15 solid years as a right back, Wilder entered management with northern non-league sides Alfreton Town and Halifax Town FC. Wilder gained his first big role at Oxford United FC where in 6 productive years he restored the once first division side from underachievers in the conference to once more being an established football league side, comfortably finishing in mid table in league 2 and pushing for the play-offs towards the end of Wilder's tenure, Before his eventual resignation in 2014.
Following his fruitful stint with Oxford, Wilder took the helm at Northampton Town where he took the side from relegation candidates to Champions in 2015-16, doing so with the club being surrounded in serious financial uncertainty. The following season Wilder accepted to join Sheffield United, an offer he couldn't refuse, with Wilder being a Blades fan and having broken through as a senior professional player at Sheffield United as a player making over 100 appearances for the club.
Wilder didn't let down at Sheffield United finally getting the club out of the third division at the first time of asking with absolute authority, winning the league one title by 100 points. After having a very good return to the championship in 2017/18 finishing 10th, Wilder and Sheffield United went one better the following season. The Blades finished 2nd and were promoted to the Premier League returning to the top flight following a 12 year absence. Once more promotion was won in impressive fashion, picking up 89 points and only losing out on the title to Norwich by 5 points. Upon Sheffield United's return to the premier league the club defied expectations of relegation and produced consistent hard earned results, playing effective football and finishing 9th, even at one point looking like they could qualify for Europe. This was the clubs joint best premier finish for 28 years having also finished 9th in the first ever premier league season back in 1992.
Wilder has had a very successful 8 years in professional management so far, demonstrated via his 4 promotions and the dominant manor by which he has tended to achieve these promotions.
Wilder's Managerial Style
At Sheffield United FC Wilder gained national attention for his decision to play overlapping centre-backs during the successful 2019-20 premier league season. This was implemented by playing a favored 5-3-2 formation. Within the Back 5 a single centre-back would sit and play the 'sweeper' position while the other 2 centre-backs would push up to create overloads on the wing to help attacking phases. This tactic helped occupy opposition forwards as instead of targeting the sweeper they would offer have to come back and mark the centre backs to prevent their team becoming overwhelmed and over congested with Sheffield United players in their own half. With the centre backs pushing up Sheffield United's wing backs came inside more and work with the midfield 3 to fashion chances for the two forwards, as opposed to just using this overload of players to just cross more. This tactic allowed Sheffield United to attack as a unit , compensating for a lack of individual brilliance within the team ( in terms of a player capable of scoring 10-15 goals single handedly). The tactic also occupied the opposition and kept them busy to the point that Sheffield United became very difficult to hit on the counter attack, and overall became a very awkward and uncomfortable Side to play against.
Other features of Wilder's favoured 3-5-2 at Sheffiled United include the forwards in the system ( often Mcgoldrick) being able to link up well and press from the front out of possession. At times in the defensive transition 2 midfielders may be required to drop back and aid the sweeper to create a back 3 or 4. Offensively midfielders always have the option to switch the play due to the overload created by centre-backs pushing up, while the creative midfielder ( John Fleck) is responsible for attempting to break the lines and feed the 2 forwards more conventionally.
Sheffield United's overlapping centre back tactic
Whats Gone Wrong For Wilder This Season?
Looking at the current 2020/21 season, Wilder has persisted with the previously discussed 3-5-2 system. A series of external off the pitch factors which have both been equally somewhat predictable and unexpected, can be linked to Sheffield United's current demise.
Starting with the more obvious Covid has had a predictably large impact on football. Having played a full championship season then giving there all in their first premier league campaign for a decade, the Blades were due to run out of steam eventually. This season the schedule for the premier league and therefore increased intensity of training loads will have affected every team, Sheffield united have been victims to this with injuries to key players hindering a fairly small squad and a squad reliant on players highly specialized to there positions and roles. John Fleck who is the sides core creator from midfield ( 7 goals and 12 assists in his prior two seasons) missed various crunch games against fellow relegation candidates Fulham and Brighton with a back injury and Jack O'Connell who was ever-present and churned out many solid performances at centre back last season (playing 33 games last season), has played just twice this season being sidelined virtually all season with a long-term knee injury.
Another key factor for Sheffield United's drop off this season has simply been a huge decrease in individual performances. This isn't surprising considering it was clear that a squad made up of players who were seasoned at league one and championship level would eventually not be able to keep defying expectations in the premier league. Sheffield United have managed just 16 goals from 29 games this season, not far off averaging exactly 0.5 goals a game. This is a very damning stat. Rhian Brewster and Oli Mcburnie cost around a combined £40million and yet this season they've scored once between them. Mcburnie and Brewster only have a combined xG of 6. This infers that the duo are starved of service ( both averaging under 2 shots a game) but yet still aren't converting the minimal chances presented to them. The situation infront of goal for Sheffield United this season has been really dire. EFL veterans David Mcgoldrick and Billy Sharp have faired much better with 12 goals between them but other than them only 2 players have managed more than 2 goals so far this season, with one of these players being right back Jayden Bogle. You could argue Wilder can't do much about injuries and his forwards lacking a cutting edge however as will be discussed below Wilder has performed poorly when venturing into the transfer market, which is an obvious solution to solving a lack of potency upfront which has been clear since United's return to the Premier League.
Wilder's Strengths as a Manager
If you look at Wilder's time at Sheffield United as a whole he will have left a legacy, unsurprisingly popular with the fans after delivering 2 emphatic promotions to an outfit who had long been overdue a return to at least the championship let alone the Premier League. As a result it seems only fair to start with Wilder's Strengths as a manager.
Firstly Wilder is remarkable at getting the best out of his players. Particularly at Northampton he took a cash-strapped relegation candidate side to champions on 99 points all within a season. Throughout his time at Sheffield United he overachieved, he took a team of perennial underachieves to being comfortably the best team in league one again all within a season. Then he established the team as an established championship side despite the team being mostly made up of league one players. Following promotion he then led virtually the same crop of players to a top half finish in the premier league. Wilder consistently overachieves, this regularity of success shows his strengths as a coach at getting the absolute upmost from the resources he has.
Predictably in his seasons gaining promotion Wilder's sides scored a decent amount of goals, but this certainly isn't what you associate Wilder with as a manager. His sides are , not really accounting for this season, very well drilled defensively and tough to score against as a result. Sheffiled United conceded 39 in 2019/20, less than Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal. In the 2018/19 championship campaign only Middlesbrough could match Sheffield United's 41 goals conceded. Sheffield United have typically been stubborn to play against under Wilder but they were still well balanced in the championship scoring 78 with the join best defence and in League One scoring an impressive 92 while maintaining the second best defensive record in league one. Going back to his Northampton days his side were the second highest top scorers and were tied 4th for having the best defensive record. Discarding the anomaly of this season, Wilder's teams have always been well balanced and drilled. As Wilder has managed in Leagues of ascending quality maybe inevitably the number of goals scored has decreased but defensively solidity has practically been ever present.
Wilder's Weaknesses as a manager
As briefly eluded to before, some of Wilder's shortcomings must be taken with a pinch of salt. This season it's fair to say he's been a victim of his own success when it comes to the downturn of results as his players, in terms of quality, were never realistically going to be able to keep overachieving as much as they were in the Premier League. This has also been coupled with aforementioned impacts of covid and injury issues, which clearly Wilder can't do too much to prevent. Despite this Wilder does have one glaring shortcoming in management so far which is fairly well documented-his recruitment.
Allegedly the main reason for Wilder's departure from his boyhood club was due to his disagreements over the way the club is run. It is believed Sheffiled United may have wanted to bring in a director of football which Wilder was against as he wanted to have full control of transfers. On one hand you can argue that this is fair enough , after all the squads Wilder has developed across his career has led to 4 promotions, however in recent times his recruitment has been undoubtedly poor.
In 2019/20 Sheffield United brought in 16 players for around a reported £60million in total. Of these signings its very arguable that only Jack Robinson, Sander Berge and the loan signing of Dean Henderson were truly impactful. Lys Mousset, Callum Robinson and Luke Freeman put in the odd performance and showed flashes of quality but other than that the other signings proved to be very poor. Bizarre decisions to offer contracts to the unproven Richairo Zivkovic and players with ambiguous disciplinary track records in Ravel Morrison and Jack Rodwell, were combined with high fees for equally unproven players. For example splashing around £20million on Oli Mcburnie following only one fruitful season at a lower level in the championship. Thankfully for Sheffield United's sake regular performers from the previous promotion campaign were able to continue to maintain there high standards, meaning poor transfer activity wasn't as detrimental and more so a small elephant in the room not enough of an issue to distract from the sides' achievements on the pitch.
This seasons abysmal campaign has emphasised Wilder's poor recruitment and weak transfer activity has caught up with them. In the summer just gone Sheffield United signed a further 8 players for another sum reportedly in the ball park of around £50million. If Wilder has truly had the final say in most of these transfers it simply hasn't been good enough, and key be cited as arguably the main reason as to why the club haven't really given themselves much chance against relegation throughout this season.
Promising midfielder/defender Ethan Ampadu coming in on loan from Chelsea and Derby's Full-back duo of Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe coming in for £15million represented some reasonably shrewd business, however Rhian Brewster, Oliver Burke and Aaron Ramsdales more high profile transfers have been almost disastrous. Brewster and Burke are both talented and have demonstrated clear ability at youth level and briefly in the championship, however believing they could translate this into showing good form in the Premier League was a big risk and naive on Wilder's part. Ramsdale had some impressive performances at Bournemouth but was still the starting goalkeeper for a side with by far one of the worst defensive records from the season before and never really looked like a £20million player. The main questions to pose is why did Wilder persist in signing players from the championship with his side aiming to kick on as a Premier League side? And could he not have attempted to look abroad especially when he had some financial stability at the club, especially when there only notable foreign acquisition Sander Berge looks much more comfortable playing in the Premier League than his colleagues signed from established 2nd tier English sides.
If Wilder is to manage in the Premier League again in the near future he must either work hard to change his recruitment strategy, or accept that others may be better placed in taking control of transfers when his strengths are much more apparent to be in the coaching side of management.
Where Next For Wilder?
So far the following information can be clearly gleaned, Wilder often improves individuals and helps them maximize their potential, Wilder often makes his sides very defensively astute, he is capable of performing within financial uncertainty. Additionally with his current pedigree of last managing Premier League its's unlikely Wilder will manage in a league below the championship Potentially ruling out projects in league one etc.
-Celtic, Lure of European football may aid recruitment, Celtic will instantly be looking to bounce-back and mount a title charge, much like Sheffiled United when looking to instantly escape league one.
-Huddersfield, Decent infrastructure at the club from their last spell in the Premier League, in need of the manager who can first steady the ship and then aim to push for the play offs, Wilder has followed a similar trajectory with clubs he has worked at in the past.
-Newcastle, More so if Newcastle got relegated Wilder could raise morale in the championship with a talented squad for that level ( the squad already has solid defensive personnel Wilder could work well with) and perhaps Wilder could use time in the championship to bring in greater balance to Newcastle, and make them more rounded as opposed to being a purely defensive and negative unit which they currently are under Steve Bruce.
-Birmingham City, Karanka has just departed, the squad contains a handful of talented championship level players and players with good pedigree for the level, there is also constant financial uncertainty which Wilder has operated within successfully before at Northampton.
*( these suggestions are obviously purely speculative and based on the clubs current situation management wise, as well as how well Wilder's style and past accomplishments may align with said clubs current standings and where they may want to be in the near future)
Written by, Joe Langlands