Going into this season, Sheffield United fans would have been happy if you told them the team would collect 32 points in their upcoming Premier League campaign. The Blades knew they would be fighting to avoid relegation, and although not enough to guarantee survival, it would still be a respectable tally for a team with a relatively small budget that had just been promoted from the Championship.
However, if you told fans that United would have 32 points after only 22 games, even the most optimistic of supporters wouldn’t believe you.
That’s the modern day reality, however, as the Blades ended the weekend in 6th place after beating West Ham United at Bramall Lane. Sat 11 points ahead of the bottom three, they’ve all but secured their spot back in the Premier League for next season.
Now, with that job effectively done, Sheffield United can focus on another potential target, with that new dream being Europa League qualification for next season.
Got it all
The Blades have passed every test put in front of them so far this season.
They’ve shown they can beat any sort team in the league, whether it’s those in the top four or the bottom three. Their record against the “big six” is more than respectable, and even though they have lost on the odd occasion to a weaker team, the Blades pick up the win more often than not.
United can also get it done either at home or on the road. They’ve been solid enough at Bramall Lane, winning over half of their games there. Oddly enough, the Blades have almost been as good on their travels, only losing two away games this campaign, with those coming against the two best teams in the league.
The most impressive thing is how United have nailed the balancing of their squad. Players like John Lundstram, John Fleck, and Lys Mousset have grabbed the headlines for match-winning performances, while the back three continues to be quietly efficient.
The Blades have a remarkable amount of depth as well considering their lower weekly wages. Solid professionals like Muhamed Besic and Luke Freeman come in when the midfield needs rotation, while the likes of Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp have crucial goals off the bench.
Some were quick to write off their early success as a fluke, but United have proven that they are so much more than a flash in the pan. Opposing managers have had time to study up and figure out the Blades, but they just can’t, and probably won’t anytime soon.
Best of the rest
Plenty of credit is due to Sheffield United, but they’ve also gotten help from others as well. A big reason why they are so high up in the table is due to the failings of almost everyone else in the league.
It’s become clear the top three come the end of the year will be Liverpool, Manchester City, and Leicester City. However, the rest of the European qualification spots are completely up in the air, as it seems no one wants to take advantage of everyone else’s struggles.
Chelsea currently round out the top four, but some don’t think that will last. Frank Lampard has shown promise in his first year as coach at Stamford Bridge, but there have also been plenty of growing pains. A relatively thin squad hasn’t had the best of luck with injuries either, and it seems a late-season slip down the standings could be coming eventually.
Manchester United are right behind the Blues, but they’ve had even more issues. The Red Devils have one of the weakest squads in club history, and are in need of major reinforcements this January window. Those likely won’t come courtesy of a stingy front office, so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to have to make the most of what he has. He hasn’t done that so far, however, and it’s not likely that’ll miraculously change anytime soon.
Wolverhampton Wanderers sit one point behind the Blades, and have recovered well from early struggles. Those came because they were dealing with the Europa League group stages, and weren’t able to balance those games with their weekend Premier League contests. When the round of 32 rolls around in February, expect those same struggles to come with it as they stop prioritizing domestic duties.
Then there’s Tottenham Hotspur, who have already undergone a coaching change this season. Mauricio Pochettino was sacked about two months ago, with Jose Mourinho coming in to replace him. He hasn’t been able to fix things just yet, and he might need time before the situation improves.
The last potential challenger is Arsenal, who are all the way down in 10th place. Mikel Arteta certainly has potential as their new head coach, and the Gunners have already improved in terms of performances. The results haven’t followed, though, and it’s unclear whether they are just benefitting from a new manager bounce, or if the Spaniard is actually somehow who can bring Arsenal back to the top.
It’s likely that 5th, 6th, and 7th place will all get into the Europa League in some capacity. Sheffield United have been the most consistent out of all those teams, and they should like their chances of finishing higher than a majority of them come the end of the season.
United don’t even need to finish in the top seven to qualify for the Europa League, as the FA Cup offers them a different way into European competition.
As a large number of fans don’t realize, winning England’s main domestic cup automatically sends a team to the Europa League. The reason why this rule hasn’t mattered much in recent years is that teams who win the FA Cup usually finish near the top of the league standings, so they’ve already sealed their spot in either European club tournament.
It did set up a fun scenario back in 2013, however, as Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup while also getting relegated from the Premier League. That meant they were playing in the Championship on the weekends before travelling around the continent to play in the Europa League on Thursdays.
That moment reminded everyone how important the FA Cup can still be for certain teams, and the Blades will like their chances of winning the trophy this year.
Manager Chris Wilder has stated that he wants to take the tournament seriously this time around, which means United will likely name strong starting lineups in future rounds. The only reason they named a weaker side in their opening game was because their starters were left ragged after a hectic holiday period. That will change, which could be bad news for the rest of the country.
Sheffield United can beat any team in the country on any given day, and their record versus the “big six” proves that. They’ve beaten Arsenal and Chelsea, drawn versus Spurs and Manchester United, and have put up a good fight up against both Liverpool and Manchester City. The Blades will like their chances against any of those teams, especially if they rest their star players.
They now just have to win five more games, which is far from an impossible task when you consider how tough United are to beat. They won’t have to worry about motivation either, as a trophy and European qualification should be more than enough for a hungry Blades side that wants to keep proving everyone wrong.
Big time boost
United know just how big Europa League qualification could be for the club.
Obviously money would be the main thing, as getting to the tournament would certainly lead to an influx of cash. That'd be crucial for the Blades, who aren’t blessed with the most amount of funding.
It would also be an amazing experience for everyone involved, from the fans to the players and even the coaches. It was only three years ago when they were playing down in League 1, so getting to tour the continent while taking on quality opposition would be truly incredible.
There’s still a lot of time left in this campaign, of course, but Sheffield United fans have plenty of reason to dream of an upcoming European adventure .