Sheffield United faced Liverpool as equals, rather than supplicated inferiors, which Norwich and Aston Villa have done this season too. Welcome these assertive promoted teams…
Chris Wilder apologised as he walked into the Bramall Lane press room on Saturday, a little later than anticipated. He had been hanging around, waiting for Jurgen Klopp to complete his media duties so that he could present him with a bottle of champagne, to mark the the Liverpool manager being named FIFA coach of the year.
It was vaguely surprising, if only because deference to a theoretically superior manager and club didn’t fit with how the rest of the afternoon had panned out. Sheffield United lost, but only just, courtesy of Dean Henderson allowing Gini Wijnaldum’s moderately struck volley to squirt through his arms.
For the other 89 minutes, there was little difference between the newly-promoted team and the European champions. That was partly because Liverpool had an off-day, but also because Sheffield United approached the game as if they were equals, not just a collection of upstarts and tourists happy to be there.
That was clear from how they played, but was also emphasised by Wilder’s comments after handing over the bottle of fizzy stuff. Far from being pleased that they pushed the team at the top of the Premier League virtually to their limits, Wilder was cross that they hadn’t won.
“I am not bothered about pride, I am bothered about the result,” he said. “Liverpool had an off day and I think we missed an opportunity. In pressurised situations we need to remain composed.
“I’m not going to rub the players heads: if we want to stay in this division we’ve got to pick up points. When it comes to big moments they have to produce, which is how you go from being a Championship player to a Premier League player. We didn’t, and that’s the reason we’re walking away with nothing.”
I am not bothered about pride, I am bothered about the result
Wilder cited Norwich’s win over Manchester City as the sort of thing he wants, nay expects this season. And that wasn’t just in terms of the upset, but in the way Norwich approached that game: much like Sheffield United on Saturday, they faced City with controlled ambition, aware that if they were too open they would get taken apart, but also with enough assertiveness to suggest it was actually a contest rather than them being the supporting acts in an exhibition.
You can throw Aston Villa into this as well – perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, but when they faced Tottenham and Arsenal they still picked a team with plenty of attacking intent. They lost both of those games, but they most certainly competed, in the lead for a long spell against Spurs and twice at Arsenal.
Plenty of times when smaller clubs face the Premier League’s top two, it carries the air of a third round FA Cup game where a perky bunch of game no-hopers roll into town with the wide eyes of people just enjoying the day out. Some teams go into these games as if their first priority is damage limitation, accepting that they are going to lose but hopefully not by too much: the idea that they might wish to compete, never mind have a chance of actually winning, seems not to really occur to them.
The inferiority complex is understandable in some respects. The dialogue around the biggest teams often takes on a tone that gives the impression of them as untouchable super humans, and that you should be happy just to be on the same pitch.
But that doesn’t lead to a particularly edifying or enjoyable spectacle for anyone, bar perhaps Liverpool and City fans. Entertainment doesn’t come from just watching Kevin de Bruyne or Mo Salah on the pitch and expecting them to perform like circus seals, it comes from opposition teams challenging them, competing as equals: even if they aren’t actually equals, it’s much better if they act like it anyway.
All of which is good for us, the neutrals, but also for the teams involved too. They’re not happy just to exist, but to compete, to act like they belong. This season we have three promoted teams that will stand up to the big boys, and that can only be a good thing.
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