Opting to start the game without top goal scorers Billy Sharp, and David McGoldrick, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder was ecstatic that his selection gamble paid off after they hammered Reading to temporarily go second in the table.
Wing-back Kieron Freeman opened the scoring just after 38 seconds, following a six-week absence from the first team, which was the beginning of a ruthless performance from the Blades.
United soon made it two when on-loan striker Gary Madine scored his first goal for the club, leathering the ball into the top-left corner, after some outstanding pressing work from John Fleck who forced an error from Reading’s backline.
Madine added to his tally late in the first half, latching onto a perfect first-time cross from Marvin Johnson. His shot was unstoppable as it rippled into the back of Emiliano Martinez’s goal, giving Wilder’s side an impressive 3-0 lead.
Additionally, Martinez was left stranded in the centre of his goal for United’s fourth, as a long-range effort from Fleck took a deflection off Reading defender Matt Miazga en route to goal, putting an end to the one-sided encounter.
When asked about his team’s impressive performance, and the reasoning behind his team-selection changes, Wilder responded: “The easy call was to keep the same team. I feared a slow game and a tired game, it was important we had an energetic performance. I wanted us to play a little more forward, Gary Madine and Scott Hogan allowed us to do that.”
Moving forward, during his time at Bramall Lane Wilder has be known for his adopted progressive attacking style, and possession-based tactics. However, this game painted a totally different picture compared to a typical Sheffield United performance.
Whilst, the Blades commonly exit fixtures with a dominant possession percentage, especially on home soil, on Saturday Reading enjoyed a much more time on the ball than the hosts. Predominantly focusing on the Royal’s weakness in midfield, Wilder set out his side to constantly press the opposition forcing an interception of play, which would then be followed by a quick, and direct counter-attack through either Johnson, Fleck, or Mark Duffy.
This is also evident through the more laid-back approach from midfield maestro Oliver Norwood. The Northern Ireland international would usually be used to sit deep, controlling the tempo of the game, alongside creating time and space for his teammates to slowly push the ball forward into the opposition’s half. Subsequently, Norwood only made 50 successful passes from his usual 70 passes per game on average, proving how he was told to focus more on his defensive duties, and wait to pounce on an error in midfield.
Undoubtedly, Madine’s magnificent performance in front of goal, providing two goals and one assist, cannot be ignored. However, his performance shouldn’t overshadow how much of an impact Scottish midfielder Fleck had on the game.
Intercepting the ball more than any other United player, alongside attempting the second-highest amount of tackles. Fleck’s engine-like work-rate was a pivotal part as to why the Blades so easily dominated the play. Playing a typical box-to-box central midfielder, Fleck didn’t tire for the entirety of the game, as well as covering more ground than any other player for either side.
Seemingly the best player on the pitch, defensively and moving the ball forward, Fleck undeniably will have to continue putting in man of the match performances like against Reading. As, Wilder must now prepare his side for an automatic promotion six-pointer against Midlands club West Bromwich Albion next weekend.