Sheffield United got back to winning ways with a narrow 1-0 victory over West Ham United on Friday night.
The Blades made the most of a David Martin error to open the scoring in the 53rd minute through Oli McBurnie but despite looking in complete control and ready to see out the lead, they appeared to surrender the win in the final minute of injury time when Robert Snodgrass finally breached Dean Henderson.
However, a VAR review spotted a Declan Rice handball in the build-up, ruling out the goal and sending Bramhall Lane into raptures.
So, what did we learn from this battle between Blades and Irons?
1. West Ham’s goalkeeper curse continues
West Ham really are having a tough time between the sticks this season.
Having already missed 14 games earlier this season with a hip injury, Lukasz Fabianski once again pulled up here, this time appearing to pull a muscle while taking a goal-kick. Roberto has been a disaster as deputy at times this season but on Friday, it was the seemingly more reliable David Martin stepping into the breach. However, even he got the jitters, making a mess of a short pass out to Fabian Balbuena to allow the Blades an opening goal through McBurnie shortly after half-time.
The goalkeeping misery is further compiled, though, by the fact that £4m target Darren Randolph’s move from Middlesbrough has been delayed as the Hammers’ medical staff look further into a thigh injury which has kept the Irishman sidelined recently.
Whether it be the quick recovery of Fabianski, finally getting Randolph through the door or an option from elsewhere, Moyes needs a quick solution to West Ham’s goalkeeping problem lest it further derail their season.
2. First half drag
Obviously, it’s always going be hard to remember boring halves of football. If you could remember them, they wouldn’t be boring. However, it really is hard to recall 45 minutes quite as drab as the first half of this clash.
33% – Three of the nine Premier League games this season to see no shots on target during the opening 45 minutes have involved Sheffield United (against West Ham (tonight), Aston Villa (December) and Man City (December)). Lively. #SHUWHU pic.twitter.com/aOYuysHOAF
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 10, 2020
Fabianski’s injury and a sliced Felipe Anderson effort aside, the first half on Friday night had absolutely nothing to get the juices flowing, with neither side managing a shot on target.
Of the nine Premier League games so far this season to see zero shots on target in the first half, Sheffield United have been involved in three of them, against West Ham here, then Aston Villa and Manchester City in December.
3. Hammers finally breached
They might have toiled going forward on Friday, but there’s no denying West Ham look a far more organised and resolute defensive unit under Moyes. The fact that it took two-and-a-half games to finally breach their goal says as much.
Furthermore, it was hardly a scything Sheffield United move that split them open, or a questionable bit of positioning from one of their defenders. Rather, it was a terrible pass out from Martin and a complete misunderstanding from Balbuena. That moment aside, the Hammers were pretty much flawless at the back.
That solidity didn’t pay dividends in this match — we’re sure Moyes will have something to say about his side’s last-minute equaliser being ruled out by VAR — but West Ham supporters can sit back and relax somewhat at the fact their side now finally defend like a Premier League outfit — given their inconsistency in front of goal, that might make the difference in them retaining that title heading into next season.
4. Blades back on track
After a tremendous start to the season, it did look as if Sheffield United were beginning to level out a little in recent weeks, losing to both Liverpool and Manchester City (no shame there), drawing with Watford and struggling past minnows AFC Fylde in the FA Cup.
Friday was definitely a step in the right direction, with Chris Wilder’s men taking three points and a clean sheet from their clash with West Ham. Yes, they were dealt a huge helping hand by VAR, and the debate regarding the technology’s latest decision is sure to go right into the weekend, but they just about got the job done.
Such was the Blades’ fantastic opening half of the campaign — coupled with just how tight the Premier League table actually is right now — this win saw them glide all the way back up into fifth place, just four points off the Champions League spots.
Yes, all the other teams have to play this weekend but the fact they’re in with a sniff is even more testament to the job Wilder and his players are doing in standing up to English football’s elite in their first season back in the top-flight.
5. Another Fleck masterclass
Sheffield United are rich with fantastic central midfielders at the moment and watching them work the ball in tight spaces or ping it from side to side really is a joy. However, none of them quite do it like John Fleck.
The Scotland international has been wonderful for the Blades on their Premier League return and on Friday, he was at it once again, looking alive to pounce upon Martin’s poor pass to provide the assist for McBurnie’s goal.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 10, 2020
That was Fleck’s 12th league assist since the start of last season — at least four more than any other Sheffield United player — but that doesn’t come close to doing his performance on Friday justice.
Fleck made a match-high seven tackles to help the Blades disrupt the Hammers, completed two dribbles to drive his side forward with the ball and made three key passes alone to make sure Wilder’s men always posed a threat.
His lung-busting performances continue to be key for Sheffield United and to pull another one out in front of Scotland manager Steve Clarke will please him greatly.