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Sheffield United: BTSport.com's Premier League 2019/20 season preview

The Blades are back in the big time after two promotions in three seasons, but a thin squad without much Premier League experience will need the brilliant Chris Wilder to work wonders once again to ensure it's a lengthy stay.

Last season's Championship finish: 2nd (W26 D11 L9 - F78 A41 - Pts 89)

Last season's top scorer: Billy Sharp - 23 (24 in all competitions)

Odds not to be relegated*: 6/5

First five fixtures: Bournemouth (A), Crystal Palace (H), Leicester (H), Chelsea (A), Southampton (H)

Predicted finish (BTSport.com writers' combined prediction): 20th

Predicted finish by The Script: 20th

Transfers in: Oli McBurnie - Swansea (£18m), Lys Mousset - Bournemouth (£10m), Callum Robinson - Preston North End (£7m), Luke Freeman - QPR (£5m), Phil Jagielka - Everton (free), Ravel Morrison - Ostersund (free), Dean Henderson - Manchester United (loan), Ben Osborn - Nottingham Forest (undisclosed), Michael Verrips - Mechelen (free), Muhamed Besic - Everton (loan)

Transfers out: Conor Washington - Hearts (free), Mark Duffy - Stoke (loan), Nathan Thomas - Carlisle (loan), Paul Coutts - Fleetwood Town (free), Martin Cranie - Luton Town (free), Jake Eastwood - Scunthorpe (loan), Danny Lafferty (released), Caolan Lavery (released), Rhys Norrington-Davies - Rochdale (loan), Oliver Greaves - Barrow (loan), Tyler Smith - Bristol Rovers (loan), Nathan Thomas - Carlisle (loan), Regan Slater - Scunthorpe (loan), Ched Evans - Fleetwood (undisclosed), Caolan Lavery - Walsall (free)

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Reasons to be optimistic

Sheffield United are back in the Premier League for the first time since a Carlos Tevez-inspired West Ham controversially consigned them to relegation on the final day of the 2006/07 season.

The club were eventually awarded £20m by West Ham in an out-of-court settlement but the fee is scant consolation for a side who have spent half of the seasons since 2007 down in the third tier. So United won’t be lacking in motivation as they prepare for their first Premier League season in 12 years - and the home game against West Ham on 20 January promises to be a fiery affair.

The Blades will be out-matched in terms of individual quality but manager Chris Wilder has designed a system that enables his squad to perform far better than the sum of their parts.

Since taking the reins at his boyhood club in 2016, Wilder’s focus has been on building team chemistry and fostering a togetherness among the players – all of whom were British and Irish before three foreign players arrived this summer. There are no stand-out stars in United’s ranks and the lack of egos in the dressing room makes for a unified team.

It means United enter the top flight with a clear identity, a high level of understanding between players and a resilience that saw them win four of their final seven matches to secure automatic promotion from the Championship.

The three underlapping centre-back system Wilder employs is well-drilled and Jack O’Connell, John Egan and Chris Basham expertly marshalled the joint-meanest defence in the division with just 41 goals conceded.

In the transfer market United lack the financial firepower to match the fees spent by Aston Villa this summer and Fulham last season. But despite an ongoing power struggle between the club's two owners, United have managed to bring in some reinforcements.

Dean Henderson is back for another spell on loan from Manchester United, Lys Mousset has joined from Bournemouth, Luke Freeman and Callum Robinson have been plucked from Championship rivals and Phil Jagielka has completed an emotional return from Everton.

Oli McBurnie, an £18m capture from Swansea City, will bring an extra edge to the Blades' attacking arsenal, while the signing of enigmatic midfielder Ravel Morrison will be an intriguing storyline to watch too.

Reasons to be fearful

The Blades begin the season as 4/6 favourites with bet365 to be relegated and it’s easy to see why they aren’t fancied.

Having won two promotions in three years, many of Wilder’s side had never reached the Championship before the 2017/18 campaign. Now those players must adapt to life in the Premier League.

The returning Jagielka is the only player with considerable experience of the top flight in United’s ranks and at 36 years old, the centre-back is a shadow of the player who starred during his first spell at Bramall Lane.

Supporters are therefore banking on the likes of key men Enda Stevens, John Fleck, Egan and O’Connell all making the steep step up seamlessly.

United’s promotion push leaned heavily on captain Billy Sharp last season with the forward netting 23 goals in the Championship to end the season comfortably as the club’s top scorer.

The next-highest total was fellow forward David McGoldrick’s 15 but the drop-off after that was considerable, with the now-departed Mark Duffy in third place despite netting just six.

So there’s a huge responsibility on Sharp’s shoulders to deliver as he prepares to make his Premier League debut aged 33. Sharp has overcome the odds time and time again in his career but this will be his biggest test yet.

The £30m spent on the signings of McBurnie, Robinson and Mousset is designed to ease the burden on Sharp. McBurnie was one of the stars of the Championship last term as he fired 22 goals for a cash-strapped Swansea City.

But with the young Scot failing to score in 12 Premier League appearances for the Swans prior to their relegation, Mousset netting three in 58 for Bournemouth and Robinson scoring a modest 12 in the Championship in 2018/19, none of the trio are proven sources of top-flight goals.

The fixture list is relatively kind to begin with but United are set for a nightmare run of matches between 28 December and 20 January as they face Manchester City, Liverpool, West Ham, Arsenal and Man City again. They will need to be well clear of the drop zone heading into those fixtures or risk entrenching themselves deep in the relegation mire.

Off the pitch, fans will hope the ownership dispute between Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah that has entered the High Court doesn’t disrupt performances on the field.

Key man: Dean Henderson

Sheffield United broke their transfer record four times this summer but as they prepare for life back in the big time, it is a season-long loan deal that could prove most invaluable to their chances of staying up.

Henderson is back for another year at Bramall Lane after featuring in all 46 of United’s Championship matches in 2018/19, conceding just 41 goals.  

That Manchester United ensured Henderson penned a new deal before loaning him back out speaks to how highly regarded he is at Old Trafford.

Now ahead of his fourth season-long loan spell in succession, Henderson will be desperate to prove himself in the Premier League and perhaps make his case as David De Gea’s potential long-term successor.

The goalkeeper is not lacking in self-belief. “Do I think I should be playing at Manchester United now? Yes I do,” Henderson said in June. “I want to prove to Man United what they are missing.”

That confidence may be a little misplaced, as mistakes against automatic promotion rivals Aston Villa and Leeds cost Wilder’s men points last season. And while on international duty with the England Under-21s this summer, he let a tame shot squeeze through his arms as the Young Lions crashed out.

Nevertheless, he has all the ingredients to be a Premier League number one. With United set to find themselves under the cosh in most matches fans can expect Henderson to be a busy man between the sticks.

The manager: Chris Wilder

“Our fans didn’t boo loud enough. If I was in the stands I would have got after our players… I've told the boys to try and find a side door to sneak out of because they don't deserve to go through the front door.”

Wilder’s rant after January’s shock FA Cup defeat to non-league Barnet was typical of a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and demands every ounce of effort from his players. It’s an approach United will need in a division where they’ll be facing more talented opposition on a weekly basis.

Even in the Championship, United were underdogs to win promotion having only gone up to the second tier from League One in 2016/17. But the boyhood Blades fan, who has a tattoo of the club’s crest across his chest, extracted the very best out of the players at his disposal.

It culminated in the most unlikely automatic promotion, with United finishing above more fancied clubs such as Leeds, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby in the process.

Wilder doesn’t fit the mould of your classic English manager. The 51-year-old is an innovative tactician and after a poor start to the campaign, switched from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 where the right and left-sided centre-backs are encouraged to bomb forward to support United’s attacks.

It’s why he beat off competition from Leeds’ Marcelo Bielsa to win Championship Manager of the Year and from Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola to win the LMA Manager of the Year award. The club moved quickly to tie Wilder down to a new three-year contract extension this summer.

Even if United’s stay in the Premier League doesn’t extend beyond this season, it is unlikely to be the last the top flight sees of Wilder.

Fans' view - Ian Wright - Essex Blades

"I thought last season was going to be about finding our feet in the Championship but suddenly we find ourselves in the Premier League! We were fighting amongst ourselves a few seasons ago in League One but now Wilder has completely united the fanbase.

"Of course there’s a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I think we will struggle but I can see us staying up. We’ve got a tough run of matches between December and January so it’s important we are clear of the relegation zone heading into that.

"The home form will be very important and the fans will be the 12th man for us. Bramall Lane can be a really intimidating atmosphere, as we showed last time we were in the Premier League, and I’m sure teams won’t look forward to playing there.

"We don’t really have any standout players but I think that’s a positive. The goals came from all throughout the squad and we were never overly-reliant on one player.

"That being said, we did need to retain Henderson in goal and we did need a striker because I think age may finally start to catch up with Sharp.

"A mid-table finish would be great but our target has to be surviving and to be honest, even fourth from bottom would be nice! We’ve been up here before and the fans are taking it all in our stride. We just have to enjoy the ride."

*All odds correct with bet365 at time of writing

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