When Sheffield United met Wolverhampton Wanderers at Bramall Lane in July, the Blades provided a knock-out blow courtesy of John Egan’s injury-time winner.
It was a very different story as the teams played their first fixture of the 2020/21 Premier League season on this Monday night in September, visitors Wolves doing the necessary damage inside six minutes courtesy of goals from Raúl Jiménez and Romain Saïss.
United were made to pay for their sloppy start as they were unable to find a route back into the contest, despite some good spells of pressure in a second half in which they came closest when John Fleck struck the post.
Chris Wilder opted for a familiar look to his starting XI, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale the only one of his six summer signings to make their debuts (or second debut in his case having made a couple of appearances for the Blades in the FA Cup in 2016/17 before being sold to AFC Bournemouth). Sander Berge and David McGoldrick were only fit enough for the bench as both had their pre-season preparations disrupted by injury.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s impressive Wolves side came into their opener having not even played a pre-season friendly: their mammoth 59-game 2019/20 campaign finished just over a month ago with a Europa League quarter-final defeat to eventual winners Sevilla. Record signing Fábio Silva, the 18 year old who joined from Porto, remained an unused substitute, but Nuno was still able to field a side which boasted quality all over the pitch. Left wing-back Marçal de Oliveira made his debut having been brought in from Lyon, whilst Adama Traoré found himself at right wing-back following the departure of Matt Doherty to Tottenham Hotspur. The visitors went with a front three of Daniel Podence, Pedro Neto and Jiménez, who has netted 44 goals in all competitions in two seasons at Molineux.
Within three minutes of this one, that became 45 after a swift counter-attack. Podence skipped past the challenge of John Lundstram to give himself acres of space to run into down the left, Neto’s decoy run left Jiménez unmarked, and when the Mexican was found he finished the move off with an emphatic side-footed volley into the roof of the net.
Three minutes later, and a fast start became a brilliant start for the visitors: from an outswinging corner by Neto, Saïss rose highest to power a header into the net to make it 2-0. United conceded only six goals from set pieces last season – a joint-low for the division – so they will be disappointed to have handed firm control to Wolves so early in the game. Jack O’Connell bundled into Enda Stevens which left Saïss alone, although there was still work to do from just inside the penalty area and the Wolves centre-back connected with the delivery very well.
The outstanding Jiménez was offering a complete striker’s performance, curling another effort just off target from the edge of the area and consistently linking up well with Podence and Neto. His strength on the ball also drew two fouls from Egan and McBurnie in the first half for which they were both punished with a yellow card.
United were perhaps a little shell-shocked by their opponents’ rapid start to the game – after all, Wolves have a reputation as slow starters who grow into matches as they progress. But the hosts gradually found a foothold, George Baldock’s cross a tester for Rui Patricio which he had to tip over the bar, and Oli McBurnie’s header from the resulting corner a decent effort but straight at the goalkeeper.
Wilder’s half-time words clearly had an effect at the start of the second period as his side saw more of the ball, got into some good advanced positions and posed much more of a threat. They could have been back in the game inside two minutes, McBurnie flicking a cross field ball into the path of Stevens, who found himself goal-side of Traoré but blazed over at the near post.
Stevens’ next involvement in the match demonstrated greater composure, picking out the run of Lundstram with a fine through ball down the left; he waited for support to arrive from Fleck, who was extremely unlucky to see his drilled effort rebound off the post. Baldock then saw his follow-up deflected wide by former Blades loanee Conor Coady.
Wolves’ threat had largely been reduced to the counter-attack and set pieces, although the ease with which they created chances via the latter route will be of some concern for United, with Saïss a whisker away from adding his second from João Moutinho’s outswinger. Jiménez also struck the outside of the post late on.
Credit also has to go to Saïss and his counterparts at centre-back, Coady and Willy Boly, for their excellent defending in their own penalty area. United found themselves in some good areas at times, but couldn’t find a way past a well-organised rearguard. The hosts had a decent opening when Egan burst forward from the back to find Billy Sharp in space, and his drilled ball across goal just evaded Lundstram who would have had a tap-in. The Blades skipper had a couple more opportunities to pick out McBurnie in the centre, but on both occasions Coady was in the right place to deal with the danger.
It could have been game over at the other end when Saïss latched onto a loose pass from Ollie Norwood, found Jiménez and continued his run to create a three-on-two. The forward returned the favour to the defender, whose strike was tipped onto the post by Ramsdale, with Jiménez just unable to react in time to guide the rebound home.
Wilder switched to a back-four in the hope of salvaging something, with McGoldrick and Berge subbed on for the final 15-20 minutes, but Wolves were also able to bring on Oskar Buur, Ruben Neves and Vitinha to help see through their victory.
Sharp flicked a half-chance over the bar after some nice football down the right, and McBurnie looked as though he had got one back in injury-time, only for that man Saïss to get back and clear his header off the line.
And so it was Wolves who picked up a terrific win to start their season, in which with no European distractions they will harbour realistic hopes of improving on two consecutive seventh place finishes.
Defeat of course represents a disappointing start for Sheffield United, but the second half in particular was a big improvement after a nightmare opening six minutes. They have also perhaps surprisingly only won one of their five opening weekend fixtures under Wilder – and they haven’t done too badly over that period! Next up is a Carabao Cup trip to Burnley on Thursday, then a visit to Aston Villa in the Premier League next Monday.
Sheffield United: Ramsdale; Basham (McGoldrick 71;), Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Lundstram, Norwood (Berge 76’), Fleck, Stevens; McBurnie, Sharp (C). Subs not used: Foderingham, Burke, Jagielka, Ampadu, Osborn.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Rui Patrício; Boly, Coady (C), Saïss; Traoré, Dendoncker, João Moutinho (Machado Ferreira 86’), Marçal de Oliveira; Neto (Buur 69’), Jiménez, Castelo Podence (Neves 76’). Subs not used: Ruddy, Soares Silva, Jota, Vinagre.
Referee: Mike Dean
Bookings: Sheffield United: Egan (33’), McBurnie (39’)
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Marçal de Oliveira (90+1’)
Sent off: Sheffield United: None
Wolverhampton Wanderers: None
Scorers: Sheffield United: None
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Raúl Jiménez (3’), Romain Saïss (6’)
HT score: 0-2
FT score: 0-2
Man of the Match: Raúl Jiménez (Wolverhampton Wanderers)