Old school is new school, claimed Chris Wilder at the League Managers’ Association dinner in May, and the Championship is finding room for both.
The division’s top six shows a clean divide between traditional English management and continental thinking: Wilder, Neil Warnock and Steve Bruce on one hand, Thomas Christiansen, Daniel Farke and Nuno Espirito Santo on the other.
The contrast will make for a clash of cultures at Elland Road tomorrow, as Leeds United and Sheffield United meet for the first time in six-and-a-half years, but also a clash of styles.
Christiansen versus Wilder is a head-to-head between two coaches with defined and contrasting plans, neither of which has let them down.
Third plays fourth in a derby which is suddenly about far more than local hostility.
Wilder brought Sheffield United into the Championship as League One title-winners in April, ending their long exile in the lower division by taking a sledgehammer to a nut which other coaches failed to crack. One hundred points and 92 goals broke the ceiling above them and Sheffield United are giving credence to the idea that one promotion season can lead to another. Twenty seven points positions the club outside the Championship’s top two on goal difference alone.
The gap to Leeds below them is four and the clubs can share mutual satisfaction in the realisation that neither were fancied to be so prominent in the table. Of the current top six, only Aston Villa and Norwich City were touted as obvious promotion material and Norwich’s punt on Farke, the former Borussia Dortmund reserve team coach, was as much of a gamble as Leeds’ investment in Christiansen.
Leeds, though, are thriving on the freshness of a new head coach with a new way about him. Sheffield United’s impetus, by comparison, is the product of continuity and a manager in Wilder who found a formula and stuck to it.
Wilder might regard himself as ‘old school’ but the 50-year-old did what Antonio Conte did last season by winning his league after switching to a three-man defence. Four at the back got Sheffield United nowhere initially but a changed formation inspired a run of 15 league games without a defeat. Between the end of August and the end of May, Wilder’s squad lost three times.
The suspicion that a three-man defence might make his side vulnerable on the flanks was allayed by Wilder using his wing-backs, midfielders and wide centre-backs to provide numbers and protection on each side of the pitch. The club’s derby win over Sheffield Wednesday in September, a 4-2 victory at Hillsborough, was helped by his players channelling Wednesday into dead ends in the middle of the pitch.
Width and pace has worked for Leeds this season and it contributed to their 3-0 win at Bristol City on Saturday, where Samuel Saiz scored twice in a role wide on the left. In the heat of an intriguing derby, tactics could yet matter more than old-fashioned guts tomorrow night.
Neither Christiansen nor Wilder need much forewarning about the dangers in front of them. Sheffield United’s speak for themselves. Billy Sharp found games in the Championship difficult to come by at Leeds but he has followed up a 30-goal season last term by scoring five in 10 appearances. Enda Stephens, a Dubliner who has operated as a left wing-back and left-sided midfielder, has four assists to his name and will engage in a fascinating scrap with Luke Ayling.
At the other end, Christiansen will look for his attacking three to exploit gaps around Wilder’s defence and pull Sheffield United’s centre-backs out of shape as they did to Bristol City at Ashton Gate. Saiz’s brace in Bristol took his tally for the season to eight and Pierre-Michel Lasogga is up to four after a second-half header and a wholly rejuvenated performance on Saturday.
“That was a fantastic win by Leeds over Bristol City because look what they, City, did to Crystal Palace in the Carabao Cup,” Wilder said. “It doesn’t come any bigger than this. If you read the comments of their manager, and not in an arrogant way, they’re geared up for promotion.”
The battle for control of midfield appears to call again for Ronaldo Vieira, alongside Eunan O’Kane and behind Kalvin Phillips. Phillips kept himself in contention by avoiding a yellow card and a one-match suspension in Tuesday’s League Cup defeat to Leicester City.
“We’re quite a dangerous team to play against,” Wilder said this week. As Bristol City discovered, in suffering their first home defeat of the season, the same is true of Leeds. The clubs’ respective league records are indicative of two managers who ignore the idea of containment.
Leeds have taken two draws from 13 matches, both in the first fortnight of the season. Sheffield United are yet to draw once. Leeds and Sheffield United have experience of falling on hard times but there is optimism at Elland Road and a new feeling of life at Bramall Lane, a League One venue for so long.
“Six years out – and with all the s**t that gets chucked at you – you just have to enjoy everything that this division is about,” Wilder said.
It is premature in late October to presume anything about either club but the Championship is well known for taking a clear shape over the next month. Teams who are well placed by the middle of November tend to stick around and the lead up to the next international break is crucial for Wilder and Christiansen.
Over the years this has been an occasional derby - only eight meetings between the clubs in more than two decades - but the resumption of it has the potential to produce one of the games of the season so far. There is no picking between two sides who, with a single exception, have won every game after scoring first and lost every game after conceding first.
“It’s very nice to be looking forward to it,” Christiansen said. “It has something special for everyone.” Old school meets new school in a league where both appear to have their place.