Had Michael Carrick been in charge of Middlesbrough from the start of the season, it’s plausible that this fixture would be a key game in a race to go up automatically with Burnley.
Since the Manchester United legend took the reigns, Boro have taken one fewer point than their forthcoming hosts, having played one game more, when the full table puts them 10 points worse off, due to the start they had under Chris Wilder.
Victory in the Steel City would give Carrick’s side the faintest sniff of the top two, but fail to win and their opponents will keep Sheffield United’s cushion in double figures, whilst still having a game in hand.
If Middlesbrough want the rest of this season to be about more than consolidating a play-off spot, then three points are the only option, while for the Blades it’s about being steadfast enough to preserve their sizeable advantage, without letting the permutations affect their natural style.
Here are my thoughts ahead of this highly-anticipated game in my Sheffield United vs Middlesbrough betting preview.
Blades cutting through the competition
Paul Heckingbottom’s side are unbeaten in their last 10 league games and, having won eight of those encounters, they’re looking for a fourth straight clean sheet.
This stunning run of form has left the Blades sitting in 2nd place in the Championship table and firmly in a prime position to go on and seal automatic promotion back to the Premier League.
Tactical consistency has been the key for United, for whom nine players have started the last four league games – the only rotation has been between Tommy Doyle, Ben Osborn and John McAtee for the left central midfield spot, and between Billy Sharp, Oli McBurnie and Daniel Jebbison to start just ahead of Iliman Ndiaye.
Players know their roles and responsibilities inside out, and they have momentum which should see them surge towards the finish line.
Boro bouncing under Carrick
The Teessiders have won seven of their last eight league games, firing home a whopping 18 goals in that period. Carrick initially inherited a side that was perhaps better than results suggested, and some improvement from the pre-season title favourites was expected, but the scale of it has come as a surprise.
The 41-year-old has made subtle tweaks, like switching to a back-four and introducing steady right-back Tommy Smith, which has made his side look better balanced, and getting the best out of two slightly unlikely stars.
Hayden Hackney was on loan at doomed League Two side Scunthorpe last season, while Chuba Akpom was expected to depart in the summer, yet both are now among the first names on the teamsheet thanks to Carrick’s guidance.
Hackney was introduced by Leo Percovic in his stint as interim head coach, and has since lightened up Boro’s midfield, while Akpom has relished a looser, more withdrawn role than he’s previously had.
Although the former Arsenal trainee’s physicality suggests he would thrive up top, the 27-year-old has in fact got the technical ability to influence games far more operating just off Aston Villa loanee Cameron Archer, who has himself proved a revelation.
The tactics board
Sheffield United stretch the pitch, ironically, through their three centre-backs: Anel Ahmedhodzic, John Egan and Jack Robinson spread wide on the halfway line when Ndiaye and his strike-partner are pressing the opposition, so that if they’re forced into clearances, the defensive trio are in prime position to sweep things up, while Oli Norwood in deep midfield aims to step onto any misplaced passes.
The task for Middlesbrough, therefore, will be to be brave on the ball in their defensive third, then work scenarios in which they can play forward through the press with quality into Akpom, who has to be the trigger for McGree, Archer and Forss to run directly at Ahmedhodzic, Egan and Robinson respectively.
If Middlesbrough are to make that work, ball-carrying centre-back Paddy McNair and ball-progressing midfielder Hackney will have to be at the top of their game.
Sheffield United vs Middlesbrough betting tips
Middlesbrough have the best opportunity they will get all season to open up the automatic promotion door a fraction, and that can only happen if they take all three points at Bramall Lane, so we can expect Michael Carrick’s side to play with risk.
At the same time, the home crowd will demand a certain level of intensity on their own turf, and when taking into account the quality both teams possess, a high-scoring encounter feels likely.
Over 2.5 Goals can be backed at Evens with Bet365 while Archer is a tasty 7/2 to get on the scoresheet. The 21-year-old bagged six goals in six appearances for England at Under-20s and Under-21 level combined, 17 in 36 for Aston Villa Under-21s and six in three in the EFL Trophy last season.
Archer then fired seven times in 20 appearances in an excellent Championship half-season loan with Preston North End and, since moving on loan to Middlesbrough this year, he has averaged 2.5 shots in the penalty area per 90 minutes and opened his account in the 3-1 win at Cardiff last time out.
7/2 quotes imply a probability of 22.2%. This is generous for someone highly likely to start and, potentially, one of the biggest goal threats on the pitch in what could be a high-scoring encounter.
Total Goals Scored Over 2.5 @ Evens with Bet365
Anytime Scorer: Cameron Archer @ 7/2 with Bet365
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