Deadbat's Season Review / School Report 2017-18 - Part Five

Midfielders

John Fleck Got his foot in, tackled and did the scrappy stuff but on the ball kept it neat and tidy, showed quick feet and surged forward when he could. The only knock as too many bookings and not scoring enough goals. However, he was a joy to watch at times. He got between defence and attack, got up and down, involved in most of our good attacks and made us tick. How he was never in the Scotland squad is ridiculous really – still in a way that is good as he has less chance of getting injured and he plays less games but he does deserve recognition internationally. A player who is quite rotund and may not have natural pace but he is now slow at all and quick over a few yards. He is very strong for a small player and can outmuscle bigger players. He has a lovely left foot and manoeuvres out of situations so easily and finds space with ease. So fleet of foot and technically very underrated. Just a good all-round footballer. The only knock on him is that he does not score enough goals although got a cracker at Hillsborough of course. Also, maybe got stuck in a bit too much and picked up a lot of yellow cards and one red meaning he missed 6 games due to suspensions I think it was in three separate spells. Some of the yellows were avoidable and a stupid tackle against Bristol City cost us badly that game.

Still, taking away that critique the positives are far and away outweighing these points. He stepped up to this level far better than even I thought. I recall the 4-5 defeat to Fulham and they had Johannson, Cairney, McDonald and Norwood I think playing at different points and he was just as good and I felt showed that night he can live with players like that. I felt it was far harder for him when Duffy did not play and of course when Coutts went out. Lundstram and Evans were both quite inconsistent; and Fleck at times had do the job of two men. He was another that looked very tired by the end of the season but can be proud of his efforts. He is one that has coped really well at this level and indeed may see a few Premier League teams casting their eyes this way and looking at him. He will be glad of his running partner back in midfield hopefully for the start of the season. 

Grade B+ (Last season A)


Mark Duffy Had really impressed the season we won the title in the number 10 role and at times was unplayable as he combined with Fleck and Coutts. There were questions if he could step up as his best football had been at League One and he had not done it at Birmingham when at this level before. You wondered if he was a lower league journeyman who had just had one good season but then you also felt he had never really played consistently in this position and with players like we possess. He maybe was one of those players that just gets better with age. He did not start the season as Carruthers was preferred but got in against Barnsley and was man of the match. He never looked back and played really well in several wins. He had runs of games but then had some time out of the team or was rested/or used off the bench. Wilder seemed to realise his age and lack of pace would mean he would have to be rotated around.

Even when we did well he was not always a starter and actually came on against Wednesday but scored ‘that’ goal and then was very good a week later at Forest where they could not cope with him. Played really well in games against Reading and Ipswich and made both goals at Leeds and then was superb against Hull too before being instrumental at former club Burton. In our run up the table he was key. He showed some superb footwork getting out of tight situations and playing it short and long. A lovely player to watch with such close control and some real tricks to boot. He continued to cause opponents all sorts of problems and surprised even many Blades fans with how he adapted and more than coped at this level. The number of view from’s from the superb Roygbiv alluded to the little ginger/blonde lad in midfield that was the best player for United and that they could not get near at times.

Like with others, our reliance on Sharp/Clarke meant we needed more goals from others and Duffy again only got 3 goals which was not enough for a man of his talent – he scored another superb strike v Reading and then one at former club Birmingham; but needed to score more. Still felt he was the player (along with Fleck) that made us tick and it was noticeable when he did not play. Wilder probably did not use him as much as he should have done towards the end of the season. Granted he did not always finish games but we had several games where we lacked creativity and he did not start. Surely, it is easier to start him and take him off? 

Overall though despite the odd quiet game; he was more effective than not and one of our top 5 players without question and pushing Fleck for honours in player of the season as shown by how many of the awards were dolled out. He is 33 in October. He started less than 30 games this season and sure it will be similar next season. I think if Coutts is fit and Brooks still here; we then in essence have Fleck, Coutts and maybe will use Evans in some away games as a three. Other games it could be the Coutts, Fleck and Duffy combo or even Brooks; off course Brooks can play off the striker too. I think Duffy would benefit from more pace up top that he can use to exploit his excellent passing and set up play. At times he has to play all short stuff as there is no out ball for him to knock over the top. Deserved a new contract and will be another key man next season – he never had much pace anyway so another like Clarke that not sure one more year will make much difference in terms of age. 

Grade B+ (Last season B+) 



Paul Coutts Coutts started the season as he finished the last one. He began very consistently and played 15 of the first 16 league games. He only missed one game v Ipswich due to suspension (5 bookings). He was one of the key men as we started the season so well and along with Fleck and Duffy were big parts of our performances. Indeed, he more than the others was superb really to start the season and allowed us to control midfield. He started our attacks getting the ball form defence, took it out of tight spots and found a shirt or drove forward. He also was involved in several attacking moves. I recall him dominating a good Derby midfield of Huddlestone, Johnson etc in a deserved win. At Hillsborough he was excellent and there were many more games like this. The only knock was he did not score enough goals but got a beauty v Reading and did pick up too many fouls and yellow cards. Still he was the main man as we started the season as we surged to the top of the league. He coped comfortably with the step up and finally was showing the potential he showed many years ago at Derby/Preston. Indeed, his game has matured to the extent that he now knows what he can do and the three in midfield and three behind him suits his game perfectly. Seemed fitter and stronger than ever and was now really looking a powerful player. 

Then the awful leg break came. You knew straight away it was bad. A bit of a freak injury as not like any of the previous injuries he has had. He was ruled out for the season and whilst some thought he may come back, you knew that would not happen and so it proved. Did not need an operation which was good and hoping he will start pre-season. With the midfielders we have and the improvements of the new signings, it should be a real battle for places but if he and Fleck are fit they are certain starters. After he went out, we really suffered and whilst others dropped off in form and we tired around Xmas period; his loss was huge. If he had stayed fit; then I do feel we would have comfortably got a playoff place but we saw how much we missed him. That is no criticism to the others; he is just a unique sort of player who controls games with his touch, passing and style of play. 

Grade A- (Last season A-)

Samir Carruthers was a player that showed real glimpses in the second half of the season and tantalised fans at times with his play. He was not consistent and lacked fitness/pace but he showed enough that he could be more involved this season. He did well in the pre-season and then got the shock start v Brentford and was one of our better players. He was not quite as influential in the net two away games and lost his place to Duffy who man of the match v Barnsley. After this he did not start another game until Preston at Xmas when we had a bit of an injury crisis. He was used mostly as a sub but when he came on he rarely played well and although scored in the game v Fulham; he did not even make the impact of last season when he came on as sub to great effect. 


Seemed to struggle with pace and better players of this level and seemed to want an age to do things. Recall him having a bit of a disastrous cameo at home to Bristol City when he failed to make the most of a great break at the death and then they broke and he lost his tackle and they scored. He was a bit part player but as I say even from the bench he was quite ill disciplined and gave the ball away too much. He did not really do much of anything and seemed well down the pecking order when we signed more midfielders. The Holmes signing meant he was now 4th choice in the number 10 role and was not really trusted as part of the two behind. He was rumoured to be going to Charlton on loan but that never happened. He ended up in the u23’s and then seemed to vanish. It seems there is no real future for him here but he will be on a decent wage so be difficult to offload him as he had another year left on his contract.


Grade E- (Last season C+)

Ricky Holmes Had been chased all summer and then signed a new contract with Charlton and you felt that was that. A player the wrong side of 30; I was not sure he was the answer anyway. However, as Charlton struggled financially and were not that close to the top; Wilder went back in and put in a bid that was probably much smaller than the one the Addicks turned down in the summer and they let him go. He was seen as another attacking option and he started in a game at Wolves and did quite well and one of our better players but this was the only game he started. 

He came off the bench a few times but often it was late on and cannot recall him having a proper chance. When he did come on, it did not quite happen but you do wonder if he could have been given more chances especially when Duffy and Brooks were both not available at times. We did not always open teams up and lacked goals from this area. It seemed off Wilder signing him if he did not give him a chance. As I say, he is not young and not sure he will be any closes to the side next season really. A punt that so far has not come off. If Brooks moves on, he may get more opportunities but you do wonder if he good enough at this level as he has never played here before and maybe lacks pace and athleticism. 
Grade D- (Last season NA) 

Lee Evans A surprise signing in the January window. A lot of talk was about Leonard and Holmes but then he came in. I knew he was a young player at Wolves that had not been near the first team for a while due to the new investments but I did not even know he had gone too Wigan on loan. Clearly, he was doing well there as they topped the league. Wilder saw something he liked and signed him citing potential to improve. He went straight in the side after being sub against Wednesday and played every league game after making his bow at Norwich. He showed he was a decent footballer, with a good touch and nice range of passing. A big lad but not a physical player, he seemed more of a ball player. He had a few really promising games (the two goals v Boro were special and had a few other assists/decent long-range shots) and at home he did well. Away from home, he was less impressive. I recall him being poor in games at Hull, Barnsley and Birmingham when teams came and fought. If pressurised he struggled as he lacked mobility and pace. 

He did ok and was the better of the signings we made in January. I am still to be totally convinced. We won 7 of the 20 games that ended the season and like Lundstram for me was inconsistent. Too many times a good game would be followed by an ineffective one. He is only 23 though and with young players that can happen. I think he needs to get stronger physically and needs to sharpen up. I recall the game v Boro when he scored the amazing volley and the second a good one too; then second half he was awful and wanted too long on the ball or mis controlled it. That summed him up for me. I was deemed as being harsh but as I say Fleck and Duffy played quite well in most games. I am not sure that third wheel; whether it was Lundstram or Evans offered enough in terms of defensive protection or attacking impetus (consistently). He will face a fight to keep his spot with Coutts back but he is someone I feel can get better. Technically he is decent and has a decent touch and can pass but he needs to assert himself more on games and do some of the nasty stuff a bit more too. I felt we saw some teams impose themselves on us and we were a bit of a soft touch in the middle to end the season. Hoping next season he can build on some promise and continued to improve but see him more of a squad player than a starter every week. 

Grade C+ (Last season NA)


John Lundstram Signed from Oxford just before the season. Another signing we did not expect but Wilder felt he could give us competition. When he signed we had Coutts, Fleck, Duffy and indeed also Brooks and Carruthers and he was a sub many of the early games. He came in and scored at Forest but was quiet and recall him standing in for the suspended Coutts v Ipswich and he did ok. A big lad who liked the long diagonal pass but showed he could pass short and long. We only saw glimpses until the Coutts injury but then that gave him his big chance. We struggled in a number of games but this was not down to Lundstram who actually did ok in some games and seem to steadily improve. You felt he was getting stronger and was adapting to this level. 

Sadly, his performance became patchy again and despite a few goals; he was never totally convincing. Very weak for such a big lad and his touch and passing was up and down. Mixed in some decent games with some poor ones and was never a regular really. If he started, he was sacrificed often as the first sub and seemed to be a long way off what Wilder would require fitness wise. I felt he was top heavy and needed to shed a few pounds personally. When he played we could not quite press and harry as much as he lacks the pace and athleticism to do that. The fact that when Evans signed; he replaced him meant he was very much in and out and maybe more on the bench than playing. Shows some promise with his passing and again decent on the ball; but his deficiencies are his lack of foot speed and his inconsistency in games and game to game. He ended up sub more than he played in the end. 
He had a big summer fitness/body wise but I see Fleck, Coutts, Duffy, Brooks and Evans all ahead of him really. He needs to get super fit and show he deserves more games with a more consistent and positive approach when he does play. Still one that has to more week in, week out to command a regular place but young enough to improve.

Grade C (Last season NA) 


Ryan Leonard Had been admired by Wilder right from the time United had got promoted and was linked all summer with various bids being lodged and turned down. It seemed to drag on forever but Wilder did not give up and eventually got him in January and probably for quite a lot less than he had bid previously with his contact winding down. Maybe the chase got us carried away but it has not happened for Leonard in a United shirt. He made his debut in a win at Norwich and did ok but then was quiet against Villa. He was left out as Lundstram or Evans were preferred but came back at Hull but was anonymous. It was hard to work out his qualities. He seemed to want to just get rid of it when he had it and his touch and technique did not seem at this level. Seemed to struggle with the pace of the level up and looked a bit slow to the ball. He came back against Forest and played right centre back with Basham out and did quite well. I thought he looked better here than in midfield. He did not play after this and was only on the bench and did not see the pitch much at all until he played in the game against Preston as a sub. 

He has not really got going yet. The games I have seen I have not been convinced of him; and he has pretty much anonymous in games I feel. Wilder pursued him for so long so surely will not give up on him yet but with Fleck, Coutts (hopefully), Duffy, Brooks Evans, Lundstram…he is behind all of them you feel in the three midfield berths. He may be better used in the right centre back and Wilder may want to have a look at him in this position for further games in pre-season. Like a few others has a big summer, to get fit and come back and show an improvement and that he belongs at this level.

Grade D-(Last season NA) 

David Brooks Brooks was all set to go out on loan to Chesterfield but his outstanding Toulon tournament saw Wilder re-think and what a move that was to keep him here. We saw in pre-season that he was seen as someone who could play and play now. He scored an outstanding goal at Chesterfield and the winner at home to Stoke. His no fear attitude, dribbling with the ball and pace marked him out as a real raw talent. It was a shame he could not have been used at the end of the previous season but we were going for promotion and had goals in terms of the title and 100 points. He was on the bench to start the season and played in the cup v Walsall but we saw glimpses in two away games as a sub. He continued to tantalise with some lovely pieces of skill when we saw him fleetingly and then got a start; as much down to the injury crisis; against Norwich. One nutmeg and effort and some more impressive skills showed what a talent we had. 

The following week he got another surprise start at Hillsborough and this was in many ways his coming out party to use an American phrase. That day he was sensational; winning a free kick with great skill in the first minute; that led to a goal. He then continued to run at them and cause all sorts of problems. They did not know whether to stand off or get tight and then the coup de grace, the nut meg on Jack Hunt was the non-goal scoring highlight of the season. Several more skills featured in this game as he ran Wednesday ragged and got a standing ovation when he left the field. Even our rivals’ fans admitted he had taken them apart at times. He played well against Wolves the next week with more nut megs and moments of skill. He was rotated for the next few weeks and then scored his first goal; a cool winner at Elland Road to send us top. The nation knew what a talent he was after seeing him on live TV twice. He chose Wales and was picked in the full squad and played really well in a couple of games including one at the Stade de France (as a sub) and then was man of the match against Panama. He now was being linked with teams at the top of the football pyramid with Spurs, Liverpool and others being mentioned. It seemed like we had a real star on our hands and an exciting one at that. He played at QPR and got kicked from pillar to post. He then went back to the bench for a bit before starting at Millwall and scored a great goal but was a bit out of sorts even in this game. He then got a virus that turned into something more serious and was diagnosed as glandular fever. The cynics amongst Blades felt this might have been the only thing to stop him being sold in January! We did not see him again Leicester away in the cup and he had a few sub appearances before getting a nice goal against Burton at home; again, off the bench. 

He finally got back in the side against Cardiff but was one of our poorer players and then after being given another start at Barnsley got the hook after being quite timid again. He played and did much better in games against Middlesbrough and Millwall and looked more like the Brooks we saw earlier in the season. He was then back on the bench at Birmingham…

Brooks showed real glimpses this season. He did great off the bench earlier in the season and was brilliant in the game at Hillsborough. He then had a few off games before going out with illness. It took him a while to get back to fitness and then it was only at the end of the season when he showed that same talent. In an odd way, his patchy form and the illness may mean we might hold onto to him a bit longer. He is clearly destined for bigger things and we will eventually get a very good fee you would hope. He is still quite inconsistent and for all the flicks and tricks and drag backs; he needs more end product. Only 3 goals and not that many assists that have led to goals. He needs to be more consistent but his running with the ball reminds me of a young Chris Waddle (sorry!). He is so fleet footed and glides across the surface and the ball seems glued to him like one of those old tennis toys that had the ball on a string. He is a player you just like watching and defenders clearly worry about pace and skill. Next season assuming we hold onto him; you hope we use him more and he become more consistent. You forget this is his first season really anywhere in professional football (had a season on loan in the National League) and so of course will be downs but he is someone that could be a big part of an ever-better season next year. No idea whether he is better as a number 10 just off the striker in the Duffy role or playing as part of a two (still off a target man)- as this worked well with Clarke but to me wherever he plays he can be a threat. He needs to do it more when he starts games and not just be that impact sub or someone who does it now and again. Still, great to see this type of player at the Lane and the sort we have not seen for a long, long time – an entertainer who is full of sublime skills and no fear attitude.

Grade B- (Last season NA) 

Nathan Thomas A signing that was a bit of a surprise. He was linked with Middlesbrough and a few other teams after Hartlepool went down and he was their stand out player. Scored some great individual goals and seemed a winger who could dribble and not afraid to shoot. He chose us over Boro probably thinking he would get more games but it never happened really. He played and scored in the League Cup at home to Walsall and did the same at Ipswich in the FA Cup with a wonder goal several months later. 

Outside of this he never started a game and only had one other sub appearance against Leicester. He was nowhere near the first team squad and our system did not seem to suit a winger like him. He played wing back in the u23’s and showed some flashes in games. He packed a powerful shot and could dribble but was not that fast when I saw him. A few teams were interested in signing him permanently but Wilder did not seem to want to lose him for good and was not prepared to give up on him. He eventually let him go to high flying Shrewsbury and he was part of their promotion assault. He scored a goal and was a regular in their side. He is still only 23 but has had seven clubs already and you wonder if he is someone who is good enough at this level. He has another 2 years left on his contract though so you guess he may see another loan spell next season. I would not be totally surprised if he is allowed to move on permanently though.

Grade D+ (Last season NA) 

Regan Slater became the youngest United player when at 17 years, 60 days he scored at Grimsby in the Checkatrade trophy. Obviously seen as someone who has lots of potential and the fact he signed a contract to 2020 (longest contract in the club) says it all that they wanted him tied down. He has captained the u23’s at times and this year he was a surprise substitute at Preston and came on and did well. He then played at Ipswich and put in a tackle where he absolutely cemented his opponent to use Chris Wilder’s vernacular. After this he returned to the u23’s. Slater is still only 18 (19 in September) and has plenty of time on his sign. Would benefit from some loan experience lower down the leagues. 

The rest

Louis Reed Reed went on loan to Chesterfield for the season. He started slowly but got better and scored a few goals and was a regular getting player of the year. Still the Spireites struggled all season and even him standing out there does not mean he is anywhere close to the Championship or even League One level. Reed has always been a tidy footballer who likes to play the long pass and create but of course lacks size and physique. He is out of contract and with all the players we have in midfield; he is a long way off. It maybe he signs for another League Two side now Chesterfield have gone down. He may be on that in a few years he can move back up the leagues but he has not quite shown the promise that he did when he first broke though as a 16/17-year-old at United. 

Ben Whiteman Whiteman was another that showed flashes and under Adkins seemed on the verge of the first team. Wilder loaned him out to Mansfield and he did really well and then was loaned to a higher division at Doncaster. He scored a few goals for Rovers but he was never a regular and according to Doncaster fans he was quite anonymous in some games despite scoring a few goals and getting a hat trick in one game. Wilder brought him back in January which was a blow for Darren Ferguson and you felt he may play in the cup games but as we signed a number of midfielders; Wilder allowed him to move on permanently. Doncaster signed him on a three and half year deal and he carried on at the Keepmoat. Once again, he was in and out of the side and faces a battle just to hold down a place. A big lad who can shoot and likes getting forward and tackling; he is still only 21 and when he become more consistent; he will hopefully go on and have a decent career but it was the right move to let him leave.

Jordan Doherty has been a regular at Academy level and then has moved into the u23 side. He has played for the Republic of Ireland youth sides for the last few years. He has been given another year. He has played defence at times too.

Harvey Gilmour like Slater and Semple, has been pushed through the respective age groups and always played at an age group higher. Another energetic midfielder who also is a decent ball player; he faces a big year as he too has one more year left on his contract. You hope he may get a loan spell at some point. 


Next season 

Fleck will be back and almost guaranteed a starter – unless a Premier League club fancies him. We then have two slots if we continued with the same formation. You sense Duffy and Brooks will still be used in the advanced role if we play like that but we also may play with a 3 with maybe Fleck, Coutts and say Evans in certain games away from home. If everyone is fit, you still say Fleck, Coutts and Duffy but you feel Duffy will be rotated; Coutts may come back gradually so there will still be opportunities for Evans and the others and of course Brooks in the advanced role if he plays there. 

I feel Lundstram, Leonard and Holmes have to really push on and show something. The former has done ok in games but you feel he is 4th choice out of the midfielders for the 2 orthodox roles. Leonard is even further away and Holmes 3rd choice for the attacking role. Leonard and Holmes have the advantage that they could play other roles further back or forward respectively but neither has really done much of anything in a red and white shirt (that is down to not playing but can’t have shown much in training either). 

We have plenty of bodies here but maybe lack some physicality outside of Fleck and some pace outside of Brooks. We are a bit methodical and slow in this area and the quicker sides could swarm all over our midfield. Also, we do not have much pace if we opt to change things and play with more width. Thomas did ok at Shrewsbury but not sure he is quite Championship quality. We may want to add some width and pace. I feel if Coutts comes back fit, the midfield is the strongest part of the field though and with good competition here next season we have lots of options. If the January signings can improve then we have even more choices. I expect the likes of Reed and Carruthers to move on.

Player / Position Years remaining (contract expires)

Midfielders
Louis Reed Out of contract (2018)
Samir Carruthers 1 years (2019)
Jordan Doherty 1 year (2019)
Harvey Gilmour 1 year (2019)
Paul Coutts 1 year (2019)
Harvey Gilmour 1 year (2019)
Regan Slater 2 years (2020)
Nathan Thomas 2 years (2020)
Ricky Holmes 2 years (2020)
Mark Duffy 2 years (2020)
Lee Evans 3 years (2021)
John Lundstram 3 years (2021)
Ryan Leonard 3 years (2021)
David Brooks 3 years (2021)
John Fleck 3 years (2021)