LONDON: Sheffield United are upsetting the applecart for the Premier League’s top six with the Blades challenging for Europe in their first top-flight campaign for 13 years.
Chris Wilder’s men travel to Arsenal on Saturday four points ahead of the Gunners in sixth place and having beaten them 1-0 earlier in the season at Bramall Lane.
“I think it’s an outstanding news story so far and I’d love it to be a brilliant news story at the end of the season,” said Wilder.
“For us to find ourselves in sixth position at this stage of the season is quite remarkable.
“But I’m into end of season reflection and how we’ve done. It’s all about where we finish at the end of the season.”
The remarkable job Wilder has done in lifting his boyhood club from League One to top six in the richest league in the world in two-and-a-half years was rewarded with a contract extension to 2024 last week.
“The club have given me the task of continuing the work that we’ve started,” added Wilder.
“We are working to improve things all the time and the challenge is to make sure we have Premier League football on a regular basis.”
Unlike most promoted sides, United can already look forward to another year of Premier League riches with just over half of the season gone.
Since Ipswich finished fifth in 2000/2001, the best a promoted side has finished is seventh in the Premier League.
With 32 points already on the board, Wilder’s men are off to the best 22-game start to a Premier League season for a promoted team since Birmingham City picked up 33 points in 2009/10.
That has them not only ahead of Arsenal, but Champions League finalists Tottenham and Everton, who posted a £111.9 million loss earlier this week, after overspending to try and break the glass ceiling of the Premier League’s traditional top six.
All of those six – Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal – were in the top 11 of Deloitte’s Football Money League this week for the richest clubs in football.
At the other end of the spectrum, Sheffield United’s squad is filled with journeymen, who like their manager have battled up through the English football pyramid to earn their chance on the biggest stage.
Wilder started his managerial career at non-league Alfreton Town before spells at Halifax, Oxford United and Northampton earned him the chance to lead the club he has supported his whole life.
However, he has been more than capable of taking the step up with opponents already making plans to thwart his tactical innovations, such as overlapping centrebacks in his preferred 3-5-2 system.
The contrast with Wilder’s opposite number at the Emirates on Saturday could not be starker.
Mikel Arteta was handed the chance to take charge of one of England’s biggest clubs despite having no previous managerial experience.
However, Wilder is among those already impressed with the Spaniard’s impact.
“Arsenal have made a fantastic appointment. You could just see his desire when he was an assistant manager (at Manchester City) it was shining through,” he said.
“I’m sure they will finish the season strong and will be a force once the manager’s had a full pre-season and another window to go at because they are a historic and powerful top four football club in this country.”
Despite losing just once in five games since Arteta took charge, Arsenal are 11 points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and need to start putting a winning run together if they harbour ambitions of qualifying for next season’s Champions League via a top-four finish.
Arteta will also have to find a way to outwit Wilder without top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who begins a three-match ban after being sent off at Crystal Palace last weekend.