REPORT: Sheffield United 4 Stevenage 1

Blades cut Boro to pieces as defensive problems continue for Gary Smith’s men

Sheffield United 4 Stevenage 1

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Stevenage shipped four goals for the third time in four league matches as they were outclassed on the first visit back to Bramall Lane since May’s play-off defeat.

Just one player who started in that 1-0 second-leg defeat – Mark Roberts – started in this game, but such a change of personnel cannot be the reason for the club’s recent slump in form, for these are the same players that went the first 11 games of the season unbeaten.

The one player Boro are missing from that May defeat more than anyone else – including those who left for pastures new in the summer – appears to be Jon Ashton.

The centre-back was courted by Doncaster Rovers in the summer, as was skipper Mark Roberts, but Boro held firm and gave him an incentive to stay, but while Roberts has started all 18 league matches this season, injury has seen Ashton play just eight.

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“Jon is a massive part of the back four that I wanted to piece together for the season,” manager Gary Smith said afterwards.

“I worked very hard to try to keep him here, managed to do that, and now I’ve lost him for a long period of time. In times of need and under pressure those sorts of characters are always good people to lean on.”

In defence, organisationally, Stevenage struggled here. Roberts played on the right side of the centre-back partnership, Ashton’s usual spot, with Darius Charles moved inside to partner him from left-back where Lee Hills was brought in for his debut.

On too many occasions balls whipped in from behind the full-back, predominantly on David Gray’s side, caught out Boro and on too many occasions not just one but two Sheffield United players were unmarked at the far stick.

Stevenage are struggling, of that there is no doubt, but football brings up such bizarre occurrences, where a team can concede 13 goals in four games having previously conceded 12 in 14, and still be in the play-off positions.

Yet up next are Bournemouth, a team who themselves have scored four goals in three of their last five matches in all competitions.

Boro spent most of the first 15 minutes defending their own 18 yard box as the Blades attacked from the start and Michael Doyle had two shots at goal.

Stevenage did have a chance themselves, but in what was their best opportunity in open play Filipe Morais’ header was saved by George Long.

The opening goal came on 19 minutes when a ball into the box found two players unmarked and Neil Collins headed past Steve Arnold into the far corner.

Boro struggled to keep possession, while the tactic of playing Marcus Haber up front on his own, with the striker often coming deep for the ball, allowed the hosts’ defence to push up and restrict space in the middle third when Smith’s men had the ball.

Shaun Miller teased his way past Boro’s defence after Stevenage had given the ball away, but Arnold was equal to his shot, and while Smith’s men struggled to create much in open play they did create set pieces and with a minute to go in the half Roberts headed home from a Morais corner.

The second half was only three minutes old when United tested Arnold again. This time they had three players unmarked in the box, but Nick Blackman headed straight at Arnold.

Boro matched their opponents at the start of the second half but they were dealt a blow when Chris Porter flicked on a cross and with two players, again unmarked, sliding in at the far post, Miller got the touch to put United ahead once more.

The lead was extended with 20 minutes to go when Roberts, in his own six-yard box, was unable to get the ball out of his feet and Miller snuck in to score before, in the dying moments, Porter snuck ahead of Lee Hills and headed home to make it four.

Even at 4-1 up the Blades pushed on, and Harry Maguire, a star in the making, came up from centre-back to thump a 30-yard shot off the bar. Had Sheffield made it five, it would not have been undeserved.

Sheffield United: Long 6, Westlake 6, Maguire 8, Williams 6, Collins 6, Flynn 7, Doyle 6, Blackman 7, McDonald 7, Porter 8 (Cresswell 89), Miller 8 (Cofie 89). Subs not used: McAllister, Philliskirk, Ironside, McFadzen, Coyne.

Stevenage: Arnold 5, Gray 4, Hill 5, Roberts 5, Charles 4, Risser 5, Dunne 6 (Grant 72), Tansey 4 (Freeman 61, 4), Akins 5, Morais 5, Haber 5 (Agyemang 72). Subs not used: Day, N’Gala, Comminges, Shroot.

Att: 17,984

Ref: M Jones