Unfortunately for Chris Wilder, it could be the first of many to come. Defeat to Crystal Palace after Jeffrey Schlupp’s early goal and a flash of individual brilliance from Ebere Eze means Sheffield United have now surpassed QPR’s unwanted record for most Premier League games without a victory from the start of a season.
That run of 17 matches never looked like ending here and with only two points and the season almost at the halfway stage, their manager acknowledged that they face an uphill task to avoid succeeding the 2007/08 Derby vintage as the worst team in Premier League history with just 11 points.
“We’re obviously disappointed yet again – it’s a harsh league to be in when you are not getting results because there is no hiding place,” he said. “Our naivety gave us a mountain to climb.”
Wilder’s mounting problems meant he was able to name only six substitutes, with nine players out injured or unavailable due to Covid.
Reports also emerged before kick-off that Palace were investigating an Instagram video that appeared to show Luka Milivojevic contravening social distancing rules at a New Year’s Eve party with his Serbia team-mate Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham. The Palace skipper was still named in the starting lineup, however, with Roy Hodgson later condemning his actions despite both players testing negative. “He has to take responsibility and it will be dealt with internally,” he said.
Eze was initially confined to the bench again yet it took Palace only three minutes to find the breakthrough. Andros Townsend was the architect of a flowing move in which Wilfried Zaha found Christian Benteke on the edge of the area, before his pass was deflected into the path of Schlupp and his finish found the net courtesy of another deflection.
It was the kind of bad luck that usually haunts teams in the relegation zone but a far cry from their defending in the two 1-0 victories United picked up last season against Palace on their way to ninth spot. Yet having managed only eight league goals all campaign, the visitors rarely looked capable of breaching a defence that had recorded its last clean sheet on the opening day of the season.
Hodgson turned to Eze just before half-time after Schlupp was forced off with a suspected hamstring injury. A lapse in concentration from the substitute then allowed United to record their first shot on target but Jayden Bogle’s shot was easily dealt with by Vicente Guaita.
Only 10 seconds of the five minutes added on mainly for Schlupp’s injury remained when Eze picked up the ball deep in his own half. Gliding past Ollie Norwood with his first touch, the England Under-21 international beat Ethan Ampadu with ease before curling an exquisite shot low into the corner. “I just saw quite a lot of space and thought I may as well take the chance,” he said afterwards. It was a goal of pure instinct, yet Hodgson still found time to seek out Eze to offer some advice as the players left the field for half-time.
An injury to Benteke at the start of the second half did nothing to break up Palace’s dominance, with Townsend a constant thorn in United’s side. He should have rounded things off with a third goal, while Wilder threw on Rhian Brewster and Antwoine Hackford – the second youngest player in the club’s history at 16 years and 288 days – in an attempt to make a game of it. Yet the hosts were in no mood to hand out any late Christmas gifts as a James Tomkins block to deny Hackford ensured they comfortably held on for a first victory since walloping West Brom a month ago. What Wilder would give for just one win.