By Kevin Affleck
Every rebuild has to start somewhere, every project has a ground zero and this might turn out to be the foundation on which Quique Sánchez Flores' return spell is built on.
The Head Coach stripped it back this afternoon, went back to basics, got his ducks in a row, his low block in place and, together with the excellent Christian Kabasele, engineered that all-important clean sheet he has been searching for. It wasn't always pretty and he would have loved a goal at the other end (wouldn't we all?) but this, he will believe, will set the team up for a more consistent crack at getting out trouble. You can't, he will figure, draw 2-2 one week, lose 8-0 the next and then 2-0 the week after that. He needs a solid platform to build on and this could turn out to be the first building block.
It probably felt like two points dropped given the precarity of the situation and the newly-promoted nature of the opposition, but you get nothing for free in this league and every point is hard earned. It's another point on the board and a first clean sheet since February is not to be scoffed at. It's a start and it's all about small steps at this stage.
The early goal everybody craved, the one Sánchez Flores went to bed dreaming about so nearly arrived on ten minutes. Roberto Pereyra found himself in acres of space down the right after springing the United backline. He had the choice of picking out the virtually unmarked Andre Gray or Danny Welbeck in the centre. He opted for Gray, who was closer to goal, rolling the ball across the face. The 'keeper's dive might have slightly distracted him, but he knows he should have scored from there. He will have expected to and won't need anyone telling him so.
The miss affected him as not long after he half-hit a pass bound for Welbeck and Abdoulaye Doucouré that would have seen either hare clear of the United backline. It was reflective of the sort of half where passes were under hit, overhit and things didn't really flow. There was no rhythm to proceedings. The main task was to get to grips with the new-look defensive system, which altered between three at the back and five at the back depending on your viewpoint. With that in mind, Sánchez Flores would just have been pleased to get to the break with a clean sheet, the first time he has done in the league since he returned. It gave the team a platform.
There were one or two hairy moments, like when Daryl Janmaat stopped a cross reaching Callum Robinson at the far post and when Ben Foster had to be at his most acrobatic to prevent a mis-cued clearance from Craig Cathcart beating him, but the low block by and large did its job, especially with the Blades having nearly 70 per cent possession.
The concession of the ball won't have bothered the Head Coach one iota. He would rather his team play on the break, like they did to almost devastating effect three minutes after the break. Welbeck streaked clear, left his man for dead and bore down on Dean Henderson. He shaped to go one side, went the other only to see Henderson stick out a leg and deflect the ball wide for a corner. It was another big, big chance.
The plans suffered a minor set-back when the decent Sebastian Prödl limped off 11 minutes after half-time. If that was an enforced change, there was nothing enforced about the decision to swap Gray with Deulofeu, though. Sánchez Flores sent for the former Barcelona man personally, summoning him back to the dugout just before the hour. Now was the time for his fellow Spaniard, he felt.
He did the same 16 minutes later in abruptly ending the warm-up of Ismaïla Sarr and ushering him back to the bench. He sensed, with the game opening up, this was the moment for the Senegal international. The chances you hoped would come the way of the big-ticket players never really materialised. Deulofeu fizzed and sparkled and added some dynamism but he didn't really see enough of the ball.
The one big opportunity fell the way of Craig Dawson in injury time, a header from just over six yards out, but it summed up the way things are going right now that Henderson was equal to it. It was a save that preserved a point for the Blades and they, given the fact the Hornets created three golden chances, were definitely the happier of the two sides with that result.
HORNETS: Foster; Janmaat, Cathcart (C), Prödl (Dawson 56), Kabasele, Holebas; Cleverley, Doucouré, Pereyra; Gray (Deulofeu 59), Welbeck (76). Subs not used: Gomes, Chalobah, Hughes, Femenía