View from behind the pillar: Wilder, Henderson, the Carrot and the Stick
Does Chris Wilder prefer the Carrot and the Stick, just the Stick, or does he employ nuanced methods where he cares for his players equally but differently?
Certain media outlets have criticised Chris Wilder for his post-match comments about Dean Henderson. The Blades' boss suggested to his on-loan goalkeeper, that if he wants to be the Manchester United and England number one, then he needs to stop making mistakes. Moreover, Wilder made it clear that he wasn't about to go and put an arm around Henderson's shoulder.
These comments were seen as harsh by some, while others stretched the narrative so far as to call Wilder's method "Dinosaur Management."
Saturday’s error is not the first mistake Henderson has made this season. He was slow to react to Tammy Abraham’s opener in the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in August. After that game, Wilder said, “Dean Henderson should have done better for the first goal, but he's made a great save to keep us in it.” A fair comment most would agree, especially when considering Sheffield United came back from two goals down.
There were also mistakes last year too, most notably against Leeds United and Aston Villa. Following both instances, Henderson bounced back positively, spearheading (if a goalkeeper can do such a thing) a run to seal promotion to the Premier League with several clean sheets.
For the mistake against Leeds, Henderson passed the ball directly to Pablo Hernandez, who scored the 82nd-minute winner. Sheffield United were 3-0 up against Aston Villa before Dean Henderson’s mistake(s), Wilder said in response to this "Dean [Henderson] made an error for the first goal and you could see them get a spring in their step.” The Blades went on to draw the game 3-3.
Saturday’s post-match comments were, for the first time since Wilder's side were promoted to the top flight, poorly received by elements of the media. Some have considered Wilder's observations scathingly. Partly, this is due to the news-machinations of the Premier League, and the requirement for every word a manager speaks to be given the fine-tooth comb treatment. Partly too, this is down to a demand for a constant conversation on Football in today's rolling news culture, especially for outlets that are reliant on the contributions of its listeners (like TalkSport).
I'm loathed to isolate the comments made on Saturday. Nevertheless, to do so is to recognise how closely they compare with the comments made last year following games against Leeds.
"Dean [Henderson] is a big boy, and he'll get on with it. I'm not going to rub his head for him. It's part and parcel of being a professional footballer and especially a goalkeeper."
Chris Wilder, 1st December 2018
"If he wants to play for the top teams, he wants to play for England then he needs to do better...I am not going to put my arms around him. Simply he needs to do better."
Chris Wilder, 28th September 2019.
Both mistakes occurred in critical moments of the game; both against the best opposition the respective leagues had to offer; both were mistakes leading to the opposition's victory winning by a single goal. In both instances, Wilder referred to how he wasn’t going to give Henderson the Arm Around the Shoulder Approach.
Chris Wilder is Henderson’s longest-running manager, albeit via a consecutive loan spell. It follows that Wilder is best positioned to gauge what makes Henderson tick, what treatment he responds to positively, how to elicit a reaction. Wilder also, I am sure, recognises how good Henderson is, how popular he is in the dressing room and on the terraces.
Less ' Carrot and Stick'; more nuance
Up to now, we have only considered Wilder's words and his presentation to the press. But there are plenty of examples to suggest the words in the press conference can differ to the words in the dressing room, sometimes even contradicting them.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the many Mourinho Cultists to comment on the way information flows from the managerial mouth. The LA Galaxy striker has spoken of how what Mourinho said in the press conference might differ entirely from what is said in the dressing room. It’s not just Mourinho who has adopted this method; many managers use deflection tactics.
Wilder may be doing the same, shifting to what has been said as opposed to what has been done, allowing Henderson to reflect and improve. (It also drags the focus away from a massive game with bottom of the league Watford on Saturday.)
In terms of reflections and improvement, we could make a comparison with Joe Hart. The former Man City and England keeper being a talented shot-stopper who in more recent years became known as an individual who always fronted up to mistakes, but failed to rectify them. Hart's stock plummeted at Torino, then West Ham and then Burnley, his example might be one for Henderson to learn from and Wilder's comment might also be read as a warning on the dangers of believing your own hype.
Hendo loves the hype. All Blades fans recognise the 22-year-old as an individual who relishes the spotlight and enjoys the challenge of redeeming himself in the public face of adversity. The opportunity to redeem himself from all sides, including his manager, could be perfect for him.
Wilder has surprised many, but not Blades fans, with his bluntness in regards to United’s performances so far this season. This bluntness, however, should not be interpreted as a dinosaur's lack of understanding, and instead should be identified as knowing all too well.
Of course, the Carrot and Stick will be there for those that need it. But the sign of a good manager is to know who needs what.
Wilder memorably bought a coach-load of beers after the Blades lost their fourth game at the League One title-winning campaign. Jose Mourinho would provoke Zlatan Ibrahimovic by pretending not to understand him and throw bottles of water at him when he was angry. He would also tell Frank Lampard that he was the best player in the world while he was standing in the shower, cleaning his balls.
Whatever the approach might be in this case, I am pretty sure Wilder is simply making sure that Henderson doesn’t go the wrong way.