Sheffield United’s "Route One" style? Danny Mills, and lazy pundits preventing viewers understanding football better

Danny Mills

On Wednesday, Sky Sports News presented viewers with expert analysis from Danny Mills, former World Cup full-back and Toby Young tribute act. Mills tackled various topics about as successfully as he did opposition wingers – only without the same commitment to his task.

Football fans don’t ask a lot of pundits. Basic knowledge of the subject is all they expect, even from wind-up merchants such as Chris Sutton and Robbie Savage. Mills isn’t part of the WUM clan, but he makes claims so out of touch with the truth that they come across as fan-baiting.

Opinions are fair game, of course: like arseholes, everyone’s got one and you should ask permission before showing someone yours. So, when Mills told SSN viewers that Phil Foden is “one of the best players on the planet”, it was either a slip of the tongue, meaning to say “young players”, or it’s his opinion – and, though it seems pretty fanciful, he’s entitled to it.

The problem comes when a pundit gets his facts wrong. Mills, like all pundits, is presented as an authority on football, especially since he was employed by the FA to help shape England’s future. Unless a viewer personally knows different, they’re likely to accept what he says as being based on truth, even if they don’t endorse his take.

Now, back to SSN, where Mills is discussing Sheffield United. They were taken into the Premier League by Chris Wilder after a remarkable campaign playing a style of football that even famed innovator Marcelo Bielsa, coach of promotion rivals Leeds, said he hadn’t seen succeed before.

“For Chris Wilder, attracting players to Sheffield United is never going to be easy,” said Mills. Fair enough – Wilder does tend to improve lesser-known players but, yes, if hypothetically he wanted to shop at the top end of the market, he might struggle to land big names. Mills continued: “It’s not the most glamorous club.” OK. A bit harsh on Sean Bean, but OK. “It’s not the most glamorous way of playing. They might play a little direct at times.” 

Hold on, now.

We could throw some statistics your way: for example, that Sheffield United were actually in the bottom half of the Championship for aerial duels won, that they were in the top half for ratio of short passes to long passes, and that they were in possession more than they were out of it. However, the strongest case against Mills’s claim is… just watching them play.

Sheffield United commonly line up in a 3-4-1-2 formation and try to create wide overloads. There’s been much talk about how their centre-backs overlap the full-backs and put in crosses themselves, which is understandable as it’s a novel system, yet the whole team is defined by this positional fluidity. Pass and move, it’s the Wilder groove.

Now, glamour is a nebulous concept. Not everyone would call the sight of Chris Basham charging down the wing ‘glamorous’. But what Mills, the expert here, is declaring to the uninitiated is this: expect plenty of Route One at Bramall Lane. He even said, “They’ll be similar to Cardiff”, bossed by former Blades manager Neil Warnock, when in fact the two teams could hardly play more differently.

And there’s only one way to put this: Mills is wrong. It’s not a difference of opinion. He didn’t air a concern that facing better opponents may force Wilder to adopt more conservative or direct tactics, which would be a valid point to make even if things didn’t turn out that way. No, Mills made a factual assessment, and it’s factually incorrect, because it’s based on… well, what is it based on? Memories of playing against Sheffield United once for Charlton 12 years ago? Seeing a homegrown squad and staff without sexy names? Assumptions about football in Yorkshire? 

There are two possibilities. One: Mills has watched Wilder’s Blades, either live or as research for his job as a pundit, and this is his honest conclusion about how they play. Two: he hasn’t seen much of them and he made an assumption by drawing on the club’s previous incarnation as an up-and-at-them team under Neil Warnock, among others. If the latter seems harsh on Mills, the former seems even more baffling.

Besides, this isn’t Mills’s first WTF moment. A few hours earlier, on talkSport, he said that if Wayne Rooney, who’ll join Derby in January, is “that desperate to come back” to the UK, he should do so now. As for leaving a club mid-season, Mills has that covered: “I think DC United are sort of mid-table. It’s not like they’re going to win the championship.” DC United are 4th. New York City FC have games in hand and so DC’s position is under threat, but, right now, Rooney’s team are in place to qualify for the MLS Cup play-offs and perhaps ultimately win the cup itself – or ‘the championship’, if you like. They can’t afford to drop out of those play-off places.

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For Derby’s perspective, Mills mused: “For £100,000 a week in the Championship, I think you can get an awful lot better than that – and, probably, Wayne Rooney is a little better than the Championship.” Read that back. Now read it again. And one more time. Are you seeing strange shapes behind your eyelids? That’s because Mills is playing a sort of 4D chess in which Derby could have signed somebody an awful lot better than a player who’s better than the division.

There are many #MillsMoments. There’s the time he said Spurs drew too many games – specifically two, from 38. The time he said he dislikes left-footed penalty-takers. The time he said Mauricio Pochettino played Dele Alli in a cup game because he wanted him to pick up an injury and miss international duty. The time he suggested Kieran Trippier playing for Atletico Madrid might mean he's in danger of "slipping off the radar" when it comes to England. None of this was based in reality. Meanwhile, representing the FA, Mills once advocated a cap on overseas players in academies because it’d force clubs to scout locally, then held up Kevin Davies’s son in Bolton’s academy as a positive example with the words: “He’s not particularly good enough, but Kevin’s used his influence to get him in there.”

Room for one more? When the UEFA Nations League draw was made, Sky Sports drafted in Mills to discuss the new competition. He revealed – even revelled in the fact – that he didn’t know the purpose, the setup, or basically what was going on. Would players want to lose games so that they didn’t have to play two extra fixtures, namely the Nations League Finals? (No, because they’d have different fixtures instead.) Would you usually have friendlies after the season ends? (Yes, every non-tournament year.) How do you get relegated? You tell us, Danny. “I’m just asking questions the viewers want to know,” declared the man paid to answer them.

Look, we don’t get everything right. We do, however, try to back up statements with evidence or thinking of some kind. All of our counter-arguments above came from the most basic of knowledge acquired from either watching matches, reading up on events or, in the case of DC United's position, taking even the briefest amount of time to fact-check a claim. Danny Mills isn’t a bad guy, and his off-field commitments, including admirable causes, makes him a busy man. But if he’s too busy to watch football, then he probably shouldn’t be a pundit.

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