Analysis: Sheffield United's failings are exposed by Leeds, albeit in not so brutal fashion
Midway through the first half, as Paul Heckingbottom and Jason Tindall shared a conversation inside Sheffield United’s technical area, Marcelo Bielsa dispensed with his bucket and furiously barked out some orders in Spanglish after watching another attack break down.
Sheffield United’s coaching staff would usually have been delighted to see him in such a state of agitation. The trouble was, the source of the Argentine’s frustration stemmed from the fact Leeds hadn’t already put the match to bed long before Ben Osborn, one of the few visiting players to come anywhere near realising their potential, briefly threatened an upset. Because make no mistake, had the visitors snatched a point it would have been the greatest smash and grab raid since the Graff Diamonds heist on Bond Street.
“The frustrating thing is, when I felt we were getting on top and they were making substitutions to try and live with us, we were our own worst enemy,” Heckingbottom, United’s caretaker manager, said as he tried his best to put a positive spin on a compliant performance. “We let that momentum go with a cheap give away or set play.”
HECK, HE’S NOT TO BLAME
You can’t blame Heckingbottom for pretending United made an impression on this contest. Well, not in any meaningful way. Yes, substitutes Rhian Brewster and Oliver Burke both went close during the closing stages, after Phil Jagielka’s own goal saw Leeds regain the lead following Jack Harrison’s opener. But the fact United were still in the fight was down to the opposition’s profligacy. Which, coupled with some face-saving blocks from the impressive Aaron Ramsdale, went a long way towards explaining Bielsa’s terrible mood.
“We had a sufficient amount of chances to have scored some more,” he said afterwards. “We had many dangerous situations that didn’t end in shots. When the opponent sees there is only one in it, they are obliged to really drive towards your area.”
To their credit, Heckingbottom and Tindall, his de facto assistant, tried everything within their power to get a song out of United. There were changes of approach, of formation and also personnel when both George Baldock and Jayden Bogle succumbed to suspected concussions. The only trouble was, with their injury depleted squad low on confidence and top-flight calibre, pretty much any move the pair made was bound to end in failure.
“We know it’s been tough, it’s all about looking forward,” Heckingbottom said, after watching United lose for the 24th time in 30 Premier League outings. “Trying to build and consider the bigger picture. “To make the players understand what they’re capable of. What brought them success.”
TWO YEARS ON
Heckingbottom, Bielsa’s predecessor at Elland Road turned Bramall Lane’s under-23 coach until Chris Wilder’s reign was abruptly ended nearly one month ago, was referring to the swashbuckling football United produced during the first-half of last season and also en route to promotion the year before. Back then, when they pipped their neighbours to promotion from the Championship, United’s sense of purpose and conviction delivered a 1-0 victory at this stadium; which proved a pivotal moment in that race for top-flight football. What was worrying here, even more than their ranking in the table or impending relegation, was the fact Leeds - a team less than 12 months into its top-flight development - were more slick and cohesive in every department. You couldn’t question United’s effort, other than one notable exception. But their quality? Well, that’s best left there.
“That’s our aim, is to give character and confidence for next season,” said Heckingbottom, conceding United’s survival hopes are now over. “But we can sit back and moan or start looking forward. The difference was we didn’t capitalise.”
The difference, in fairness, was actually much greater than that. But purely out of loyalty, Heckingbottom was never going to say so. Leeds, for all their wastefulness around the penalty area and also in possession, looked like a team which knew exactly what it was trying to do. United, after the most punishing campaign imaginable, resembled one with a vague recollection of what once made them great, but lacking either the bodies or belief to translate their intentions into something intelligible.
NOT A GOOD LOOK
The pattern of the match was set before anyone had broken sweat, when John Lundstram was cautioned for a foul on Kalvin Phillips. The United midfielder was sold short by his colleagues, as Leeds sliced through their linesat will. But the fact he remains a shoe-in for selection, despite rejecting a new contract, confirms the paucity of options at Heckingbottom’s disposal.
Although Ramsdale came to the Lundstram’s rescue when he was caught in possession - later diving full stretch to turn Phillips; effort around the post - the United goalkeeper was powerless to prevent Harrison sliding home in the 12th minute. Tyler Roberts won the ball, Raphinha carried it forward and then put it on a plate for the on-loan Manchester City forward to score.
Harrison, who appeared to have been granted the freedom of West Yorkshire never mind Leeds by United’s defence during the first half, should have netted again before Osborn restored parity.
Ending a run of 46 league games without a goal - his last one coming against the hosts two years ago - the former Nottingham Forest player turned home at the far post after Oli McBurnie’s blocked shot spiralled into his path,
The winner came soon after the restart, when Tyler Roberts’ pass sliced open United’s defence and left Jagielka with no other option but to try and intercept Harrison’s cross towards Raphinha. He got his angles wrong. But no blame could be attached. Had Jagielka done nothing, the Brazlian would have converted the simplest finish of his career.
Burke and Brewter went close late on but, in truth, Leeds should have been out of sight by then with Stuart Dallas shaving the woodwork and Ethan Amapdu producing a fine tackle to deny Patrick Bamford.