Sheffield United: 'Unheralded' Ben Osborn's importance laid bare ahead of Nottingham Forest return

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When Sheffield United announced they had signed Ben Osborn, there was precious little fanfare.

The streets around Bramall Lane weren’t thronged with supporters. He didn’t trend on social media and confirmation of his arrival was simply a footnote in some newspapers.

But the 27-year-old, who makes his first return to the City Ground tomorrow since leaving Nottingham Forest, has since emerged as one of the shrewdest, smartest, signings the club has made in recent seasons. Properly scouted, diligently monitored and recruited as part of a coherent recruitment strategy, Osborn’s £3.5m fee was small change at the time. Now, as he continues to cement his place in Slavisa Jokanovic’s starting eleven, it looks like becoming one of the bargains of the decade. Well, for United at least.

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Ben Osborn is always a good worker,” Jokanovic said, following one of Osborn’s recent performances. “He always participates. He showed where his progression is and he always does what is expected of him. He does a good job, as always, with and without the ball.”

Jokanovic encourages players to express themselves, as anyone who watched his promotion winning teams at Watford and Fulham can testify. But the Serb is also obsessed by what they do when the opposition have possession - particularly around the transition phase - which goes a long way towards explaining his respect for Osborn, whose tactical discipline brings balance to a midfield also containing Morgan Gibbs-White and Iliman Ndiaye.

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Acquired in 2019, when United were preparing for their return to the Premier League under Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder, Osborn has now won the trust of two very different managers and performed a variety of roles. The one he is carrying-out now, on the left hand side of the trio the Serb shoe horns behind a lone central striker, probably suits him best. Even though, with United failing to sign a winger during the summer transfer window, Osborn probably fell into it by accident.

Sheffield United's Ben Osborn, previously of Nottingham Forest, in action against Blackpool at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis/ SportimageSheffield United's Ben Osborn, previously of Nottingham Forest, in action against Blackpool at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage
Sheffield United's Ben Osborn, previously of Nottingham Forest, in action against Blackpool at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage

“You look at what you’ve got, you play the cards you have in your hand,” Jokanovic said, acknowledging that Osborn’s latest position maximises his game’s strengths and masks its weaknesses. “That is what must happen. That is also the (sensible) thing to do.”

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Despite being viewed as a defensive option when he first arrived, Jeremie Bela exposed one of the flaws in Osborn’s armoury during Birmingham City’s visit to South Yorkshire on the opening weekend of the new season. Four months after United’s relegation from the top-flight and three since Jokanovic’s appointment, Bela exploited the fact Osborn does not have the same instinct for danger as a dedicated full-back by beating him to a loose ball and then delivering the cross from which which Maxime Colin scored the only goal of the contest.

But Osborn does sense danger higher up the pitch. And he can create plenty for opponents too. United’s win ratio with Osborn in the starting eleven this term was 55 per cent, before their loss to Blackpool. Without him, it dropped to 17. And he has already scored more goals (3) than in all but one of his nine campaigns as a professional. His most prolific, which spawned four, was his penultimate one at Forest - who enter their latest meeting with United 18th in the table. Jokanovic’s men are one place above them.