Thanks to a combination of profligate finishing, poor fortune and Hull City’s determination to try and stretch the match out way beyond midnight, this proved to be as much a test of United’s patience as well as footballing skill.
It was one they ultimately failed; falling into the traps Shota Arverladze’s men expertly laid to not only disrupt the rhythm of the game but also gnaw away at United’s concentration.
A third clean sheet in as many outings will provide some consolation, though, as they reflected on a missed opportunity to draw level on points with sixth placed Middlesbrough.
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The first of three home games United are scheduled to contest before the middle of next week, Heckingbottom admitted he felt obliged to rotate his squad on the eve of the fixture.
The visit of City, whose midfield was anchored by former Bramall Lane youngster Regan Slater, might not have been the biggest assignment of United’s season. But it was their fourth in the space of only 11 days. Which went a long way towards explaining some of the brave selection calls Heckingbottom made before kick-off - including the one that saw Billy Sharp start on the bench as Oliver McBurnie and Iliman Ndiaye spearheaded the hosts’ attack.
United’s captain was introduced after the break. But United, who saw Jack Robinson and McBurnie go close after profiting from Oliver Norwood’s impeccable passing, became increasingly ragged as the evening wore on.
McBurnie received a round of applause after stretching to get his head on one delivery to the far post. But he could not direct the ball on target. Or like Ndiaye later on when he was released by Morgan Gibbs-White, past Matt Ingram following a near post run.
By then, it had already become apparent the intelligence United had gathered on Arveladze’s modus operandi was inaccurate. The most prolific ever marksman in his country’s history, Heckingbottom’s eyes and ears in East Yorkshire had told him the 48-year-old would attempt to take the game to United. City did threaten on occasion. But, for the most part, they seemed intent on procrastinating their way through the contest.
That had already become evident long before Marcus Forss attempted to take the long route back to the dug-outs midway through the first-half after being treated for a head injury. Yes, the Finland international appeared to take a painful blow as he contested possession. But he still had enough of his wits about him to take City’s physio on a tour of the pitch before finally reaching the dug-outs.
Arveladze, of course, is perfectly entitled to adopt whatever strategy he wants. And, with City making the short journey across country hoping to avoid a fourth straight defeat, it would surely have been reckless to ask them to stand toe to toe with a United team which had entered the fixture unbeaten in six.
But with referee Oliver Langford either unable or unwilling to intervene, City’s delaying tactics chipped away at United’s patience. And, exactly as Arveladze wanted, so their work became increasingly rushed with McBurnie and Ndiaye spurning opportunities.