James McAtee facing another tough challenge at Sheffield United after tough ‘homecoming’ at Spurs

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McAtee made ‘second Blades debut’ at Spurs but couldn’t make a real impact

When James McAtee arrived at Sheffield United the first time around, it went under the radar a little. Much was known about his promise, of how highly Manchester City rated him and the ‘Salford Silva’ nickname, but it was a first senior loan for a 19-year-old prodigy that Unitedites generally knew little about.

A year on, after McAtee’s key role in United’s promotion and his subsequent return to Bramall Lane on deadline day, the situation has changed. McAtee went from a relative unknown to a Blades hero, a player supporters were desperate to see return and on whom many had pinned their side’s hopes in the Premier League this season. In returning to South Yorkshire, shunning the ‘safe option’ in many ways at Leicester City, McAtee exposed himself not only to the rigours of top-flight football but also the gaze and scrutiny of a fanbase with expectation, rather than hope, that he delivers.

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The player’s decision to voice a desire to return to United suggests that he feels he can handle it. Players do not come through the ranks at a club like City, with the weight of comparisons to David Silva on their shoulders, and shy away from pressure. But if a reminder - to fans, media and anyone else - was needed that this is now an entirely different ball-game to last season, Saturday’s test away at Tottenham Hotspur was surely it.

Handed a full debut by Paul Heckingbottom, despite a pre-match admission that he wasn’t fit enough to complete the 90 after limited game-time with both City and England U21s this season, the youngster couldn’t establish the control he would have liked. He came close to opening the scoring with an effort that was saved - although it wouldn’t have counted, as Jayden Bogle was offside before he crossed - but that was one of his few touches in a 70-minute performance that heralded 16 of them. McAtee attempted six passes and completed five; one of his two dribbles were successful. Alongside him in midfield, goalscorer Gus Hamer had 51 touches and 20 successful passes from 32. Vini Souza had 37 touches and 21 of his 23 passes found their intended target.

Both players have different skillsets to McAtee and also played more minutes, which risks skewing the stats a little. But there are extenuating circumstances behind what appeared a chastening full Premier League debut for the City youngster. His only club football since returning to the Etihad in the summer was as an 89th-minute substitute on the opening day of the season, while he had a cameo appearance off the bench for England U21s over the international break.

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For a player who was robust enough to play 43 games in his first season of senior football last time out, that is bound to disrupt some of the rhythm he built up by scoring nine goals and adding three assists to help United to promotion and the FA Cup semi-finals on his own way to winning the club’s young player of the year award. Although the levels were not really comparable, McAtee has experience of overcoming slow starts after Luton away last season - which he later highlighted as a key learning curve in his career - and with two new teammates alongside him in Hamer and Souza, most can forgive the instant connections he forged last season not quite clicking at Spurs’ gleaming stadium.

There is also the plain fact that McAtee, despite all the fanfare and the expectation and the chants reminding all who listen that he is all Unitedites care about, remains a 20-year-old starlet and far from the finished article. In terms of minutes he has now completed the equivalent of one Premier League game in his formative career, with so much more to come.

“There’s going to be a lot of expectation on him, of course there is,” said boss Heckingbottom, a man determined to once again send McAtee back to City a much better footaller come the end of the season. “But he’s still way behind where he needs to be. If he was that player that a lot of our people probably think he is, he wouldn’t be here. He’d be playing for Man City. What he is is a big talent and I think he’s a little bit different to what we’ve got.

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“What I would say is he’s come in the building where he left off. We did a lot of work with him off the ball in a Championship game, asking how could he transfer that undoubted quality into goals and assists. All the work at the beginning, it’s there. He also gets where he’s going to get pushed and it probably is a little bit scary. He probably thinks I’m telling him he’s not a good player but he’s still a young lad and for me, he can improve in so many different areas.”

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