More questions over Sheffield United injury record as crisis worsens amid bigger issue

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Blades’ injury crisis deepens as McBurnie, Ahmedhodzic join walking wounded

More question marks over Sheffield United’s remarkable injury record have been raised after Anel Ahmedhodzic, the influential defender, became the latest admission to an already-oversubscribed treatment room at Bramall Lane. The Bosnian missed Saturday’s visit of Manchester United after damaging a hamstring in training.

That latest blow - after injuries to John Egan, Chris Basham and Tom Davies in recent weeks - leaves boss Paul Heckingbottom with only two fit and senior centre-halves, with the Bosnian set to be out for “weeks” after going for a scan. Media reports have suggested United expect Ahmedhodzic to be out until December, which would represent a significant blow as the Blades face a potentially season-defining run of fixtures.

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Oli McBurnie limped off against the Red Devils to become the 13th Blades player currently sidelined, with boss Heckingbottom forced to fill his bench with four academy players and three more - in John Fleck, Anis Slimane and Ben Osborn - coming back from injury. “Anel jumped for a header in training and hurt his hamstring,” Heckingbottom confirmed, adding he expects him to be out for “weeks”.

“We’ll have to wait and see. I’m just grateful it’s not as severe as all the other guys we’ve had out. We know how important the players we’ve got out injured are but I can’t waste my energy thinking about that. My mind’s on the boys who are fit and are coming back and it just has to be that way, they have to have all my attention and all my focus while the guys are getting fit.

“We’ve suffered again horrendously in the last 10 days. Captain, vice-captain and two more players. But you know we’re not going to sulk or moan about it, it’s an opportunity for others. Well always prepare properly and make sure we’re in a position where everyone’s really clear on what their roles are and how best to approach a game.”

Fitness has become a regular theme throughout Heckingbottom’s time at the club. A succession of training ground injuries early in his reign was attributed to the boggy nature of the Shirecliffe surface during the winter, with the manager sacrificing a portion of his transfer budget to enable it to be relaid at a cost of around £2m. The main first-team pitch now mirrors Bramall Lane’s, but has seemingly done little to abate the number of freak injuries caused away from matchday.

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The latest justification is the length of matches, with the Premier League’s directive in the summer to clamp down on timewasting now regularly seeing top-flight games last 100 minutes or longer. That extra strain, often spent chasing Premier League athletes, will undoubtedly put extra pressure on United’s players’ bodies and they are far from the only club to be feeling it, with Virgil van Dijk and Kevin De Bruyne amongst the high-profile figures to speak out so far.

But whatever the reasons, it is an issue that United cannot afford. Their squad was already stretched at the start of the season and only levelled up to last campaign in terms of numbers once the current term had begun. Any side would feel the pinch from 13 players missing but at the bottom of the table, for a manager handed a relative pittance to strengthen in the summer, it has been felt especially keenly.

One perhaps overlooked aspect of United’s injury crisis is not only how it affects the starting XI Heckingbottom can name, but also the options he has to change a game from the bench. United’s Manchester namesakes operate in a different stratosphere but their substitutes on Saturday were Mason Mount (£55m), Anthony Martial (£57m), Raphael Varane (£34m) and multi-million-pound talents Christian Eriksen and Alejandro Garnacho. United, in contrast, made only three changes, with their remaining subs made up of two midfielders coming back from injury and four academy players, including a 17-year-old signed on deadline day from the Scottish third tier.

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That could perhaps explain the damning statistic that shows United have lost seven points thanks to goals after the 70-minute mark in games this season so far already. Nine of their 24 goals conceded have come after that point and if games finished after 70 minutes, United would be 16th in the table. It is by far the worst record of the current bottom four and after the latest disappointment, to Diego Dalot’s stunning 77th-minute winner, Heckingbottom was asked if his lack of options from the bench was hampering his side’s good starts.

“Of course it is, 100 per cent,” he added. “But we’d have that problem anyway. I’m looking at Manchester United’s bench and the calibre of player and the amount of money they’re bringing off the bench ... we’ve had that every game. We’ve been bringing youth players on in the Premier League to compete and we’re still competing. It won’t change our outlook on it.

“I felt that probably the only game when we had the bench, and you could see the impact on the game, was West Ham where we brought on energy, quality and character and I thought you could see that. But that’s the only game I felt where we had the full bench and were able to use it properly. That’s no disrespect to anyone, we know we’ve had options from the bench but it’s not as loaded as we would like it to be and loaded with players who are 100 per cent ready to go.

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“The frustrating thing from our point of view is we lost players and then bought late in the window and that’s when we’ve started picking up these injuries. Give me our full squad and it gives you headaches and you’re leaving good players out. But that’s what you’re paid for. That’s what I would rather have. But we’ll get there.”

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