Revealed: How Sheffield United's new guard aim to get the best out of record signing Rhian Brewster
Towards the end of Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea, the moment nearly arrived.
Ben Osborn crossed after reaching the byline. Kurt Zouma struggled to clear. Then, when the ball fell kindly for Rhian Brewster, only a slight deflection prevented him from scoring his first goal for Sheffield United. The youngster cast an anguished look towards the heavens and Kepa Arrizabalaga, aware he would have been beaten, breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Although Brewster finished the tie still waiting to open his United account following October’s record breaking move from Liverpool, that passage of play, just before Hakim Ziyech secured the hosts’ place in the last four of the competition by netting their second of the afternoon, provided a clue about how to get the best out of the youngster. Brewster is someone who thrives on instinct, with the overwhelming majority of his strikes during a prolific spell on loan with Swansea City last season coming via first time finishes.
“Rhian has responded very well, first and foremost, to the things we’re telling him,” United’s caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom said, assessing the 20-year-old’s work during training before the trip to Stamford Bridge. “He’s done very well in the sessions and I’ve had chats with him about it, about what’s going on and what’s going to happen. About pretty much everything really. One of my aims, which will get a lot of focus and attention, is giving him minutes on the pitch and getting him scoring goals.”
With United entering the international break now with nothing to focus on other than stage-managing a gracious exit from the Premier League - 14 points adrift of safety with nine matches remaining, they are destined for relegation - one suspects getting the best out of Brewster will become something of a personal project for Heckingbottom, who has made developing up-and-coming talent a key theme of his reign.
Although much of the work is expected to focus on rebuilding the £23.5m signing’s confidence, which is bound to have been eroded during what has been a long barren run, Heckingbottom and his de facto assistant Jason Tindall are also likely to remind Brewster’s colleagues about the importance of providing him with service. Not any old kind. But the right kind - the quick, rapid deliveries he flourished on at the Liberty Stadium where, after establishing a superb partnership with fellow loanee Conor Gallagher, Brewster hit the target 11 times in only 21 starts before returning to Anfield.
“It’s not just about the forwards, the goals situation, everyone has a role to play in improving that,” Heckingbottom explained. “How many goals have the midfielders got? How many goals have the centre-backs got, with them arriving late and getting on the end of something?
“But it’s not just about that either. It’s about the overall way you go about and approach your work.
“The stronger the defensive performance, the better you can lock things down there, the more opportunities you get on the counter attack. And the quality of those opportunities gets better too, because you can look to create exactly the type that you want and what suits the players you’ve got.
“The higher up the game you go, when you get to the very elite level in any country, if you concede early on it’s much more difficult to come back from. That’s why it’s so important to set the tone.”
Despite being encouraged by United’s second-half display in west London, when both Thomas Tuchel and Christian Pulisic admitted Chelsea had been forced to “suffer”, Heckingbottom made a point of confessing he was unhappy with their press before the break. Not because it wasn’t strong or committed enough. It was. Rather, it was where it was being applied - too deep inside United territory rather than higher up the pitch - which disappointed the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief.
Heckingbottom, who is scheduled to return to his duties with the under-23’s when a permanent replacement for Chris Wilder is appointed, believes denying opposition defences the chance to set themselves before United burst upfield holds the key to better results and also unlocking Brewster’s potential.
Failing to do so, although not being the most important factor, undoubtedly helped sour Wilder’s relationship with Bramall Lane’s board of directors before it was decided his position had become untenable earlier this month. Alan Knill, Wilder’s number two, is also likely to depart after being offered a technical position as part of a structural reshuffle being proposed by owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his associates. Together with Darren Ward and Matt Prestridge, Knill did not travel to the capital where Tindall was a visible and very vocal presence on the touchline.
In return for subtly adjusting United’s overall approach, Heckingbottom expects something in return from Brewster too.
“He (Brewster) is going to be getting a lot of attention from us and a lot more minutes,” he said, as the focus begins to switch towards next month’s derby at Elland Road. “We’re not going to be talking so much about what’s gone on before. That’s been and happened. You can’t change what’s in the past, it’s the future that counts now.
“Rhian has got undoubted qualities. He strikes a great ball with that right foot of his. But if he’s on the pitch for 90 minutes, he might not have it for 88. So that’s why the other side of the game, what you do without the ball, is so important too.”