Sheffield United, brilliant George Baldock and the lessons to learn from Man City FA Cup semi-final

Sheffield United won Manchester City’s respect, if not the FA Cup semi-final, at Wembley before eventually succumbing to a Riyad Mahrez hat-trick.
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As Paul Heckingbottom’s squad, only three points away from securing automatic promotion, prepare to return to Championship action on Wednesday, The Star’s James Shield identifies five things we discovered inside the national stadium.

Big games hinge on big moments: Who knows if Iliman Ndiaye had taken the chance which fell to him right at the beginning of the game, when John Egan directed an Oliver Norwood corner into his path, if the final outcome would have been different? But what United do know, as well as the fact the Senegal international boasts genuine top-flight talent, is that these are the type of opportunities they simply must take if, as expected, they are competing at Premier League level next term.

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With the first two of City’s three goals also coming following mistakes, Heckingbottom was right to describe this game as a reminder that the best teams in the country punish even the slightest lapse. Although progress was the aim, this will turn out to be an invaluable warm-up for the 2023/24 campaign.

Daniel Jebbison can take heart: The youngster looked crestfallen when he conceded the penalty which saw Mahrez open the scoring. But he should take heart from the fact that United trusted his temperament and talent enough to pick him alongside Ndiaye.

Jebbison must use his experience against City to press his claim for a regular start next term. He has the potential.

Sheffield United midfielder John Fleck after the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City: Paul Thomas / SportimageSheffield United midfielder John Fleck after the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City: Paul Thomas / Sportimage
Sheffield United midfielder John Fleck after the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City: Paul Thomas / Sportimage

John Fleck can still do a job: Let’s be honest, a few eyebrows were raised when United, with Tommy Doyle and James McAtee ineligible for selection against their parent club, asked John Fleck to partner Oliver Norwood and Sander Berge in midfield. The Scot is still a shrewd operator but, now 31 years of age, doesn’t move about the pitch with the speed of old.

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However, with City pressing and probing high up the pitch when they were in possession, Fleck displayed excellent tactical discipline; marshalling space rather than attempting to go man for man with the opposition in central areas.

He might not be as adept at doing the job he used to do. But on this evidence, Fleck can maybe do a different one just as well.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield was at Wembley to watch the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester CityThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield was at Wembley to watch the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield was at Wembley to watch the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City

George Baldock gets better: Since being called-up by Greece - he qualifies via a grandparent - the United wing-back’s game has moved up another level. The way he shepherded Jack Grealish during the first three quarters of the contest was superb; tracking his runs but refusing to make the kind of attempt to retrieve the ball which the England attacker uses to win free-kicks in dangerous areas. Instead, Baldock ushered his marker into areas of minimum opportunity.

If - or is then when? - United secure promotion, Baldock looks destined to win plenty of new admirers.

Sheffield United's George Baldock was superb against Jack Grealish of Man City: Paul Thomas / SportimageSheffield United's George Baldock was superb against Jack Grealish of Man City: Paul Thomas / Sportimage
Sheffield United's George Baldock was superb against Jack Grealish of Man City: Paul Thomas / Sportimage
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The boss is a hard task master: Heckingbottom didn’t want pats on the back afterwards. He said he would rather have got the result. Good. Yes. he’ll be proud of United. But he also wants them to get even better and that attitude will help them do that.