Sheffield United: Five big challenges facing Paul Heckingbottom after being handed the top job at Bramall Lane
Preparing for Saturday’s game against Cardiff City is Paul Heckingbottom’s immediate priority, with Sheffield United 13th in the Championship table.
But the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hiberbian chief - who was appointed as Slavisa Jokanovic’s successor seven days ago, also has a number of other important items nestling on his in-tray.
James Shield, The Star’s United writer, analyses the biggest.
Some folk will agree with the decision to sack Jokanovic. Others won’t, although that is no slight on Heckingbottom whose reign got off to the perfect start last weekend.
Indeed, an intelligent and astute professional, the 44-year-old won’t be among those who believe the Serb’s departure will be the panacea for all United’s ills. Or even the majority of them.
United will be doing themselves and their supporters a grave disservice if they fail to investigate why Jokanovic - maybe the most experienced and knowledgeable coach in the English Football League - struggled to make an impact during his five months in charge. Particularly after leading Watford and Fulham to promotion before heading to South Yorkshire.
Heckingbottom must be placed at the heart of this process and then given the authority to make recommendations.
There were question marks about the attitude of some United players earlier this term. If those return, when the novelty of his presence begins to wear off, the guilty parties must be called to account.
Avoiding Past Mistakes
Most people, probably the players included, welcomed Jokanovic’s decision to revert to 3-5-2, or at least a variation of it, following the international break. Also employing it during his final match in charge, United enter this weekend’s game at Cardiff hoping to make it 10 points from a possible 12 since returning to action.
But let’s not forget, towards the end of Chris Wilder’s hugely successful reign, United were being accused of becoming too inflexible and predictable. When Heckingbottom was handed the unenviable task of trying to stage-manage their exit from the Premier League, he was also criticised for persevering with the same tactics before eventually making some changes.
United understand this system better than others. But players, not shapes, win matches. Heckingbottom must wean United off their addiction to operating with three at the back and help them become more adaptable. Particularly as two of the centre-halves who make it tick - Chris Basham and Ben Davies - might not be at their disposal next season.
When The Star first highlighted the fact a huge swathe of United’s squad are approaching their end of their present deals, some members of the club’s hierarchy began briefing a variety of other media outlets that it was no big issue. But it is, and one Heckingbottom must use his influence to make sure it’s addressed.
Yes, United have options on many of these players. Yes, the situation means they can rid themselves of some high-earners at the end of the campaign.
Yet, when he was placed in caretaker charge earlier this year, Heckingbottom made a number of eloquent speeches warning how dangerous uncertainty can be at football clubs. And too many of the players at his disposal don’t know where they will be beyond June.
Also, if the plan is to tear up the squad Jokanovic inherited from Chris Wilder, it goes against everything we were being told when the Serb began work in June.
United’s hierarchy say they have devised a new strategic vision. It beggars belief that part of the plan, with so many players also being acquired on loan in recent months, is to let some of the biggest names at Heckingbottom’s disposal become free agents.
Nurturing home grown talent, is going to be central to everything United and their partners within United World do moving forward. We were told as much during Heckingbottom’s official coronation, and the former under-23’ coach has a good track record in this department - handing debuts to the likes of Femi Seriki, Daniel Jebbison and Iliman Ndiaye - although his progress was later stunted by a contractual dispute - before Jokanovic’s arrival. The Serb later petitioned for the Frenchman to be welcomed back into the fold, and an agreement was subsequently reached.
“Synergy” was one of the buzzwords to emerge from Thursday’s media briefing. Both at Bramall Lane and within UW. Yet Seriki and his team mate George Broadbent played a combined total of 10 minutes of senior football after being loaned to Beerscot, another UW member, either side of the summer. Dress it up how you want, but both moves were a waste of time. Better communication between coaches within the UW network - or between them and those pulling the strings - can prevent dud deals like these happening again?
United first spoke about bringing their training ground up to standard - well, ensuring they at least match what is now considered the bare minimum by the Championship’s bigger clubs - after being promoted to the Premier League. Save for turning the newly refurbished media suite into a players’ lounge, very little has seemingly changed despite spending two seasons at the highest level of the English game before last term’s relegation.
United reaffirmed their commitment to gaining category one academy status when Heckingbottom was presented to the media. This will require not only a significant on-going investment, in addition to what the first team requires, but also a new site. The present one at Shirecliffe is not big enough, with no room for expansion, to meet C1 criteria.
But before one is identified and then developed, Heckingbottom must secure a firm date by which these improvements are going to be achieved. Very little work had taken place before the Covid-19 pandemic, so that can not be used as an excuse. Jokanovic and his predecessor Chris Wilder both expressed concerns about the squad’s working environment. Heckingbottom needs to ensure United actually deliver the improvements they have spoken at length about making.