Sheffield United: Five things the manager simply must do as pre-season starts

Sheffield United’s first team squad, or large parts of it at least, officially return to training tomorrow ahead of the new season.

Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 3:44 pm
Updated Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 4:15 pm

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After watching his team come agonisingly close to winning promotion last term, losing to eventual winners Nottingham Forest on penalties in the Championship play-offs, manager Paul Heckingbottom hopes the series of tests and exercises he has planned lay the platform for a top two finish this time around.

James Shield, The Star’s United writer, identifies five of the most important items on Heckingbottom’s ‘To Do’ list in order for that dream to become a reality.

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Quick breakthroughs in the transfer market

With their first game of the campaign now less than six weeks away, United have yet to unveil any new signings. Yes, negotiations with players are becoming increasingly complex. Yes, some of the deals they plan to make are dependent upon rival clubs either choosing to do business or completing some of their own purchases first. But the longer United wait, the harder they will make it for themselves when competition resumes.

Speaking after last month’s loss at the City Ground, Heckingbottom made it plain he wanted to have at least some fresh faces in place before United’s preparations for the upcoming season begin in earnest. That, the 44-year-old confirmed, will give them the best chance of being properly integrated ahead of the first match.

Billy Sharp, the Sheffield United captain, gets better with age: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Heckingbottom isn’t entirely in control of this process, because he isn’t responsible for either financing deals or brokering them. But he must put pressure on United’s hierarchy, or continue doing so, to get at least a couple across the line as soon as possible.

Change perceptions about signings

There is a belief, held by some members of United’s board, that waiting until the end of a transfer window before recruiting players delivers better value for money. It’s a myth. It doesn’t.

Okay, there might be the odd occasion when that theory holds true. A rival club might, let’s say for the sake of argument, be so desperate to offload someone before the deadline expires that they’re tempted to lower either their asking price, loan fee and raise their wage subsidy. But in general, if someone is worth purchasing or hiring, then it means others will be interested in snaring them too. And if you procrastinate and then miss out on landing your top targets, there’s very little time left to undo the damage.

Rhian Brewster could be key for Sheffield United next season: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

With his two most recent predecessors Chris Wilder and Slavisa Jokanovic both expressing concerns about the speed with which United do business, Heckingbottom has adopted a more diplomatic approach towards their internal politics. But if he isn’t privately challenging this bizarre perception in the politest but most robust manner possible, he must start now.

Solve the striker issue

United had their moments last season, scoring three or more goals in a game on five occasions following Heckingbottom’s appointment in November. He has stated countless times since then it doesn’t matter where they come from, pointing to the fact it is better to see them spread throughout a squad rather than be too dependent upon one or two players.

lliman Ndiaye brings magic to Sheffield United's play: Darren Staples / Sportimage

Still, other than the evergreen Billy Sharp, United’s centre-forwards don’t deliver enough. And this is a problem they must address in order to enhance their prospects of regaining top-flight status - either by drafting someone in from outside or making better use of those already at their disposal. Ditching the bizarre idea that Oli McBurnie is a target man, which forces him to focus on things he is okay at and ignore the strongest points of his game, might be a good place to start.

United are, by and large, defensively sound. But, a slight system tweak, could also allow them to take more risks. Rhian Brewster, when he recovers from injury, should also prove a big asset in this regard.

Build platforms for Iliman Ndiaye and Oliver Norwood

With Morgan Gibbs-Whire returning to Wolverhampton Wanderers following his hugely successful loan, the young Senegal international is set to become even more important next season than he was towards the end of last.

Ndiaye’s individual brilliance can change the course of games and brings a welcome degree of unpredictability to United’s attacking play. As well as encouraging United to award him a new contract to reflect his international status, Heckingbottom and his coaching staff must find ways of allowing Ndiaye to showcase those gifts even more.

Former Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

The same goes for Norwood, who dictates both the tempo and the direction of United’s work. Ways of ensuring he is not suffocated by an opposition’s ‘high press’ must be sought over the next month or so. This might involve pairing him with someone capable of covering ground quickly, which would help build a ‘pocket’ around United’s quarterback.

Decide what the future looks like

United’s academy continues to produce, with Daniel Jebbison and Will Osula both holding down regular places in Heckingbottom’s squad towards the end of last term. However, there is no point in pretending otherwise, this was largely because of injuries to more senior professionals.

Now over the fitness and growth issues which hampered his progress 18 months or so ago, Osula looks like a real prospect. He doesn’t react to situations. The Danish teenager attempts to shape and influence them by forcing the issue.

Together with Jebbison, Kacper Lopata and others, Heckingbottom believes he has the potential to establish himself at United. But if opportunities are likely to be in short supply, at least during the first half of the campaign, then meaningful loans must be arranged for Osula and his fellow graduates to ensure they continue to develop. However, this can only happen when United begin to fill some of the “six or seven” vacancies Heckingbottom has identified within their own squad first.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and his squad are now preparing for their return to action: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.