Sheffield United: Has the time come to consider giving Kacper Lopata a first team chance?

Kacper Lopata is preparing for another opportunity to demonstrate he is worthy of a place in Sheffield United’s Championship squad, as the spotlight on Slavisa Jokanovic’s rearguard intensifies.

Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 4:10 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 4:11 pm

The centre-half could win his latest under-20 cap for Poland on Thursday, after being named in Milosz Stepinski’s squad for a friendly against Romania.

A commanding performance, mirroring the ones he produced during Carabao Cup ties against Carlisle and Derby County earlier this season, will only increase the clamour for Lopata to be handed a chance to impress when his loan with Southend expires after Christmas.

Aged 20, Lopata has made rapid progress since joining United’s development programme two years ago and was awarded his senior debut for the club when the Cumbrians were beaten 1-0 at Bramall Lane in August. Previously of Brighton and Hove Albion, Lopata also started the second round meeting with Wayne Rooney’s side but has yet to feature on the team sheet for a league fixture since Jokanovic’s appointment in May.

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However, with the Serb telling The Star that he considers ability, not age, when making his selections, the defensive frailties which saw United enter the international break 18th in the table means serious consideration is likely to be given to summoning Lopata back to South Yorkshire in January.

All three of the goals United conceded en route to last weekend’s lamentable defeat by Blackburn Rovers, after Rhian Brewster had given them the lead, were wholly preventable. With the issue also costing them a win at Nottingham Forest four days earlier, even experienced professionals such as John Egan and Chris Basham have found themselves coming under scrutiny.

Barring a major upturn in performance levels of wholesale makeover during the winter transfer window - something which, on the evidence of United’s work before the August deadline is unlikely to happen - Jokanovic could soon decide the situation has reached a point where he can no longer continue persevering with the same tried and tested but under-performing names. Either way, United’s struggles to keep a clean sheet - something they last managed in September - means Lopata should view the meeting with the Romanians as a chance to convince Jokanovic he can help him discover the solution to a problem which is undermining morale both on the pitch and also the terraces.

Kacper Lopata of Sheffield United tussles with Gime Toure of Carlisle during the Carabao Cup match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, in August: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Despite being signed by his predecessor Chris Wilder, who preferred United to line-up with a back three or five, Lopata is arguably better suited to the four employed by Jokanovic.

Jude Macdonald, the youngster’s former manager at Whitehawk, where he enjoyed a spell on loan before leaving Albion, confirmed during an interview ahead of the meeting with County that he feared Lopata would find it difficult to grasp Wilder’s tactics when he was first lured to United.

“I knew Chris liked a three and Kacper had always played in a four,” Macdonald said at the time. “So that was going to be a challenge for him and, if it wasn’t one he could accomplish, then obviously that could be an issue.”

“But I shouldn’t have worried,” Macdonald continued. “Obviously they had seen the qualities in him to make them think Kacper could make the switch and he’s an intelligent footballer anyway. So he would have picked it up.”

Former England and Manchester united forward Wayne Rooney, now manager of Derby County, congratulates Kacper Lopata following the Carabao Cup match at Bramall Lane earlier this season: Alistair Langham / Sportimage

Lopata has actually played in a ‘three’ in both of his senior outings for United so far, with Jokanovic eventually switching formation following the arrival of Ben Davies on loan from Liverpool. Although the change was in part designed to make more use of the attacking talent at his disposal, the fact he waited until Davies’ move had been completed before making the adjustment suggests he remains unconvinced about the ability of either Basham or Jack Robinson to operate alongside Egan on a regular basis. And that could propel Lopata up the food chain at United if they continue to concede goals at such an alarming rate. Rhys Norrington-Davies, who has been called up by Wales ahead of their World Cup qualifier against Belarus, will also be hopeful of a recall after recovering from a minor injury.

Southend, where Lopata’s United team mate Zak Brunt is also scheduled to spend the next two months, have adopted a number of different strategies since appointing Kevin Maher as their new manager; meaning the Pole has operated both in midfield and at full-back during his spell in Essex.

Stepinski’s tactics are also fluid, with the ex-Zaglebie Lubin analyst selecting the same 4-2-3-1 Jokanovic now utilises for last month’s draw with Portugal.

Kacper Lopata is now on loan at Southend United, where he is scheduled to remain until at least January: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“I’m flying back on Friday and I’ll be available on Saturday (for the National League tie against Woking),” Lopata told The Echo newspaper before beginning his preparations for the game in Bucharest.

“I was due back on the 13th, which was the Saturday, but I’ve found a flight now on Friday at midday so I’ll be available.”

Although Jokanovic will be encouraged by Lopata’s ingenuity and willingness to organise his own travel arrangements rather than rely on the Polish FA, the youngster’s displays against Carlisle and County will have impressed him more. Strong in the tackle and also the air, nearly opening the scoring during the victory over the Cumbrians before Brewster netted the only goal of the contest, Lopata was also comfortable in possession; something Jokanovic demands of all of his players.

Despite being understandably wary about asking someone of Lopata’s inexperience to help shore-up United’s rearguard, particularly given the pressure they are now under following events at Ewood Park, circumstances could dictate Jokanovic considers handing him another chance as part of the wider re-profiling exercise required following last season’s relegation from the Premier League.