Sheffield United: Is tackling a glaring ommision from the Bramall Lane cirrculum?

Morgan Gibbs-White, the midfielder Sheffield United acquired on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, isn’t a hatchet man.

Thursday, 28th October 2021, 5:00 pm

His ability to create chances, and also convert some of those crafted by others, was what attracted Slavisa Jokanovic to the 21-year-old.

Those skills have made Gibbs-White one of the first names on the Serb’s team sheet, after claiming three goals and two assists in his first eight outings for the club. But he was notable by his absence at Barnsley last weekend, after receiving the first red card of his career during United’s defeat by Millwall five days earlier.

Expected to be parachuted straight back into the eleven which starts against Blackpool, one of the two yellow cards Gibbs-White received against the visitors from London was for a poorly timed challenge. On average, footballers are required to make around 18 tackles per game. Yet, even though a poor technique can lead to injury or suspension, they are seldom ever coached on this aspect of their profession. Which begs the question ‘Why?’ Particularly when many other sports, including rugby and NFL, spend hours teaching players how to confront an opponent.

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Referee Matthew Donohue sends off Morgan Gibbs-White during Sheffield United's game against Millwall at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Asked if he planned to tutor Gibbs-White and other members of his squad in this often under-appreciated art, United manager Slavisa Jokanovic told The Star: “Tackling is part of training, you do it all the time in training when you contest games. “You practise it all of the time, naturally.

“I don’t need experienced players who have to be taught how to cross and shoot. If you are here, at a club like Sheffield United, then you must know this already. If you play in the Championship, you must already know how to do these things.”

A self-confessed tactical obsessive, if Jokanovic doesn’t teach his team about tackling procedures then, the chances are, no one else in the competition does either. Yet one of his predecessors at Bramall Lane, where United face Neil Critchley’s side on Saturday, felt coaches were missing a trick if they omitted them from their training programmes. Particularly, as Gibbs-White discovered earlier this month, when failing to execute a challenge properly can have such dramatic consequences. Not only for the individual responsible but also, as United’s uninspiring display during the first-half of their victory at Oakwell reminded, the group as a whole too. Jokanovic’s men eventually triumphed 3-2, thanks to two goals from Lys Mousset and another from Ben Osborn. But it is debatable whether they would have been as flat as they were before the interval had Gibbs-White been on the pitch.

“It’s such a big part of what we do, I think everyone should work on it (tackling),” the late Gary Speed once commented, before leaving South Yorkshire to take charge of Wales. “I remember, when I was a young player, getting taken aside by one of the senior pro’s and being told ‘You’re doing this all wrong. Try getting yourself into a different position, try altering your body shape.’ It worked and I became better at it. If you can tackle well then, for me, it gives you a better chance of winning. We go over everything else. Why not tackling?”

Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic, previously of Watford and Fulham, does not believe tackling can be taught: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

The possession based approach United have adopted since Jokanovic’s appointment in May inevitably means they make fewer challenges per fixture (an average of 99) than all but one of their divisional rivals; the equally technical Swansea City (94).

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Kevin Gage, who made nearly 100 league appearances for United during the Nineties, explained he was never taught how to tackle after being converted from a midfielder to a full-back as a youngster at Wimbledon. But, like Jokanovic, he disputes the idea that making a challenge should be added to training curriculums.

“I think, particularly if you’re a defender, you just have ‘it’ in you; that instinct to go and win the ball,” he said. “If I was playing now, I’d definitely have to make a few adjustments because you can’t go in for some of the challenges now you could back then. But it’s not something I think you can really teach and, like Slav says, you do it so often you effectively practise it anyway.”

Morgan Gibbs-White, on loan from Wolverhamnpton Wanderers, is set to return to action against Blackpool at Bramall Lane this weekend: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“The bit of advice that is worth giving though, is about staying on your feet,” Gage added. “But that’s always been the case anyway. Look at Bobby Moore, who everyone accepts was the greatest at that.

“There was that famous tackle for England on Pele, where he waited, waited, waited and then, just at the right moment, went in to pinch the ball. But again, I think that was just an instinct in him. He knew when he had the best chance of succeeding at what he had in mind.”

Although he admitted Gibbs-White must learn from his sending-off immediately after the game against Millwall, Jokanovic was referring to the youngster’s attempt to lure the officials into awarding United a second-half penalty - which, having been ruled a dive, prompted his expulsion. The former England under-21 international will be given the opportunity to prove he has when United, three points outside the top six, attempt to leap up the rankings by dispatching 11th placed Blackpool.

“On another side, you can make challenges a specific part of training anyway by playing (small-sided) or full games,” said Jokanovic, whose side are 14th. “There is no specific focus on tackling for us, though. It is all part of what we do anyway, every single day we are at work.”