Sheffield United: James McAtee, Sander Berge and the big midfield decisions
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Deciding how best to shoehorn new signings James McAtee, Tommy Doyle and Reda Khadra into a starting eleven already containing Sander Berge is a problem Bramall Lane’s coaching staff still hope to be facing come September 2nd, with the Norway international being linked with a move away from South Yorkshire before next month’s transfer deadline.
But speaking after Wednesday night’s win over Sunderland, as his attention switched towards Saturday’s meeting with Blackburn Rovers, Heckingbottom acknowledged the engine of United’s team would benefit from a little fine-tuning in order for it to function at maximum efficiency.
“I wasn’t entirely happy with our display in the first half,” said Heckingbottom, who selected both Berge and McAtee against the visitors from Wearside. “We weren’t composed enough on the ball, we had a spare man in there and we weren’t really finding him as often as we’d like.
“When we did, and we got it to James, he was coming a little deep and then turning back. So that’s something to work on. But the good thing is, we know that they’re all quality players.”
Although McAtee impressed on his Championship debut, after joining fellow Manchester City loanee Doyle at United earlier this summer, Heckingbottom’s theory about why his team struggled to kill-off opponents reduced to 10 men towards the end of the first-half confirmed the youngster’s presence had altered the dynamic of its work.
A little over 72 hours earlier, during their draw at Middlesbrough, Berge had been tasked with linking-up the play in advanced areas and then carrying the ball forward. Unaffected by reports claiming Milan had joined Club Brugge in the race for his services, the 24-year-old opened the scoring with a clever, clinical finish and caused the opposition problems with his positioning.
Berge was less influential in midweek, after being paired with McAtee. But his part in what proved the be the decisive goal of the contest - a stepover, following Oliver Norwood’s pass, allowed Anel Ahmedhodzic to find Max Lowe unmarked in the penalty area - confirmed why Heckingbottom has dedicated much of the past fortnight to reminding United’s board why allowing him to depart would diminish their chances of securing promotion.
After using the barrage of questions he has faced of late about Berge’s future to distance himself from any decision to sell, unless Berge’s £35m release clause is triggered, Heckingbottom has been applying subtle pressure. The dummy which set in motion the chain of events that led to Lowe’s strike, sandwiched in between efforts from Ahmedhodzic and Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, hammered his message home. Even if Berge, described as “ambitious” by Heckingbottom during the build-up to the fixture, probably hopes it goes unheeded. At no point over the past few weeks has he instructed either his own agent, or the third parties some insiders within the game claim are attempting to spark an auction between potential buyers, to cease and desist.
Heckingbottom, who denies McAtee was recruited with a view to replacing Berge, must now decide whether to pair them together again for the clash with a Rovers outfit which enters the match on the back of a heavy defeat at Reading; its first set-back of the new campaign.
Senior figures at United are known to be excited by the potential of both McAtee and Doyle, who should take less time to settle after experiencing Championship action during a placement with Cardiff City last term.
“How we play is different to City, obviously,” said Heckingbottom, reminding that McAtee will inevitably take longer to adjust. “It’s his first time out and he’ll have to get used to that, but we’ve seen the qualities and ability that he’s got. He brings a lot to the table with his composure and technical skills, which you would expect from someone who comes from there.
“There (at City), they usually dominate the ball and have around 70 percent possession every single game. Even in the Champions League, so they can afford to be much more patient; working the ball around and looking for those gaps and opportunities.
“Here, in the Championship, you’ve got to force it more to make things happen. That’s how you create things. James will learn a lot from this loan, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Having spent the past six years working under Pep Guardiola, McAtee, aged 19, will take time to acclimatise to life at United. However, despite acknowledging it is unlikely he, Doyle and Khadra will all feature together, Heckingbottom will be under pressure to provide all three with regular game-time. Otherwise United run the risk of losing at least one when the transfer window reopens in January.
Another item on their ‘to-do’ list is deciding if Khadra is a number nine or a 10. The former German youth international, borrowed from Brighton and Hove Albion, first rose to prominence after being loaned to Rovers last term; excelling in both roles under their former manager Tony Mowbray.
“It’s all about us really getting to know them, because there’s no substitute for actually working with somebody day in and day out, and them getting to know exactly what we require from them,” Heckingbottom said. “The more we do that, the better they’ll get. That’s normal. It goes for everyone, but we’re really encouraged by what we’ve seen from them so far.”