Sheffield United: Players are warned the focus has shifted ahead of Watford clash
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But he also wanted to see his squad develop good habits. Which is why, after watching them concede three goals for the second match in a row during last night’s meeting with Mansfield Town, the United manager made no attempt to shy away from the fact he is concerned by the quality of their defending.
Actually, make that desperately disappointed. Heckingbottom even went as far as to suggest that a repeat at either the Pirelli Stadium or Oakwell, where United conclude their preparations for the new campaign with a game against his former club Barnsley, will force coaching staff to revise their plans for August 1st’s game against Watford.
“We’re thinking all the time,” Heckingbottom said. “You always have things in mind of course, ideas that you work with. But those can change depending upon what you’re seeing. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.”
Three days after losing 3-2 to Scunthorpe, where second-half strikes from substitutes Iliman Ndiaye and Rhian Brewster made the scoreline look disappointing rather than catastrophic, United made the short journey to Nottinghamshire confident of adding to their victories over Casa Pia and Lincoln City earlier this summer. But it quickly became apparent, when Mansfield gave as good as they got during the opening period, that things were not going to be as routine as Heckingbottom and his staff would privately have hoped.
The searing heat can not be used as an excuse for the lethargy some United players displayed. They have just spent the week in Portugal and it clearly didn’t affect their opponents who, Heckingbottom conceded afterwards, had used “a higher line than usual.” His own side, by contrast, “spent more time working in front of them” than coaching staff would have liked.
Barring some flashes of brilliance from Ndiaye, whose burgeoning partnership Brewster was again in evidence, United created little and appeared to concentrate even less. Any analysis which bruises their egos will doubtless be dismissed as hysterical, over-the-top reaction to an insignificant game.
But if these contests are meaningless, then why stage them in the first place? And even if United had prevailed as they should have done, aspects of their performance would still be concerning.
Hiram Boateng’s second of the night, after Rhys Oates had doubled Mansfield’s lead, was unstoppable. But his opener and the former Barnsley forward’s effort definitely weren’t.
Static and slow to react, United’s rearguard was prised apart by routine runs and simple crosses.
“The goals were terrible,” Heckingbottom said. “We haven’t been stressing performances as much as getting ready physically. But you can’t help as a manager having one thought about the team (at Watford) as well.”
“It’s a bit of laziness maybe,” he continued. “Last year, all of the things we prided ourselves on, it was the opposite of that.”
Heckingbottom was measured in his criticism of United’s defensive shortcomings afterwards. Yes, he told journalists afterwards, the quality of their work at the back fell way below what was expected. But the 44-year-old, who included new signings Anel Ahmedhodzic and Ciaran Clark in his starting eleven, also sought to remind that solid lines of communication have yet to be established between them and long-serving members of United’s squad.
“I’ve never been a great fan (of pre-season),” Heckingbottom revealed. “It serves an important purpose but it’s not like the real thing, is it?”
Although Heckingbottom was right not to go overboard of press the panic button, he will still be deeply concerned about the quality of United’s work in front of Wes Foderingham and Jordan Amissah; the young German who kept goal in Adam Davies; absence at Scunthorpe. Behind the smile and relaxed demeanour he adopted during the post-game inquest, one suspected he was also fuming.
Fortunately for Heckingbottom and his coaching staff, as their attention shifts towards next Monday’s visit to Vicarage Road, the issues with United’s defending appear to stem from an overly relaxed mindset rather than any systemic issues. Heckingbottom seemed to confirm these suspicions when, for the second time in the space of a week, he insisted they had just “received a reminder” about the “need to be right on it” no matter the occasion or the opponent. As they look to recover from the disappointment of last term’s defeat in the Championship play-off semi-finals, United would probably benefit from a kick-up the backside. They have now conceded as many goals in their last two outings as they did during their final of last season, including their two legged tie against Nottingham Forest.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of work,” said Heckingbottom. “Because you just pick the players that you know are going to do the job.”
After using the first four instalments of their six-match warm-up programme to primarily address fitness, United have set themselves different targets for the clashes with Albion and Barnsley. Clearly, the timing of the fixtures means Heckingbottom will select two different starting elevens and adopt a more conservative approach towards his substitutions. The emphasis, beginning in Staffordshire, is now going to be on quality of performance.
“We’ll be different now, in terms of how we look after them and work them before games from now on in,” Heckingbottom said. “They won’t be running before games now, so there can be no complaints. The shirts are there for them.”