Sheffield United: Ten reasons why Nottingham Forest can be beaten and play-off final place booked

Football, Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom reminded only a couple of weeks ago, is all about taking opportunities.

Sunday, 15th May 2022, 1:08 pm

His team’s challenge at the City Ground is to seize the one they have been presented with following yesterday’s game against Nottingham Forest. Rather than entering the second leg of their Championship play-off semi-final two goals down, United travel to the east Midlands knowing a contest which should have been over is still very much alive thanks to a combination of the opposition’s profligacy, Wes Foderingham’s brilliance and Sander Berge’s late, late strike.

Ahead of the return fixture in the east Midlands, The Star’s James Shield explains why Heckingbottom’s men should make the short journey south confident of turning the tie around and also highlights some of the things they must do to stand a chance of reaching Wembley.

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Forest were excellent…

The visitors should have have won by more. But the fact is they didn’t. Which, with Berge turning home after Jack Colback and Brennan Johnson had put them in the driving seat, is bound to be a source of regret for Steve Cooper’s side. They know they missed a chance to kill off United. However their manager chose to dress it up afterwards. And, depending upon how the return fixture unfolds, that could eat away at them.

Cut out the mistakes

Despite Forest’s superiority many of United’s problems during the first instalment of the doubleheader with Forest were self-inflicted. The fact both meetings between these two clubs during the season proper ended in 1-1 draws reminds that there is very little between these two squads and that Cooper’s men aren’t simply too good for them to handle. But they are definitely too good to present with gifts. Chris Basham should have cut out the cross which led to Colback’s opener. John Egan was caught in possession ahead of Johnson’s finish.

Paul Heckingbottom has plenty to ponder ahead of Sheffield United's visit to Nottingham Forest : Darren Staples / Sportimage

Get Norwood in the game

United’s midfield general Oliver Norwood is one of the finest passers of a ball in the division. But as Premier League opponents sussed-out last term, he isn’t as effective when pressed and forced to turn. Forest suffocated him at Bramall Lane and prevented the 31-year-old from showcasing his technique and vision. Often described as their quarterback, United must find a way of providing Norwood with the protection of an NFL style ‘pocket’ without reducing his options upfield.

Everyone knows how Forest like to operate

On the counter attack and they are damn good at it. United, for some reason, seemed to have forgotten this over the weekend. How many times did Johnson, Sam Surridge and to a lesser extent Philip Zinckernagel find space in the channels? More awareness around the transition and better tracking back from the midfielders is required.

Nottingham Forest's James Garner (left) and Sheffield United's Iliman Ndiaye battle for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final, first leg match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Iliman Ndiaye, Morgan Gibbs-White…and Berge

These three must be brought into the game more. United’s best periods of the first leg came when the Norwegian in particular found space just in front of Forest’s defence. Berge is a fine technician, whose physical presence can cause Cooper’s charges problems, prevent their centre-halves from bullying his two colleagues and provide them with the room they require to do some damage. Berge needs to grab this fixture by the scruff of the neck and be given the support to do that. See point three.

United need to make more of their own strengths

At the beginning of their first encounter with Forest, they created a few openings by turning the visitors with long balls over the top which allowed Ndiaye and Gibbs-White to pressurise opponents and establish field position. They must focus on delivering these more accurately and more often.

Sheffield United's Sander Berge needs to assert himself more and be helped to do so: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

And also…score first

Okay, that sounds obvious. Because, given how the contest is poised, it is. But there’s another reason. Injuries. Or who has suffered them to be precise. With strikers Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick, Rhian Brewster and Oli McBurnie all out of action, Heckingbottom is missing around £45m worth of attacking talent. The only two strikers likely to be on his substitutes bench at Forest are Will Osula and Daniel Jebbison. Both are fine talents. But also, just 18-years-of-age, inexperienced. The changes United made as they tried to find a route back into Saturday’s game against Forest betrayed the fact Heckingbottom has precious few options to try and change the dynamic if his side falls behind without making a change of formation too. So it is vital they get their noses in front here. Because Heckingbottom isn’t short of defensive options.

If United can do that…

That could gnaw away at Forest’s confidence. Cooper’s players are in the driving seat and this clash is perfectly set up for them. But they aren’t superhuman or infallible.

Smart move from Hecky

Heckingbottom knew exactly whathe was doing when he mentioned how Forest like to wrestle their markers when defending set-pieces. United’s manager wasn’t being disrespectful. Simply stating fact and bringing it to the attention of the match officials ahead of this game. Can Forest risk doing it again and maybe conceding a penalty, as they probably should have done on at least one occasion at Bramall Lane? Maybe. But Heckingbottom’s comment will certainly sow some doubt in their minds.

Keep your heads

Speaking of occasions,United mustn’t play that at the City Ground. Just the game. If they were trailing Forest 2-1 at the interval away from home in a regular season match, they wouldn’t feel as if they were out of the contest. Even though they could easily have been, they aren’t now. United have no need to go chasing and be reckless early on. If they are solid, Gibbs-White, Ndiaye and Berge can produce the moments of magic required to turn things around.