Sheffield United: The balancing act Paul Heckingbottom simply must master in order to take this team up
It wasn’t the sexiest line of post-match conversation. Or even the most intriguing.
But as he reflected upon Sheffield United’s win over Bristol City, Paul Heckingbottom was happy to focus on the mundane.
“The clean sheet was good, I was really pleased with that, genuinely it was really good to see,” he said, reflecting on the performance which ensured his reign began with a victory. “Everyone plays a part in that. Not just the people at the back. It’s a group effort, right the way through the team.”
With United also recording shut-outs during Slavisa Jokanovic’s final two matches at the helm, a side which for long periods of the season was undermined by one of the leakiest defences in the division has now not conceded a goal since November 6 - when Ian Poveda scored Blackburn Rovers’ third and final effort of a routine victory at Ewood Park.
As he was quick to point out, Heckingbottom and his assistant Stuart McCall can not take all of the credit for United’s new-found solidity. Indeed, it was something they had already begun to rediscover under the Serb and Chema Sanz, with Coventry City and Reading also failing to beat Wes Foderingham before Bramall Lane’s board of directors decided there should be a change at the helm.
But Heckingbottom, McCall and new head of player development Jack Lester will be lauded if they can achieve something which proved beyond Jokanovic and his Spanish assistant, who was presumably unaware United’s hierarchy had not finalised their “strategic vision” before leaving a comfortable position with Valencia. And that is striking a balance between being strong at the back and potent in attack. United have been either one or the other since being relegated last term. But rarely, September’s triumphs over Peterborough and Hull City being notable exceptions, both at the same time. Those matches saw United score on nine occasions and concede on only three.
“We got an early goal and I think that settled everyone,” Heckingbottom continued. “Just as importantly, we had a good press and I think that came from the shape but, even more so, from the attitude of the players.”
Despite the euphoria and relief which have been coursing through his veins, Heckingbottom wisely adopted a pretty downbeat demeanor when he faced the media following Sunday’s fixture. Jokanovic’s detractors - and strangely, despite knowing exactly what they were getting when they appointed him in May, there were plenty on United’s board - have attempted to portray last weekend’s performance as the second coming of Barcelona circa 2011, with pictures of smiling players being published on social media.
The celebrations were understandable. Success should be savoured. But it would be dangerous if the PR drive is allowed to create the impression that everything bad about United’s performances since the beginning of the campaign can be traced back to Jokanovic. The same thing happened when Chris Wilder, who twice won promotion before leaving when his relationship with the ownership became damaged beyond repair, departed in May. A small but not insignificant percentage of United’s social media commentators are still peddling the idea that the most effective manager in the club’s recent history - maybe even its entire history - is somehow responsible for the fact Heckingbottom’s men are preparing for Saturday’s visit to Cardiff City 13th in the Championship.
Having proven himself to be a gifted coach and a safe pair of hands off the pitch during a spell in caretaker charge last term, Heckingbottom is not going to be lulled into thinking all of United’s ills have suddenly been cured. Indeed, as he noted immediately after strikes from Rhian Brewster and Billy Sharp had put Bristol City to the sword, many of the faults which have seen them fail to make an impression on the race for promotion were still evident during the meeting with Nigel Pearson’s team.
United were wasteful, converting only two of the 21 chances they created. And despite being a little more purposeful and direct, they failed to exert the type of control over the fixture they should have done after enjoying nearly two thirds of the possession. There are also other issues to contend with away from Bramall Lane too, as facilities at the training complex continue to lag behind those on offer elsewhere in the division and concerns about the size of United’s budget during the January transfer window. Very little flesh has also been placed on the masterplan senior figures say they have devised to help accelerate a return to the Premier League, with chairman Yusuf Giansiracusa telling reporters on Thursday that he wanted to focus on “football” rather than strategy.
“If we’d have lost, would we be saying the same things? I doubt it,” Heckingbottom acknowledged, dismissing the notion proposed during his official unveiling that results will not decide how long he remains in post. “There were lots of pleasing things, yes. But we didn’t finish them off as we’d have liked. So there’s work to be done on that.”
Although Heckingbottom wants his team to “take risks”, helping United find a way of regularly scoring goals at one end without leaking them at the other remains his biggest challenge. Second placed AFC Bournemouth and third placed West Bromwich Albion both feature in the top three of the competition’s clean sheet chart. Leaders Fulham are seventh, but then they do have the cheat code called Aleksandar Mitrovic. Jokanovic’s compatriot has already netted 24 times this season. That is something United’s entire squad has managed 25 times since August.
“There’s plenty to work on and be getting on with,” Heckingbottom said. “We’ll obviously be trying to win every game but we know that’s not going to be possible. And we’re only talking about one right now.”