Sheffield United: The challenge Manchester City's James McAtee must overcome to realise his talent is identified

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James McAtee remains on a steep “learning curve” as he attempts to get to grips with the physicality of Championship football, Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom has admitted, confessing a change to the way matches in the second tier are being governed meant the on-loan midfielder was always destined to endure a baptism of fire.
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For the second time since joining United on loan from Manchester City, McAtee was withdrawn at half-time during last weekend’s game against Norwich City having also been substituted at the midway point of August’s trip to Luton Town.

Although McAtee has shown flashes of the ability which have prompted some observers to describe him as one of England’s most technically accomplished youngsters, the 20-year-old is still struggling to translate those skills into influential performances.

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Speaking ahead of Saturday’s game against West Bromwich Albion, Heckingbottom insisted he is pleased with McAtee’s progress and insisted a period of acclimatisation is inevitable given the possession-heavy style of his parent club.

Comparing McAtee’s displays to those produced by his City team mate Tommy Doyle, who was also placed with United by the reigning Premier League champions over the summer, Heckingbottom said: “For Macca, it’s all part of the learning curve. You see moments with him when you can tell what he’s all about, when he shows the ability that he’s got, the quality he’s got on the ball and how he can pick a pass.

“You also see the difference with him and Tommy, who has had two loans out already. One of those wasn’t so successful, okay. But it was still an experience for him and the other was in our division with Cardiff. That will have taught him how this league is, and introduced him to it.”

James McAtee in action for Sheffield United during their game against Norwich City: Simon Bellis / SportimageJames McAtee in action for Sheffield United during their game against Norwich City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
James McAtee in action for Sheffield United during their game against Norwich City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Before spending the second-half of last term in the Welsh capital, Doyle completed a period with Hamburg in Germany which served as his introduction to competitive senior football. After recovering from an injury sustained during pre-season, Doyle has gone on to become a key member of the side which travels to the Midlands fifth in the table. After being omitted from the starting eleven which drew 2-2 with City, his introduction after the interval helped swing the contest in United’s favour after they had trailed 2-0 at the break.

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Those 27 appearances, 19 of which came in the EFL, have proven invaluable for Doyle. Heckingbottom acknowledges that McAtee, meanwhile, is being forced to learn on the job with a directive encouraging officials to raise the contact threshold making it an even tougher process. However, despite the sympathy for his predicament behind the scenes, the England under-21 international must begin to show he is making progress to avoid slipping down the selection ladder - particularly at a time when, given the debilitating combination of injuries and individual errors United have suffered over the past month, Heckingbottom’s men travel to The Hawthorns without a win since September 17th.

“The league, and how it’s being refereed, with what they’re letting go now it makes things far more frantic,” Heckingbottom insisted. “James, coming from the Premier League and top level European youth football, it’s a definite learning curve as I said.”