Sheffield United: The five most important items still on the manager's 'to-do' list

Fifth in the Championship table with eight matches remaining, Sheffield United are on course to qualify for the play-offs.

Wednesday, 30th March 2022, 3:10 pm

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But with only six points separating them from Coventry City in 11th, the margins for errors as this season’s race for Premier League football enters the final straight remain uncomfortably slim.

As United prepare to return to action following the international break with a visit to Stoke City, The Star identifies the five most important items still on manager Paul Hecingbottom’s in-tray ahead of Saturday’s game.

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Brief Filip Uremovic: Signed on a short-term basis from Rubin Kazan, thanks to a FIFA ruling allowing overseas players in Russia to suspend their contracts following the invasion of Ukraine, the Croatia centre-half is expected to be pitched straight into United’s starting eleven.

Capped six times by his country at senior level and having made over 170 first team appearances since turning professional, Uremovic is an experienced operator. But Leonid Slutsky, Heckingbottom’s counterpart at the Ak Bars Arena, prefers to operate with a back four rather than the three favoured by United.

Ensuring Uremovic is fully up to speed with how the 44-year-old’s team likes to play is going to be of critical importance. But with John Egan, one of his likely partners at the back in Staffordshire having spent the past two weeks away on duty with the Republic of Ireland, the process of teaching Uremovic the strategies United are likely to employ during the remainder of the campaign has been complicated.

Heckingbottom’s latest new signing and Egan must spend 24 hours before the game getting to know one another and working closely on the training pitch.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom with Filip Uremovic, his new signing fro0m Rubin Kazan

Work with Oli McBurnie: Billy Sharp might feature at City. Then again, he might not after becoming the latest United player to fall victim to injury during the win over Barnsley earlier this month.

By his own admission, Heckingbottom doesn’t like to go into too much detail when discussing the fitness issues which have plagued United in recent weeks and ultimately paved the way for Uremovic’s arrival. So a definitive statement on Sharp’s situation, when United’s manager addresses the media before the trip to Staffordshire, is unlikely.

Either way, McBurnie is going to have a big role to play between now and the end of the campaign. If Sharp does miss out, he could even find himself tasked with spearheading United’s attack as they chase a return to the top-flight.

The striker has sacrificed a lot of himself after being deployed as a target man for long periods of his career at Bramall Lane. But after going 18 appearances without a goal, his confidence is bound to have suffered.

Sheffield United return to action at Stoke City this weekend: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

United must ensure his self-belief is rebuilt by the time they face City. And ideally find a way of allowing him to operate in a way which suits his skill set without making sweeping changes to their system.

Formulate a simple plan: All of United’s international contingent played their final games of the international break on Tuesday. But with most unlikely to resume training until today, Heckingbottom’s game plan for the meeting with City must be familiar and simple. Alterations and tweaks, designed to exploit weaknesses in the opposition’s armoury and negate its strengths, should be kept to a minimum. Particularly as the lines of communication between Uremovic and his new defensive colleagues are unlikely to be as clear as United would like.

The instructions, particularly those relating to set-plays and work off the ball, should be condensed into a handful of bullet points and able to be relayed quickly. Because, United will probably have only two sessions on the training pitch to make sure they can be executed effectively.

Solve midfield conundrum: Sander Berge, back from duty with Norway, is arguably in his best spell of form for United right now after scoring three goals in his last four outings for the club. Finally, thanks to a subtle change of position, he is beginning to look like the player Bramall Lane’s hierarchy thought they had signed after acquiring him from Genk two years ago.

Paul Heckingbottom is preparing his team for action at the bet365 Stadium: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Strangely, though, the steps United have taken to accommodate Berge at the top of their midfield appear to have affected Ollie Norwood - with the former Northern Ireland international now enjoying fewer opportunities to spray his trademark raking passes across the pitch.

Again, without making sweeping tactical changes, this is an issue Heckingbottom and his coaching staff will hopefully have been able to confront over the past fortnight - albeit in Berge’s absence. The 48 hours before the meeting with Michael O’Neill’s men could be set aside to tackling this.

Boost the best youngsters: Charlie Goode has been injured. The same goes for Chris Basham, Ben Davies, George Baldock and of course Sharp - although it is hoped at least two of the latter three will be available for selection this weekend.

Even if they are, with United set to compete twice next week, Heckingbottom can ill-afford to lose any more of his key performers. Either for the remainder of the season and, should United qualify, the postseason play-offs.

With the transfer window closed and more arrivals from Russian or Ukrainian clubs seemingly unlikely, youngsters such as Kacper Lopata, Will Osula and Oliver Arblaster could find themselves taking part in some critical matches.

Fortunately, Kyron Gordon has gained plenty of exposure in recent weeks and has shown himself to be up to the challenge. United must ensure the same goes for some of his contemporaries too.

Sheffield United's leading goalscorer this season Billy Sharp is a doubt for the game at Stoke City: Simon Bellis / Sportimage