Sheffield United: The Millers, mutual respect and bad news about Max Lowe

This is a derby. Not the derby, granted. But a derby nonetheless.
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Sheffield United versus Rotherham. Or, as Paul Heckingbottom called it: “A bloody tough game.” He could easily have added ‘a damn enjoyable one’ too, given that many of the qualities the opposition possess are remarkably similar to the ones he has cultivated behind the scenes since taking charge in November.

“Paul (Warne) has done a terrific job there,” Heckingbottom said, reflecting upon the work of the visiting manager. “I’ve got so much time for him, not just because of the work he’s put in but also because he’s a really good guy as well. He’s a serial promotion winner with them and, just as importantly, his team reflects his personality. I don’t know many of his players that well but what I can guarantee, because of who is in charge, is that they’ll be honest and ready to fight for Rotherham.

Sander Berge of Sheffield United and Anel Ahmedhodzic of Sheffield United have both been in fine form of late: Simon Bellis / SportimageSander Berge of Sheffield United and Anel Ahmedhodzic of Sheffield United have both been in fine form of late: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sander Berge of Sheffield United and Anel Ahmedhodzic of Sheffield United have both been in fine form of late: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
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“We’ve got a group here who are ready to fight for us. So it’s a match we’re looking forward to.”

United and their neighbours at the end of the Parkway have plenty in common. Two unashamedly blue collar clubs from a region forgotten by successive governments, their loathing of football’s yuppie class is only matched by their mutual dislike of Sheffield Wednesday. But when it comes to their objectives for the present campaign, Heckingbottom’s employers and the visitors from New York Stadium could not be more different. Having prepared for Saturday’s match on top of the Championship, United are expected to challenge for a place in the Premier League. Rotherham, meanwhile, entered the season aiming to preserve their second tier status. Something Paul Warne’s side, despite being sneered at by those who believe size and stature bring some sort of entitlement, appear well equipped to do.

“I definitely think there’s similarities between us,” Heckingbottom said, confirming a mutual respect will underpin both camps’ approach to the contest. “The fans can identify with the players, because they know we both play with a passion and an identity. First and foremost, you’ve got to be a good footballer. That goes without saying. But you need to be a good person too. I know what my lads are like and I know what Warney’s are like as well.”

“Being from South Yorkshire, Barnsley, I also know how teams from other parts of South Yorkshire are desperate to beat the Sheffield clubs,” he continued. “I was talking to Warney during pre-season and he already knew the date of the game. That shows how important it is and they’ve sold out their away following.”

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is preparing his team to face Rotherham: Nigel French/PA Wire.Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is preparing his team to face Rotherham: Nigel French/PA Wire.
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is preparing his team to face Rotherham: Nigel French/PA Wire.
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Despite their position at the summit of the division, United are not without their problems. Already missing the likes of Billy Sharp, Ben Osborn and Enda Stevens through injury, Heckingbottom saw Max Lowe join the ranks of Bramall Lane’s walking wounded during last weekend’s win over Hull City. His absence, with a hamstring issue which will require several month’s worth of treatment, could force United to unveil a change of strategy. Or select a right-sided centre-half, Anel Ahmedhodzic, on the left in order to facilitate Rhys Norrington-Davies at wing-back.

However, despite being confronted by similar issues throughout Heckingbottom’s reign, United have kept 15 clean sheets in their last 21 home outings.

“We’re in a difficult moment with injuries right now,” said Heckingbottom, acknowledging Lowe’s prognosis “isn’t good” and that he is being examined by a consultant. “We’ll have to change things around.”

The other dilemma Heckingbottom is wrestling with concerns Rotherham’s approach. United like to smother opponents, overwhelm them with attacks and long periods of possession. But Warne’s men are outliers in a competition the 44-year-old recently suggested is becoming more adventurous. Even when they walloped Reading at the beginning of the campaign, equalling the 4-0 scoreline United recorded when Paul Ince’s team travelled north 10 days ago, Rotherham saw less of the ball than the opposition. More than 40 percent of their goals this term have come from set-pieces and, perhaps most significantly given the defensive reshuffle United are expected to perform, Warne’s team favour attacking along their own right flank. That could influence Heckingbottom’s selection picks.

Wes Foderingham, Rhian Brewster and Oliver McBurnie of Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / SportimageWes Foderingham, Rhian Brewster and Oliver McBurnie of Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Wes Foderingham, Rhian Brewster and Oliver McBurnie of Sheffield United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
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“Things will have to change, yes,” he said. “But we’ll worry about what we’ve got, not what we haven’t.”

Curiously, and encouragingly for the neutrals, United’s strengths also appear suited to exploiting Rotherham’s weaknesses. Statistics highlight a willingness to attack from central positions, efficient finishing and proficiency around set-pieces at both ends of the pitch. The latter is something Heckingbottom took a conscious decision to focus upon during his first pre-season in charge, having succeeded Slavisa Jokanovic midway through last term. United’s ability to work on the counter is unlikely to prove much of an asset against a group of players who are comfortable working within their own half. So, with most of the goals United have conceded since August coming via individual errors, Heckingbottom spent most of the week stressing the need for absolute concentration. Even when the momentum is with his squad.

“We want to keep that intensity,” said Heckingbottom. “Do what we do best.”

United have won five and drawn two of their seven assignments since losing to Watford during the opening round of games; scoring 16 goals and conceding four in the process. Rotherham have geared-up for their trip in 13th, registering a win, a draw and a loss in their previous three. The most recent of those outings saw them hold the only club to have beaten United in league competition this term, with defender Richard Wood netting his fourth of the campaign before Vakoun Issouf Bayo drew Watford level.

Rotherham United manager Paul Warne looks on: Malcolm Couzens/Getty ImagesRotherham United manager Paul Warne looks on: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images
Rotherham United manager Paul Warne looks on: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images
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“We’ve made a good start but we want it to carry on,” Heckingbottom said. “We know Rotherham will be on the front foot and we will as well.”