Sheffield United: The mind-games have started ahead of meeting with Kolo Toure's Wigan Athletic
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Paul Heckingbottom knows the dossier Wigan Athletic are compiling on Sheffield United’s tactics ahead of tonight’s match at the DW Stadium might include a chapter written by Brendan Rodgers. But after playing Leicester City in a friendly earlier this month, the Northern Irishman has been warned that any information he passes on to his friend Kolo Toure will be inaccurate.
“I don’t know about us learning something from it,” Heckingbottom told The Star, when asked if it was a coincidence United’s preparations for their meeting with Toure’s side included a trip to the east Midlands. “I think it’s more likely Brendan will have passed on the video to him. But seriously, you aren’t going to learn anything from what went on there. Because, from our perspective at least, that wasn’t the purpose of doing it. And in any case, it was arranged a long time ago.”
Toure, the former Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City defender, was a member of Rodgers’ coaching staff at City before taking charge of Athletic nearly three weeks ago. With his appointment being announced midway through the Championship’s World Cup break, Toure will be overseeing only his second game since then when United cross the Pennines. Which not only presents Heckingbottom with a problem as he attempts to second guess his rival’s strategy but also, given that the visitors now have key players back from injury, leaves Toure in a difficult position too.
“You can’t take much as usual from the previous matches,” Heckingbottom continued, acknowledging United have studied how Athletic’s draw with Millwall in south London. “There’s been a bigger gap between that one and them playing us than there was between Kolo coming in and them going to The Den. He’ll have had more time to work with his lads now and he’ll be glad of that because, I bet if you asked him, he’d rather have come in right at the start of the break.
“And it’s good for us getting players back, because we can be much more flexible in terms of tactics and strategy. The five subs rule, I liked it when it came in. But we haven’t been able to use it as we’d have liked yet, because of the people we’ve had out. We’ve not been able to use it to change the flow of a game, which now we’re in a better position to do. So there’ll be a difference.”
Sander Berge, Max Lowe and Jayden Bogle are in contention to start at Athletic, having returned to the squad following lengthy absences ahead of United’s win over Huddersfield Town. That result left them second in the table while Athletic are battling against relegation. Tommy Doyle could also take part after making progress in his battle to overcome a leg complaint, having taken part in the behind-closed-doors clash with City alongside Daniel Jebbison.
Still, despite being positioned at opposite ends of the division, Heckingbottom described the meeting with Athletic as “one of the toughest” assignments United “could have”.
“The competitiveness in this league has always been something else,” he explained. “And it’s got even more competitive, the gap between everyone has narrowed, because of the way referees are deciding what is and what isn’t a foul now as well. I like the contact aspect. But because they are prepared to let more things go now, it’s definitely narrowed things down. Squeezed things together if you like.”
Heckingbottom also recognises that United’s form of late - the victory over Town was their fifth in six outings - makes them a prized scalp. Coupled with the freezing conditions and the fact Toure will be making his home debut, in front of the live television cameras, the visitors’ coaching staff are steeling United’s players for a difficult night.
“A new manager, a positive result at the weekend, it’s as tough as we could possibly get,” Heckingbottom conceded. “Teams won’t roll over. They could change again, they could have been working on a lot. Kolo would probably have been happy to go in at the beginning of that period. A change in shape, change in personnel, there’s lots of things that can happen in football.”
“First half, against Huddersfield, we were excellent,” he added, reflecting on events during a contest settled by Billy Sharp’s early strike. “In the second, not as good without the ball and not quick enough. And you are always in danger when there is one goal in it. It only takes one moment, and that's why we always want to keep pushing and take us out of danger. If we get in front, which we always try to do, the aim is always to really try and nail things down.”
Unveiling Toure, who also worked under Rodgers at Anfield and Celtic, represented a major coup for Athletic; albeit one completed in strange circumstances with his predecessor Leam Richardson departing only a matter of weeks after agreeing a new long-term contract.
“I know Leam as well, so I have a lot of sympathy for him,” Heckingbottom said. “I’m sure he, Kolo, has had some good mentors and he’s cut his teeth at Liverpool and Leicester. There is always a bounce in the environment when someone new comes in, you just feel it.
“Kolo coming in, it shows how huge this league is. It’s one of the biggest in the world in terms of attendance and there’s the prize of getting into the biggest. That’s why people like him want to get involved in it, and the same goes for owners. It’s what we’re all trying to do.”