But less than 72 hours after watching his team beaten by Watford during the opening round of the new Championship campaign, Paul Heckingbottom was in an upbeat mood when he began discussing Saturday’s game against Millwall. United’s first outing on home soil since May, when they lost the first leg of their ill-fated play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest, the match represents a chance to exorcise some of last season’s ghosts. But, more importantly, begin convincing supporters there is real substance behind pre-season talk of a return to the Premier League rather than simply bluster, bombast and crossed fingers.
“We’re happy with where we are, in terms of personnel,” the United manager said, having spoken about the “power” of Bramall Lane’s crowd earlier this month. “We know what our focus is, that never changes. And we’re looking forward to demonstrating that back at our place.”
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Heckingbottom, who confirmed new signing Anel Ahmedhodzic is available for selection after it emerged he was suspended for the visit to Hertfordshire, was intent on peddling two different lines during today’s media briefing.
The first, although he didn’t say so explicitly, is that the team we watched in action at Vicarage Road wasn’t the real United. The second was, for precisely that reason, that any judgments about how equipped they are to secure Premier League football must be reserved for now.
It was an argument, which he first put forward during the post-match media conference following the 1-0 defeat at Robert Edwards’ side, which carries substantial weight. Ahmedhodzic’s absence, coupled with an injury to Jack Robinson, meant the starting line-up Heckingbottom selected was both weakened and imbalanced.
But the sight of Ismaila Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis, who thankfully for the rest of the division probably won’t be at Edwards’ disposal once the transfer window closes, causing so many problems for a defence which had conceded only 16 times in its previous 24 competitive outings should still have caused concern. Likewise the fact that despite making five substitutions during the closing stages of the contest, United failed to alter the dynamic of the game. The arrival of James McAtee, from Manchester City, is designed to address that.
“I want us to be better with the ball,” Heckingbottom continued. “I know we had things thrown at us but, still, I thought we could have done better in that regard.
“There were lots of things we did well but that’s one area where I know we can do better.”
Of course, once the disappointment of defeat subsided and their focus switched to this weekend’s meeting with the visitors from London, there were things which happened against Watford which should encourage United too. Despite appearing vulnerable to the pace and power of Sarr and Dennis, the threat of Edwards’ frontline failed to translate into genuine chances. The goal they scored, claimed by Joao Pedro, came about following two fluffled blocks and some poor positioning by the referee, who impeded John Fleck at the beginning of the move. Indeed, the better opportunities were actually crafted by United, with Daniel Jebbison, Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge all drawing saves from Daniel Bachmann before the interval.
“The game unfolded as we thought it would, with them being strong on the counter attack,” said Heckingbottom. “They were and we covered that well I thought. But what doing that meant was that a lot of the good work we put in revolved around recovery runs. We want that, but also a different dynamic going forward. We want to take more risks when we’re on the ball.”
Resolute and organised to within an inch of their lives, Millwall will pose a very different kind of threat to Watford. And it is one Heckingbottom, who was pictured alongside his latest loan capture, McAtee, before the media conference, believes they are capable of combating. Reda Khadra, borrowed from Brighton and Hove Albion, could make his full debut while Rhian Brewster, surprisingly omitted from the starting eleven Heckingbottom selected on Monday, will also be hopeful of being handed a more prominent role this time around.
But behind the scenes, before United can realise their potential, there are still a number of issues to be addressed.
Berge’s future remains in doubt and, as talented as McAtee is, it would be a major ask to task the inexperienced 19-year-old with filling the Norway international’s boots if a move away does materialise. Also, having spent the past fortnight dropping not so subtle hints that a right-wing was his number one priority, to provide cover and competition for George Baldock in Jayden Bogle’s absence, McAtee’s presence will do nothing to assuage Heckingbottom’s fears that United will be caught short if the Greece defender succumbs to injury.
Max Lowe, courted by both Nottingham Forest and Olympiakos this summer, must also be convinced that United really do view him as an integral part of this season’s project. His display after replacing Enda Stevens, who limped-off against Watford with a calf problem, bore all the hallmarks of someone utterly confused by the situation he now finds himself in. After coaching staff spent the summer massaging his ego, Lowe then found himself playing second fiddle to a teammate who is struggling to recapture the form which once made him one of the most enterprising widemen in English football.
“Millwall, at Stoke, I thought they dominated set plays and aerial duels,” Heckingbottom said. “We have to be ready to deal with that. We have to be ready to deal with any frustrations that set in.
“They looked very good without the ball. Set-plays are going to be a very big threat. They are ready to put in effort and run without the ball; turn 60/40’s in the opposition’s favour into 60/40’s in their favour.”