Sheffield United: What we learned at Barnsley, as Championship opener with Watford comes into view

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Sheffield United completed their summer programme of friendlies with a game against neighbours Barnsley, losing 2-1 at Oakwell despite taking the lead just before half-time.
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The Star’s James Shield analyses what we learned from a match which saw Robbie Cundy’s own goal edge the visitors in front before efforts from Jack Aitchison and Josh Benson turned the contest on its head, including what type of shape Paul Heckingbottom’s side are in ahead of next month’s trip to Watford.

The Teams: On reflection, Heckingbottom wasn’t keeping his cards as close to his chest as first thought when United faced Burton Albion less than 24 hours before this game. The starting eleven which took to the field against his hometown club, and the one where he began his managerial career, is probably pretty much the one the 44-year-old will select for next month’s Championship opener against Watford.

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Sheffield United completed their friendly schedule at Barnsley on Saturday: George Wood/Getty ImagesSheffield United completed their friendly schedule at Barnsley on Saturday: George Wood/Getty Images
Sheffield United completed their friendly schedule at Barnsley on Saturday: George Wood/Getty Images

The final opportunity for United to ‘stress test’ the things they have been working on in training during something akin to a real match situation, it would have been a risk for Heckingbottom not to take advantage by picking those players he is set to rely on in Hertfordshire. Yes, a few adjustments might be made depending upon what happens both at the Randox Health Academy and in the transfer market this week.

But, by and large, those on display here will probably also be deployed at Vicarage Road.

The Change: Given the options at their disposal, United could easily rely upon a single striker. Indeed, when the on-loan Tommy Doyle recovers from the injury which has forced him to miss every single friendly since leaving Manchester City, one suspects that is something Heckingbottom will be tempted to do. Particularly if Sander Berge remains in South Yorkshire, despite his representative’s best efforts to find a buyer either at home or abroad.

With Morgan Gibbs-White now back at Wolverhampton Wanderers and seemingly being chased by three quarters of the Premier League, United need someone to fill the void created by the former England under-21 international’s departure. Well, if they want to go about their business the same way they did last term.

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Sheffield United striker Rhian Brewster featured at OakwellSheffield United striker Rhian Brewster featured at Oakwell
Sheffield United striker Rhian Brewster featured at Oakwell

Assuming he does not get lured away at some point in the future, that may eventually be Iliman Ndiaye. But with the Senegal international partnering Rhian Brewster in attack here, Ben Osborn was deployed in the attacking midfield role here.

A tireless worker, Osborn will be an important asset for United over the coming months. But he isn’t the most creative of individuals. It is easy to see why Heckingbottom is so keen to try and sign Brighton and Hove Albion’s Reda Khadra.

The Switch: Berge’s best performances for United last season, indeed his best since arriving at the club full stop, came when he was handed a more advanced role during the second half of the campaign. Operating higher up the pitch helped accentuate the Norway international’s strengths and disguise some of his weaknesses, which include a lack of mobility against quick attackers who can turn on a sixpence.

United were so pleased with their decision to change Berge’s role, which apparently came about when Stuart McCall was impressed by his shot during a series of midweek sessions, they devoted nearly an entire pre-match press conference to the subject ahead of a trip to Millwall.

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Ciaran Clark started at Oakwell against Barnsley: Simon Bellis/SportimageCiaran Clark started at Oakwell against Barnsley: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Ciaran Clark started at Oakwell against Barnsley: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

So it was a surprise to see him again operate in the quarterback role Oliver Norwood must have thought he had made his own. Whether or not United persist with this idea against Watford remains to be seen. But, if they do, it would be a gamble.

Berge is neat and tidy in possession and rarely gives the ball away. He drifts around the pitch well. But he won’t open up a defence with the type of long-raking pass which has become Norwood’s trademark.

Berge did get forward more after Aitchison had clawed Barnsley level, striking a post from close range.

The Confidence Boost: Managers and coaches often try to pretend otherwise. Usually whenever someone is going through a drought drier than the Atacama Desert. But centre-forwards are there to score goals. The rest - the assists, the runs and the dragging defenders out of position for midfielders to burst through the lines - is just fluff.

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George Baldock also took part in the game: Simon Bellis / SportimageGeorge Baldock also took part in the game: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
George Baldock also took part in the game: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Brewster was credited with the goal which saw United break the deadlock moments before half-time. He didn’t actually score it. Barnsley’s Robbie Cundy did, scuffing the ball past Brad Collins and into the back of his own net as the two jostled for possession inside the penalty area. But Brewster will definitely take the credit, after scoring three times en route to Oakwell.

Having been out of action - well, competitive action that is - since the end of January, it is encouraging to see the touch he had rediscovered before succumbing to a hamstring injury has not deserted him.

The Defence: Barnsley’s equaliser, claimed by Aitchison, was what is technically known as a ‘Balls up’. Wes Foderingham went to clear the ball only to see it strike Berge, which allowed the Scottish forward to power home.

But the outfield players within United’s rearguard acquitted themselves well. Admittedly they didn’t have a great deal to do until the closing stages, when Benson fired the hosts in front with a superb free-kick. But what they did, they dealt with comfortably.

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With Ciaran Clark and Anel Ahmedhodzic both arriving at the club this summer, it was important they worked together here in order to establish clear lines of communication with John Egan and Foderingham, who earlier made a good save to deny Josh Benson.

Max Lowe, who spent last season on loan at Nottingham Forest, did well and now looks much more comfortable going forward than he did in the past.

Barnsley: Collins, Williams, Styles, Kitching, Andersen, Cadden (Norwood 60), Benson, Cundy (Helik 70), Aitchison (Marsh 70), Cole (Wolfe 60), Connell. Not used: Walton, Thomas, McCarthy, Hondermarck, Helliwell.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Baldock, Fleck, Brewster, Berge, Egan, Lowe,. Ahmedhodzic, Osborn, Clark, Ndiaye. Not used: Amissah, Gomis, Broadbent, Peck, Starbuck, Brooks, Lankshear, Gaxha, Sachdev.