Subdued Sheffield United lose their mojo at the wrong moment as Luton Town win at Bramall Lane
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While there is no shame in losing to a team chasing play-off qualification for the second season in a row, the subdued performance Paul Heckingbottom’s men served-up will be a source of concern given that it continued a trend of unconvincing displays as the Championship campaign approaches the finishing straight.
Still second in the table but now only four points clear of Middlesbrough after surrendering the advantage they had given themselves by beating Reading in midweek, United are once again peering anxiously over the shoulders while their supporters are left wondering what happened to the side which always seemed intent on overwhelming opponents earlier this term.
“I’m disappointed,” Heckingbottom conceded, after Carlton Morris’ strike propelled Luton to victory. “We competed but didn’t take as many risks as we usual, with or without the ball.”
Heckingbottom would disagree but United paid Luton too much respect, with both their attitude and approach. Oli McBurnie headed wide at the death, as they scrambled for an equaliser. But in truth, one never looked like arriving with Heckingbottom adding: “We limited them to one shot on target but that can’t come at the expense of creativity.”
Luton might not be the sexiest name in the division. But they are among the most effective on the pitch, arriving at Bramall Lane ranked fifth and boasting its third best away record. Even Heckingbottom felt compelled to confess his admiration for the visitors beforehand; something reflected by Anel Ahmedhodzic’s immediate return to United’s starting eleven following suspension and the selection of a solid rather than swashbuckling midfield.
The other change Heckingbottom made, with John Fleck preferred to James McAtee, was a nod to the fact he suspected this would be an arm-wrestle having noted Luton’s ability to disrupt opponents’ rhythm earlier in the week. He was right, as Rob Edwards’ men massed behind the ball whenever United were in possession whilst committing numbers on the break. It was an approach which made the contest a test of fitness as well as skill. And, following Morris’ intervention at the beginning of the second period, it was one United failed.
With Luton sucking the life out of the game, aided and abetted by United’s carelessness, it wasn’t until just before the break that the hosts’ created a chance of note. Jayden Bogle, whose tackle on Pelly Mpanzu injured the midfielder, saw an early attempt comfortably gathered by Ethan Horvath. But the American did have to take action to stop Ahmedodzic’s header reaching the back of the net when he met Oliver Norwood’s corner.
Just as United were gathering momentum, Morris nipped it in the bud; turning home Elijah Adebayo’s cross at the near post. It was a strike born out of persistence and a sharp turn of pace, with the former Walsall forward clawing back the ball before sweeping it beyond Fleck and then crossing for his colleague. Morris has now scored 15 times since August, with one of those efforts coming when United drew at Kenilworth Road seven months ago.
“We started the second half better,” Heckingbottom said. “Then it’s sod’s law we concede.”