The lessons Sheffield United must learn following defeat at Blackburn Rovers: James Shield's take

Sheffield United are still second in the table but, after being beaten by Blackburn Rovers, are once again peering over their shoulders at the teams just behind them in the Championship.
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The Star’s James Shield identifies five things we discovered about Paul Heckingbottom’s team during a disappointing afternoon in Lancashire.

MORE LEGS REQUIRED

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom will take plenty away with him from Ewood Park - apart, unfortunately, from points: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom will take plenty away with him from Ewood Park - apart, unfortunately, from points: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom will take plenty away with him from Ewood Park - apart, unfortunately, from points: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

There’s no shortage of talent in United’s midfield. They can probably pass the ball as well, if not better, than anyone else in the division.

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But none of those who operate in Heckingbottom’s engine room have genuine pace; a weakness Rovers exposed as they prevailed thanks to Harry Pickering’s early strike. Time and time again, even when United were threatening an equaliser, they sliced through the visitors on the counter-attack. When he is finally allowed to refresh his squad, this is a problem Heckingbottom must address. Particularly if, and it remains if, they go up.

Should United find themselves competing at Premier League level next term, they will spend long periods under pressure. That could require sacrificing some technical proficiency for greater athleticism.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

SQUAD DEPTH COULD BE KEY

If United really are tired - and more of that later - Heckingbottom’s ability to utilise all of the options at his disposal could be the key to deciding whether they go straight up or have to try and win promotion via the play-offs.

The Bramall Lane talent pool isn’t perfect. Clearly, as Rovers and Middlesbrough have both demonstrated in recent weeks, there are vulnerabilities within it for opponents to exploit.

But United are still a mighty fine side.

Substitute Billy Sharp of Sheffield United tussles with Dominic Hyam of Blackburn Rovers  during the Sky Bet Championship match at Ewood Park: Simon Bellis / SportimageSubstitute Billy Sharp of Sheffield United tussles with Dominic Hyam of Blackburn Rovers  during the Sky Bet Championship match at Ewood Park: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Substitute Billy Sharp of Sheffield United tussles with Dominic Hyam of Blackburn Rovers during the Sky Bet Championship match at Ewood Park: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

LACK OF TRANSFER ACTIVITY AN ISSUE

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All of United’s nearest rivals signed new players during the January window. After discovering his employers were about to be placed under a transfer embargo, this wasn’t a luxury afforded to Heckingbottom.

Yes, United have probably the strongest squad in the division. But they also appeared mentally fatigued against Rovers.

Fresh faces provide those around them with a psychological boost. Be that because they increase competition for places, bring a different voice, or a combination of both. In short, they have a revitalising effect.

Keeping Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge was a good thing. But with Reda Khadra’s loan being terminated soon after Christmas, United’s squad was weaker after the window than before.

THE PLAYER WHO MUST DO BETTER

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Speaking of Berge, if he does eventually have designs on representing one of the leading names at home or abroad then he must impose himself on these types of matches more. The Norwegian is wonderfully gifted in a technical sense. But he doesn’t take advantage of the physical attributes he possesses enough.

Berge will never be an enforcer. Someone, though, needs to tell him to stop playing short, square passes whenever he receives the ball and take greater responsibility himself. And Berge should take this kind of criticism as a back-handed compliment.

BATTLE HAS EXPANDED

Even if United win their match in hand at Reading on Tuesday and move seven points clear of third-placed Middlesbrough, they are in for a nervous finish to the season. Events over the past few weeks have shown how quickly that gap can get whittled away and both Rovers and Luton in fifth will all fancy their chances of overhauling them now.

There is precious little margin for error left.