The mind games Sheffield United are playing ahead of their Yorkshire derby against Leeds United
Paul Heckingbottom has turned psychologist in an attempt to revive a Sheffield United squad he concedes has been left mentally drained by events since the beginning of the Premier League season.
United enter tomorrow’s Yorkshire derby against Leeds with one foot already in the Championship after losing all but six of their last 29 matches and also their long-serving manager Chris Wilder who left the club following a series of disagreements about transfer and spending policy with the club’s board of directors.
Placed in caretaker charge until the end of the campaign, although United’s talks with at least one of Wilder’s potential successors are already underway, Heckingbottom outlined several tactical changes he is contemplating ahead of the visit to Elland Road during his media briefing yesterday.
But he also revealed coaching staff at the Steelphalt Academy have been instructed to monitor aspects of the players’ behaviour outside of their revamped training sessions, as United finalise their selections for the meeting with his former club.
“People here won’t throw the towel in, no chance,” said Heckingbottom, acknowledging United finished the last round of fixtures 14 points adrift of safety with only nine games remaining. “But subconsciously, it’s been such a strange season in so many ways.
“Training on their own and then going into the new season without any breaks, because of what happened with the Covid-19 (lockdown). They couldn’t unwind.
“Also the results this season for players. It’s been a buffeting, rocky time and then to lose Chris.
“Nobody here, like I said, is going to throw that towel in. But subconsciously, some people might be feeling a little bit drained with the emotion of it all. If there isn’t that little edge in you, you just can’t perform as you would like no matter how hard you try.”
Tactically, Heckingbottom’s room for manoeuvre has been limited by a combination of injury and the fact the personnel at his disposal have been constructed to fit Wilder’s style of play. Captain Billy Sharp, whose close friend Liam Cooper wears the armband at Leeds, is set to miss out while John Egan is not yet capable of completing 90 minutes despite returning to training this week. Sander Berge, Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, Jack Robinson and Jack Rodwell are also unavailable.
Rather than dramatically changing United’s shape, Heckingbottom, who spent four months in charge of the opposition after leaving Barnsley in 2018, believes making subtle adjustments within their existing framework offers a greater chance of success at this stage of the fixture programme.
During the second-half of last month’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Chelsea, when Thomas Tuchel admitted his team had been forced to “suffer” after the break, Heckingbottom and his assistant Jason Tindall could be heard ordering United to press the Londoners higher up and in specific areas of the pitch.
“I played this (3-5-2) system a bit at Barnsley, when we were trying to chase the game,” Heckingbottom said. “Within it, you can make changes. We’ve seen the players are comfortable going to a back four with a diamond. We’ve certainly got the personnel within this system to change things, and that will be evident.”