United travel to the John Smith’s Stadium on the back of an important win over Steve Bruce’s side at Bramall Lane last night, with two goals from Billy Sharp firing them to within a point of the play-off positions.
Despite admitting “results are everything” at this stage of the season, Heckingbottom insisted the manner of United’s latest victory also sent out an important message to the rest of the Championship.
Noting how West Brom “bullied” United en route to a 4-0 win at The Hawthorns earlier this term, when his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic was still in charge, Heckingbottom told The Star: “That, how we did it, was one of the things which really pleased me. Let’s make no bones about it, they bullied us down at their place. That didn’t happen here.
“If a team wants to put the ball into your box then, being truthful, you can’t really stop them from doing it. But when they did it, we won nearly every contact and, from that respect, we dealt with pretty much every threat. That was good to see.”
If the meeting with West Brom was a gauge of the physical improvements United have made since the beginning of the campaign, facing Carlos Corberan’s side will be a measure of their patience, tactical, discipline and maybe concentration. Like Bruce’s employers, Town also beat United in August - albeit by a much smaller margin. After Sharp had cancelled-out Josh Koroma’s opener deep into added time, the contest appeared destined to end all square. But three days after being filleted in the Midlands, a defensive lapse from United allowed Levi Colwill to restore Town’s advantage.
“If I say this is the best game we played and we finished with a defeat, well, it can sound like a joke,” a disconsolate Jokanovic admitted afterwards. “But in general, my team played a good game.”
Heckingbottom, who replaced the Serb in November, has stressed the importance of being able to “win different games” in “different ways” on countless occasions since being appointed. With Town in fifth, four points ahead of United having contested three matches more, avenging that result would not only see Heckingbottom’s men take another important step towards top six qualification but also demonstrate they possess the ability to overcome opponents who want to try and pass them into submission as well as those who adopt a more combative approach.
West Brom, naming Andy Carroll in attack, won more aerial duels (60 percent) than United in midweek and fractionally more tackles (55.6). Under Jokanovic, these figures were actually tighter. The difference is, six months on, United scored higher in key areas of the pitch and performed better in terms of second balls.
“We tried to be brave and we were brave,” Heckingbottom said. “We had to be, because they wanted to stop us passing the ball and from playing the way we want to. But we earned that right, I thought, and the goals came from us passing, passing and passing - but with a purpose in good areas.”