'They were lucky to only concede five': Sheffield United begin life without Chris Wilder by being embarrassed at Leicester City
After the longest goodbye since Phillip Marlow gave his friend a lift to Tijuana, along came the sobering Premier League introduction for Paul Heckingbottom.
Beginning life under their new caretaker manager, installed following Chris Wilder’s departure a day earlier, Sheffield United responded by producing a display so lacking in invention and conviction Leicester City must have been absolutely distraught to only score five.
Had they been forced to drag themselves out of second gear then, make no mistake, Brendan Rodgers’ side could easily have reached double figures. United, bottom of the Premier League table and deservedly destined for relegation, bore all the hallmarks of a team now resigned to its fate.
“It was difficult to watch and difficult to be involved with,” Heckingbottom said after watching Kelechi Iheanacho’s hat-trick help condemn United to their 23rd and heaviest defeat of a lamentable season both on and off the pitch. “It was an emotional dressing room afterwards, and that topped off a difficult week.”
In fairness to Heckingbottom, who handed Iliman Ndiaye his debut towards the end of the game, it would be unfair to lay the blame for this shambles at his door. Or, for that matter, United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale who was perhaps the only visiting player to make any sort of impression on a fixture which also saw Ayoze Perez hit the target before Ethan Ampadu turned the ball into his own net. The youngster made fine saves to deny both Perez and Jamie Vardy as Brendan Rodgers’ men ran riot.
Heckingbottom, installed until the end of the campaign, could be forgiven for asking Bramall Lane’s hierarchy if he can return to coaching United’s under-23’s such was the paucity of anything resembling top-flight quality or even attitude on display.
Heckingbottom, who despite the difficult circumstances handled himself well afterwards, had a hunch as to why, adding: “Chris has been the leader for these lads on a daily basis for a long time now. It’s the end of all that.”
INSIPID AND SHOCKING
After nearly 48 hours of chaos, which saw Wilder’s exit stage-managed with all the sure-footedness of a village hall pantomime, the opportunity to play football rather than politics should have come as a blessed relief to United. But Wilder’s fingerprints are still smeared all over this club. It will take longer than two days to wipe them away.
The same goes too for the damage results since September has inflicted upon the visitors’ confidence.
Only seconds into the game, a careless back pass from Oliver Norwood nearly presented City with an opener. It set the tone for what was to follow, as United scurried around chasing shadows down blind alleys and playing themselves into trouble.
Jason Tindall, who officially joins Heckingbottom’s backroom staff tomorrow, spent the early exchanges of the contest furiously scribbling down notes on a piece of paper. The headings were probably entitled ‘Don’t concede possession’, ‘Try not to run into trouble’ and ‘Forget about playing the ball out of your own penalty area’ - basic things like that.
BIG QUESTION ANSWERED
The big question ahead of kick-off, other than the eventual outcome of course, was whether or not Heckingbottom would adopt his predecessor’s strategy or plot an entirely different course. With the 43-year-old’s pre-match preparations effectively consisting of a short briefing sessions in the dressing room beforehand, he wisely chose the former option. Any sweeping changes, which could possibly include the integration of some youngsters from his under-23’s programme, can wait for another day.
With Heckingbottom’s room for manoeuvre limited further by a spate of injuries - David McGoldrick now joining Jack O’Connell and John Egan on the treatment table - United’s shape and tactics were essentially the same as those employed by Wilder. Albeit with a twist, as Oliver Burke and Billy Sharp were handed rare starts in attack.
A FAMILIAR FACE AND FOE
With City dominating, it was another player returning to United’s first choice eleven - Chris Basham - who found himself in the thick of things here. Sharp and Burke kept making runs, darting this way and that at the opposite end of the pitch. The only trouble was, with the ball seldom reaching them, you began to suspect they were simply trying to keep warm on a deceptively chilly east Midlands afternoon.
Vardy was having no difficulty in that department whatsoever as he kept probing and teasing United’s defenders thanks to the dominance of City’s midfield. With Basham’s damaged hamstring having only just healed, it was an utterly ruthless ploy. And, just before the interval, brutally effective too.
Youri Tielemans, who had earlier seen a Howitzer from the edge of the penalty area blocked by Ethan Ampadu, sent Vardy charging towards the byline with a perfectly angled pass. It was from there, after teeing-up and then breezing past his marker, where the former England international sent a low cross fizzing across United’s box which Iheanacho gratefully turned home.
EXACTING A BIT OF REVENGE
Basham, to his utmost credit, simply doesn’t know when to give up. So it was no surprise, early in the second-half, when he exacted a modicum of revenge.
This time it was Iheanacho’s turn to provide the assist, finding Vardy lurking unmarked in front of Ramsdale after bursting through United’s lines. Unlike some of those around him, Basham was also alert to the danger and somehow managed to head an absolute thunderbolt from the centre-forward away to safety before it crossed the line.
BUT IT DIDN’T MATTER
Perez doubled City’s advantage just past the hour mark as the hosts, who finished the afternoon second in the table, continued to stroll through the game. Vardy created Iheanacho’s second with a fine centre made to look even better by the fact no one in a United jersey seemed inclined to try and cut it out. Iheanacho’s third and City’s fourth was as simple as it was predictable, before Ampadu sent another pass from Vardy flying past Ramsdale.