Sheffield United: The unfashionable idea being resurrected at Bramall Lane

There are times, thanks to the explosion of analytics and the cult of the coach, when it feels as if ingenuity is no longer fashionable in football.

Tuesday, 1st March 2022, 3:05 pm

Some players spend as long in the classroom as they do on the training pitch. Others are valued because of their athletic ability rather than technical or finishing skills.

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No one is arguing tactics aren’t important. But so too is talent - the ability to spot the right pass and then execute it perfectly perfectly or even make a goal saving tackle inside your own box.

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Purists, those of us who don’t want to see the game become an exercise in painting by numbers where people are moved around the pitch like robots, will be glad to learn that imagination is still cherished at Sheffield United. Paul Heckingbottom and his staff will be studying Nottingham Forest’s strengths and weaknesses closely ahead of Friday’s meeting between the two clubs. But Stuart McCall, the 44-year-old’s assistant, has told The Star those under Heckingbottom’s command are still being encouraged to express themselves as the battle for promotion enters a critical phase.

“We’ve got lads here who can do great things with the ball, who can produce that little bit of magic in lots of ways, so we want to see them to that,” McCall said. “It’s still important, as far as we’re concerned anyway, to have that type of mindset out there.

“Yes, you’ve got to be organised and well-drilled, to know what you should be doing, when and where. But more often than not it all comes down to a moment of individual brilliance. And we’ve got lads here, I know, who can bring that to the table.”

Iliman Ndiaye is being encouraged to express himself by Sheffield United: Alistair Langham / Sportimage

McCall stressed the magic he was referring to comes in many different guises. Iliman Ndiaye, as he demonstrated during December’s win over Fulham, is capable of picking apart of the best defences in the division and landing a decisive blow. A week earlier, Morgan Gibbs-White turned the tide of a match at Cardiff City when he produced a superb long-range finish out of nowhere.

Although United lacked imagination in their last outing, losing what Heckingbottom later described as a “war of attrition” against Millwall, the former Hibernian chief and McCall remain convinced it would be a mistake to adopt a conservative approach later this week when Forest, who are also eyeing a place in the end of season play-offs, make the journey to South Yorkshire.

United slipped to seventh in the table, a point behind sixth placed Luton Town, when Millwall condemned them to a first defeat in 10 outings. Forest finished the latest round of fixtures in ninth following a 2-0 win over Bristol City and unbeaten in five.

Morgan Gibbs-White is one of Sheffield United's most creative players: Isaac Parkin / Sportimage

“The other side (the science) is really important and we follow all of that, because it can give you a real insight into what is going on, what is happening and why,” McCall said. “But the evidence of your own eyes is also important, what they are telling you, and the feeling you get for things as well.”

Paul Heckingbottom is preparing his Sheffield united team to face Nottingham Forest on Friday: Paul Terry / Sportimage