Wigan Athletic v Sheffield United: John Egan and Billy Sharp wreck Kolo Toure's home debut

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When Paul Heckingbottom sits down to write his half-term report, detailing the first 23 assignments of his team’s 46 match season, the Sheffield United manager will praise its courage, its commitment and yes, its calibre after climbing to second in the Championship table ahead of the Christmas holidays.

But after watching them make harder work of dispatching Wigan Athletic than really should have been the case, he knows there are still flaws to address during the second period of the campaign in order for them to achieve their promotion potential. Five points clear of third place and only three behind leaders Burnley, United should have spent the closing stages of this contest in cruise control mode rather than fighting a rearguard action after handing Nathan Broadhead an early festive gift.

Kolo Toure’s men were woeful for long periods, with most of their opportunities coming when the visitors were lulled into a false sense of security. Or on those rare occasions when they forgot about ‘process’ and ‘philosophy’ by simply lumping the ball long and charging after it. Keeping possession is all well and good. But there has to be an end product. United, despite enjoying less of it than their opponents before the break, mustered five times as many attempts on target.

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Wigan’s obsession with trying to play their way out of dangerous situations was as ridiculous as the notion that Billy Sharp is finished as a striker. Two months short of his 37th birthday and on the ground where he became the most prolific marksman in the top four divisions this century, the United captain scored for the second time in as many outings to give Heckingbottom’s side the kind of lead their dominance deserved following John Egan’s opener.

Wigan gave it the big licks for Toure beforehand, as the former Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Celtic defender prepared to oversee his first home fixture in charge of their club. Despite being a managerial novice, Toure’s CV meant there was plenty of evidence to sift through as United attempted to second-guess their his thinking.

A former centre-half himself, the 41-year-old will have appreciated the display of strength which saw Egan convert during the opening skirmishes. But the ease with which the Republic of Ireland international manoeuvred himself into a position to meet Oliver Norwood’s corner, as those detailed to shadow him went AWOL, told Toure all he needed to know about why his side is fighting for survival. Wigan’s marking would have infuriated the coach of a Sunday League squad, let alone a two-time Premier League winner and 120-time Cote D’Ivoire international.

Toure was still shaking his head in dismay when United nearly scored a second. Sander Berge, making his first start since October after recovering from injury, was involved in the move which saw Iliman Ndiaye find James McAtee before the on-loan midfielder’s shot was blocked by Curtis Tilt. Berge also drew a save from Jamie Jones while Tilt, already in the book after a set-to with Sharp, was fortunate to escape a second caution after scything down McAtee.

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Sharp exploited another mistake, this time by Tendayi Darikwa, to thread the ball home before, inexplicably, Wigan found themselves back in the contest; Broadhead prodding home when Wes Foderingham spilled James McClean’s cross.

Sheffield United's John Egan celebrates scoring against Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium: Tim Goode/PA Wire.Sheffield United's John Egan celebrates scoring against Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium: Tim Goode/PA Wire.
Sheffield United's John Egan celebrates scoring against Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium: Tim Goode/PA Wire.

Wigan Athletic: Jones, Naylor (Cousins 46), Whatmough (Edmonds-Green 30), Power, Keane, McClean, Tilt, Lang, Broadhead (Fletcher 84), Bennett (Aasgaard 61), Darikwa © (Nyambe 61). Not used: Amos, Shinnie, Fletcher.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Baldock, Stevens, Berge, Sharp © (McBurnie 79), Egan, Ahmedhodzic, Norwood, Clark, McAtee (Doyle 79), Ndiaye (Khadra 87). Not used: Davies, Basham, Lowe, Bogle.

Referee: Dean Whitestone (Northamptonshire).

Attendance: 11,556.