There’s no point in beating around the bush when it comes to Sheffield United at the moment. The form is patchy at best and performances are inconsistent.
Since hammering Middlesbrough at the beginning of March, United’s record reads like this. Played seven, won two, lost three, drawn two. It’s the sort of form which has seen a glimmer of hope when it comes to the top two turn to a slight panic that the top six might even be beyond us now.
More worrying than the results, though, has been the level of performance. Gone has been that free-flowing attacking football we saw under Heckingbottom initially. Instead, with Billy Sharp out, the Blades look tentative going forward and over-reliant on a moment of magic from Morgan Gibbs-White. United have scored just five times since hitting that four against Boro.
Oli McBurnie has huffed and puffed up front but once again has no goals. He’s injured again, and likely to miss today’s game with Bristol City.
Paul Heckingbottom must get this Blades team firing, and it starts today. And to do so, he might have to turn towards a tactic akin to that of his predecessor, Slavisa Jokanovic.
One of the big problems in recent weeks with United’s attacking play has been how isolated McBurnie and Gibbs-White seem to have been. This is magnified, too, given McBurnie doesn’t make those smart runs in behind to turn defenders like Sharp does. At the moment, defenders are finding it too easy.
Ultimately, it’s Heckingbottom’s job to sort this out. And to do so, he could have to make a slight change to his set-up and go more towards what Jokanovic did for some games. A prime example, albeit a standalone game, was when United hammered Peterborough 6-2.
That day, Jokanovic had Sharp as a central striker but crucially, he had Gibbs-White, Ndiaye, and Ben Osborn all roaming around him. Sharp ran the channels, Gibbs-White and Ndiaye provided the moments of class, and Osborn was the energy they all fed off.
Yes, this also means potentially going back to four at the back. However, a 3-4-3, similar to that that Heckey used against Reading but with different personnel, could also work. Striking options are now seriously limited, so Ndiaye, Gibbs-White, and Sander Berge could work as a three, with John Fleck driving on to help from midfield.
There’s been an air of familiarity with the recent Heckingbottom performances and the latter days of Chris Wilder’s time in charge. United have looked predictable, often getting the ball wide, before being forced to check back, and start again.
We’ve rarely looked like scoring as well. Granted, the home game against Bournemouth did see us create enough to win it. However, recent fixtures against QPR, Stoke, Blackpool, and Barnsley have all seen the Blades offer little in the final third.
Ultimately, this needs to change if we are to make the top six. Heckingbottom and his team have done so, so well to get us into this position. But this feels like a real chance for United to get into that top six and get that immediate return to the Premier League.
It has to start in Bristol today, and Heckingbottom has to ensure his tactics, team choice, and substitutes are all bang on the money.