Preview: Sheffield United

The season is far from over, but it is getting close to feeling that way. For more than any other reason than confidence, this Coventry City team is in need of a big result. Yes, legs are tired, and morale looks low, but these players have shown they are capable of mixing it with the best in this division and it’s time to start showing that again before it is too late.

If the Sky Blues could pick an ideal next opponent, it probably wouldn’t be an increasingly confident Sheffield United side, but making the top six will be about overcoming such challenges. There really would be no better way to restore confidence than beating one of the better teams in the division and there’s no real reason why that can’t happen in this upcoming fixture.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Moore; Hyam, McFadzean, Clarke-Salter; Kane, Hamer, Sheaf, Maatsen; Allen, O'Hare; Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

As he is entitled to, Mark Robins tried something new on Tuesday night, but it didn’t really work. Maybe it was down to a lack of confidence or understanding between the front three of Martyn Waghorn, Matt Godden and Viktor Gyokeres, but it didn’t really address the team’s issues in the final third. With Callum O’Hare fit and available to start, it would be surprising to see the manager return to that gambit for this game.

Just how that front-line looks with O’Hare restored to the XI is anyone’s guess. Viktor Gyokeres could really do with a rest, lending the possibility of Matt Godden and Martyn Waghorn starting as the front-pairing in this game, but the duo’s own fitness issues may prevent that happening. Youngster, Fabio Tavares, has to be considered an option after an impressive cameo against Luton Town, but Mark Robins may well be content to keep him on the fringes of the team rather than placing any undue pressure on him to solve Coventry City’s attacking woes.

Jamie Allen and Gustavo Hamer could well remain the team’s starting midfield partnership, but there is a chance that Allen will be pushed into an advanced role to make up for the lack of fit attacking options, allowing for a return to the starting line-up for Ben Sheaf. Furthermore, Sheaf may well be preferred in central midfield here anyway due to the extra physicality and technical ability he would offer against a Sheffield United side blessed with strong and experienced central midfielders.

At the back, Fankaty Dabo’s return to contention will put pressure on Todd Kane’s place, but Mark Robins may be of a mind not to immediately restore a player to the line-up who let him down in his last appearance. On the subject of letting down the manager, Michael Rose’s place could well be in danger after his error against Luton Town, but that will depend on Dominic Hyam’s fitness status.

Last Time We Met

It was another classic example of a game where Coventry City’s struggles in front of goal prevented them from picking up a win that could have changed the nature of their season. On top for much of the opening hour, a mixture of poor decision-making and poor finishing saw the Sky Blues fail to truly trouble the Sheffield United goal at Bramall Lane.

The final half hour saw the Blades take control of proceedings, as their quality began to tell against Coventry City’s tired legs. Simon Moore had to be in excellent form to prevent David McGoldrick and Morgan Gibbs-White from winning the game for Sheffield United. It was a 0-0 draw, where both sides thoroughly deserved their nil.

The Opposition

The Manager – Paul Heckingbottom

A man who has endured a curious managerial career, starting so impressively at Barnsley, before being the unfortunate person to precede Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United, with a forgettable stint at Hibernian prior to rocking up at Sheffield United as their under-23 manager. Paul Heckingbottom oversaw the back-end of last season, while the Blades were still in the Premier League, as an interim replacement for the iconic, Chris Wilder, ahead of earning the job permanently as a result of an underwhelming start to life back in the Championship for the Bramall Lane outfit under Slavisa Jokanovic.

There was a level of scepticism surrounding Paul Heckingbottom’s permanent appointment, with the club almost openly stating that they were pivoting from an objective of seeking an instant return to the Premier League to focusing on bringing through younger players. However, strong early results from Heckingbottom have instantly shook-off the accusation that he was ‘the cheap option’ in the dug-out, with Sheffield United looking much more likely under his charge to fulfil their pre-season expectations of making the top six, at the very least.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-5-1-1): Foderingham; Davies, Egan, Robinson; Osborn, Berge, Norwood, Hourihane, Norrington-Davies; Gibbs-White; Sharp.
Possible Line-Up

The quality and energy on the ball that the trio of Oliver Norwood, John Fleck and Sander Berge provide is a key element of Sheffield United’s play. With Norwood sitting deep to distribute and stroke the ball around, Berge offering the ability to drift past opponents with his skill on the ball and Fleck, who is likely to miss this game through injury, blending those roles together. In Fleck’s stead, another experienced, high-calibre Championship midfielder, in Conor Hourihane, is likely to come into the side.

Morgan Gibbs-White is another technically-adroit creative player that Sheffield United can call upon in their creative play. Operating just behind Billy Sharp in attack, Gibbs-White floats all over the pitch, where he can utilise his excellent close control and ability to drive past opponents to keep things flowing and drag opposing defences into awkward areas.

Billy Sharp remains a key presence up front for this Sheffield United, at 36 years old. The veteran has looked rejuvenated following the club’s relegation from the top-flight, not just providing those poaching instincts in the final third he is famed for but contributing to playing others into goalscoring areas. From the bench, the Blades can introduce Oli McBurnie to offer a physical, linking presence in attack, or the exciting pacey youngster, Daniel Jebbison.

Another key feature of Sheffield United’s play is the attacking runs of their wing-backs. Injuries to Jayden Bogle and Enda Stevens had threatened to derail the Blades’ play-off bid, but Rhys Norrington-Davies has proven an effective performer on the left, while Paul Heckingbottom has switched between the left-footed, Ben Osborn, on the right and the raw youngster, Femi Seriki.

At the back, John Egan is the key anchoring presence at the heart of Sheffield United’s back three with Ben Davies and Jack Robinson playing either side of him. In goal, Wes Foderingham has proved to be an effective presence between the sticks after issues in the position had dogged the early part of the campaign.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

As in the first meeting between the two teams, central midfield will represent the key battle area for this game. While Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf have shown that they can impose themselves against Sheffield United’s midfield, that was in a game without the running and quality that Sander Berge provides the Blades. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jamie Allen played in the same midfield as Hamer and Sheaf to help level out that battle.

For all of Sheffield United’s midfield quality, Billy Sharp can be left relatively isolated when it comes to getting the ball into the penalty area. Coventry City should be hopeful that if they can maintain a good defensive shape, they can keep Sharp well-marshalled. However, the enterprising runs of Sander Berge and the team’s wing-backs are where the Blades will look to drag the Sky Blues defence out of position and open up space for Sharp to threaten.

For Coventry City, the make-up of the attack will have a huge bearing on the team’s threat in this game. With Sheffield United looking to push forward and take the game to the Sky Blues, having mobility and a presence up front could be important in taking advantage of counter-attacking opportunities. Even at full fitness, this isn’t the kind of game that would suit either Matt Godden or Martyn Waghorn, instead, the focus should be on harnessing the ability of Callum O’Hare and Viktor Gyokeres to carry the ball up the pitch.

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