Preview: Sheffield United

Wednesday night’s hard-fought win over West Bromwich Albion was the perfect response to the capitulation against Swansea City the weekend prior. It puts Coventry City in a strong position heading into the festive fixtures to make the leap into the play-offs. Doing so will likely require coming out of this first game, away at second-placed Sheffield United, with at least a point.

Bramall Lane has so often been the place where Sky Blue dreams have gone to die, any kind of positive result in this game would speak well to this side’s fortitude. If this team can go even better and win this game, it would crystallise the feeling that Coventry City have done something more than go on a good recent run, that they are genuine contenders to achieve something this season.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Wilson; Rose, Doyle, Panzo; Burroughs, Hamer, Sheaf, Bidwell; Allen, O'Hare; Gyokeres.

There really is little that Mark Robins can do with this team right now other than stick with the current starting XI. All of the team’s current major absentees are out for a good few months, while there isn’t really anyone not in the team who should be.

Possibly the only area for consideration is whether to bring Kasey Palmer into the starting XI to inject some cutting edge to the team’s final third play. Whether the attacking midfielder is fit yet to start a game, only the coaching staff will know. With another game quickly on the horizon after this one, the temptation to start Palmer will surely be diminished.

For this kind of game, Mark Robins may want to bring some experience into the side from somewhere, especially in defence. However, there isn’t really the option to do so, beyond bringing Liam Kelly into the midfield, which would likely involve dropping either Gustavo Hamer or Ben Sheaf, and would make the team weaker.

Last Time We Met

It was a typical performance of Coventry City’s recovery over the early part of this season when the Sky Blues took on Sheffield United back in October. At the CBS Arena, the home side successfully stymied the opposition’s attacking threat for much of the game, albeit at the cost of offering much of their own. However, that meant that when Viktor Gyokeres was felled by the Blades’ Chris Basham in the penalty area, Martyn Waghorn’s penalty won the game.

The Opposition

The Manager – Paul Heckingbottom

Since being handed the permanent job around 12 months ago, Paul Heckingbottom has quietly turned Sheffield United into an effective winning unit. The Blades boss hasn’t really done anything radical in his time in charge of the club, but has instead placed an emphasis on trusting the talent and experience that he has had available to him, which saw the team make the play-offs last season and put them in the top two at around the mid-way stage of this campaign.

Paul Heckingbottom’s steadiness in the dug-out has been typified by his ability to turn around a poor run of form around October, which had come after an excellent start to the campaign. Faced with a raft of injuries, Heckingbottom didn’t really change much about the team’s style of play, instead, finding players to plug the gaps in the starting XI and trusting that results would eventually turn around, which they did.

Who To Look Out For?

Posslbie Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Foderingham; Ahmedhodzic, Egan, Clark; Baldock, Norwood, Berge, Stevens; McAtee; Ndiaye, Sharp.

Among a talented Sheffield United squad, there is one player who has stood-out this season, Iliman Ndiaye. A player who made his Football League debut just over a year ago after being spotted playing for Boreham Wood, Ndiaye built on a productive first year at Championship level to become a star this time out, earning a place in Senegal’s World Cup squad. A quick and skilful attacking player who can control the ball under pressure before racing past defenders, Ndiaye has nine goals and four assists in 23 league appearances this season, the most combined goal involvements of any player at this level.

To pair with Ndiaye in attack, Sheffield United can choose between the vastly experienced goal snatcher, Billy Sharp, or the more physical Oliver McBurnie. Sharp has been the form player out of the two recently and is likely to be backed to continue that into this game. As an option from the bench, McBurnie could be devastating against a tired Coventry City back-line.

Sheffield United truly have a wealth of options in central midfield, most of whom are supremely confident and experienced ball-players. Typified by Oliver Norwood, the Blades have the ability to truly dominate and control games at this level, especially at home. Sander Berge’s combination of energy and physicality can make him a dangerous player when making late runs into the penalty area, while Manchester City loanee, James McAtee, has been showing good form in recent weeks.

At the back, Sheffield United have a number of defenders who like to stretch the game by making enterprising forward runs. George Baldock and Enda Stevens are a well-established wing-back combination that were instrumental during the club’s recent stay in the Premier League. On top of that, Anel Ahmedhodzic can really stretch the game with his desire to carry the ball into midfield from a wide centre-back position. All of which makes it vitally important that John Egan in the heart of the defence and Wes Foderingham in goal can put out any fires that come their way when those ahead of them bomb forward.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Coventry City have largely dealt well over the past two games to having the minority of possession, which is likely to continue into this game. By packing out the midfield, the Sky Blues have been able to be patient in allowing the opposition to build from the back, before squeezing them as they attempt to push up further. The ability of that four of Ben Sheaf, Gustavo Hamer, Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare to press in the right areas is going to be key for this team in this game, which they have shown they are perfectly capable of.

The danger in this game for Coventry City is what happens if Sheffield United can progress the ball towards the final third and apply pressure on the Sky Blues’ back-line. The Blades are likely to look to stretch the game by switching the ball quickly and isolate Coventry City’s wing-backs, which would appear to be a key battle area in this game.

Away from the overarching battle between Sheffield United’s possession and Coventry City’s off-the-ball discipline, this game could be won by either side on the counter-attack. Viktor Gyokeres’ ability to occupy and beat defenders when given the opportunity to run at them is well-known from a Sky Blues perspective, however, the away side are going to have to be mindful that Iliman Ndiaye could be devastating if they look to push up the pitch. Given that most of the chances Coventry City conceded in midweek came from giving the ball away when on the attack, taking care of possession to avoid those situations happening again could be very important here.

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