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With the race for promotion starting to really hot up, Sheffield United’s performance against Reading could hardly have come at a worse time. Not since the early part of Slavisa Jokanovic’s reign have we seen this team so disjointed, out of form and lacking quality.
They were second best all over the pitch as Reading put together a ‘proper team performance’ in the eyes of their manager Paul Ince. They were everything United weren’t.
While an opportunity missed, there wasn’t too much damage done to their league position. They started and ended the day in sixth place. With only four games remaining, Paul Heckingbottom says his players are now in a sprint finish to the line in a bid to secure one of those four play-off places.
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Although accepting Reading were full value for their win, he was disappointed with the manner of their winner, coming so soon after United had grabbed a late equaliser. It was a dramatic finish we have already seen before when Huddersfield did exactly the same back in August.
With more twists and turns to come and the pressure starting to ramp up, his message to his players was clear at full-time. They must learn their lesson from this defeat and hold their nerve in these remaining fixtures.
“That was the takeaway message that I left with the players,” he told Yorkshire Live. “You look at where we are now, we have four games left. It’s turning into a sprint, there are more teams involved because of other results and games are going to get tighter and nervier and more important than that one.
“The message is we have to make better decisions. I thought the emotion of scoring and the stadium erupting affected our next two minutes.
“We had more than enough experience to get set up properly to deal with that threat. That’s the takeaway because we will find ourselves in that position again when we have scored and the whole place has gone up.”
As bad as the performance was and defending for the two goals, Heckingbottom’s team selection also came under the spotlight.
Conor Hourihane came in for the injured John Fleck and played alongside Oli Norwood in a holding midfield two, while Ben Osborn was preferred to Sander Berge and pushed up to partner Morgan Gibbs-White as one of two number 10s.
It didn’t work. Hourihane did not have the movement ahead of him to influence the game with his passing and control and Osborn was ineffective. The Blades boss will have some huge calls to make for Monday’s trip to Bristol City. He could be forced to travel without a senior striker after Oli McBurnie came off with a foot injury and Billy Sharp remains a major doubt.
And with the kick-off being pushed back, they could well start the day outside of the promotion picture should results go against them. It will be a huge test of their credentials but an exam they must pass to ensure they don’t surrender the advantage they have held in recent weeks.
“There are things to go through [before Bristol] from that game that are important, that aren’t us,” he added. “We want to learn all the time, but the fact there are only four games to go and we have made it into a sprint means the focus has to be on the next game, 100%.
“The big lesson from that game will be that moment when we have scored, seeing the game out. We want to be in that position, we want to be scoring goals, getting in front and we want teams to be pushing against us but I thought the emotion of that goal, we were a little bit naive then.”
The players cannot deliver another performance like that again and Heckingbottom can’t afford to get his team selection wrong.
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