One clear loser at Sheffield United from Slavisa Jokanovic’s sacking last month has been Ben Osborn, with the Blades moving away from the Serbian’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
The 53-year-old may have scrapped this system in his final two games as the South Yorkshire side’s boss, but the versatile 27-year-old played an integral part in the first-team squad before that switch as one of the club’s only wingers, establishing himself as a key favourite of the former boss.
But with Paul Heckingbottom installed as his permanent successor, the ex-Leeds United manager seems intent on sticking with a three-at-the-back system with no advanced wide men, so there may not be room for Osborn at this stage with this change in formation.
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Although he has played as a left wing-back at Bramall Lane before, the Blades look set to be well-stocked in this position in the summer, with Enda Stevens, Rhys Norrington-Davies and the returning Max Lowe all potentially available as options.
The latter has impressed during his spell at the City Ground so far, especially as a wing-back, so it would be difficult to see the club cash in on him regardless of the division they are in next term. Stevens has re-established himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet too with Norrington-Davies already winning six caps for Wales.
And Osborn won’t enjoy much luck on the other side either, with Jayden Bogle and George Baldock continuing to compete for a spot out on the right.
The fact that he’s played in multiple positions during his career arguably boosts his chances of receiving more first-team opportunities, but on the other hand, he has also become the victim of his own versatility and a jack of all trades and arguably the master of only one as a winger.
This is why the likes of Oliver Norwood, Sander Berge, John Fleck are always likely to be chosen ahead of him in central midfield as more orthodox options – and the same could be argued if he’s competing for a more advanced position in the centre.
He may end up feeling the most comfortable as part of the front three in Heckingbottom’s system, though the presence of Morgan Gibbs-White, David McGoldrick and others in behind the main forward could once again prove to be problematic to his starting prospects.
And at this stage, he doesn’t seem to be a crucial part of the 44-year-old’s plans, only coming on for brief cameos in his three games in charge thus far.
It may be early days, but this lack of first-team involvement is why the promotion chasers need to weigh up his future at the Lane ahead of summer when his deal expires, as they face a key decision on whether to trigger the extension clause in his contract or not.
The winger is clearly a popular figure in South Yorkshire and you only have to look at his coaching career to find out how good of a footballing brain he has, providing valuable advice to his teammates on the pitch, but they need to start preparing for life without him if he fails to force his way into the starting lineup in the coming months.
Not only would they need another player to bolster their squad, but also a character that provides as much value off the pitch as Osborn does as a model professional.
Whether the second-tier side’s boss already has his mind made up on his future remains to be seen – but this may impact his decisions in January if he has so it will be interesting to see the business (both in and out) the club conducts and how this affects the ex-Nottingham Forest man’s predicament at his current side.