Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom believes his players will start to suffer again the moment their commitment levels drop, speaking to The Star ahead of the Boxing Day trip to Preston North End.
The Blades endured a very underwhelming start to their 2021/22 campaign, failing to win any of their opening five league matches and finding themselves in the relegation zone going into the first international break of the season.
Although they picked up slightly after that, with Morgan Gibbs-White, Conor Hourihane and Robin Olsen providing them with a timely boost in September, their failure to adapt to ex-manager Slavisa Jokanovic’s 4-2-3-1 system and inconsistency proved to be a major barrier to success as they tried to climb the Championship table.
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The Serbian did switch his formation after the most recent international interval and enjoyed brief success as he took four points from six last month against Coventry City and Reading, but it was too little, too late for the 53-year-old who was relieved of his duties just days after his side’s trip to the Select Car Leasing Stadium.
Despite Jokanovic’s promotion-winning credentials, performances have clearly picked up under new boss Heckingbottom as the Blades remain unbeaten in their last five matches.
Winning 13 points from a possible 15, they look set to mount a push for a top-six spot – but the 44-year-old sent a warning to his players ahead of their clash at Deepdale on Sunday afternoon after seeing them claim an impressive 1-0 away win at league leaders Fulham.
He said to the Sheffield Star: “The moment we drop off the level of commitment we’re showing, we’ll come unstuck again. And that’s the message. We know how tough the Championship is.
“The good thing is that most of these players have played in this league before and know what it’s about. And I know what it’s about as well.
“That’s what we’ll guard against. We know we’ll get beat. We’ll not be able to win every game.
“But we’ll approach it with the mentality to win every game and see where it gets us. As I’ve said before, the pleasing thing is that we won [at Fulham] in a totally different way.”
This is a game the Blades are almost destined to lose – because that’s the nature of the Championship.
Going unbeaten in their last five and winning against the league leaders earlier this week, they can’t afford to be complacent going into this tie against a side eager to build on a good start to life under Ryan Lowe.
The Lilywhites look set to be a different animal under Lowe compared to their time under Frankie McAvoy, so this will be another tough away test to contend with and Deepdale is likely to be rocking after this new managerial appointment.
In the end, this weekend’s visitors’ squad depth may prove to be the difference on the afternoon with many capable options coming off the bench despite Covid-19 absences, so the latter stages of the game may prove to be decisive for Heckingbottom’s men.
They will want to make a fast start though as they look to establish their status as the dominant side – and with the solid backline they have at their disposal – they will be confident that they can press forward without any real worries of being caught out in defence.
Attack will be the best form of defence for them, even if Morgan Gibbs-White is absent, so they will need to show great commitment to retain possession under pressure and win the ball back.