Matthew Crichton: Former Sunderland defender Paul Heckingbottom guided Sheffield United to the playoff semi-finals last season after replacing Slaviša Jokanović, what did he change which had such a positive upturn in results?
Callum Cheswick: I think what Slavisa tried just simply wasn’t right for this group of players and Heckingbottom went back to what they were good at.
Wilder had recruited players who played in a 3-5-2 shape and they’d been coached for that system for around 3/4 years, for Jokanovic to come in and try and immediately play a 4-2-3-1, a system with 4 at the back which none of the defenders were comfortable at, and then with wingers which we didn’t have any of, was his first problem, and one that Paul immediately resolved by going back to a 352 system.
And the other key thing that changed under Heckingbottom was the style of play. Jokanovic tried to play a very passive but ball retentive style of football, but the players weren’t massively comfortable with that because it was a slow build up.
And then as soon as Heckingbottom came in, there were a lot more positive, forward passes to go and impact the game higher up the pitch, we started engaging higher in our press.
Just the style as a whole, both on and off the ball had a lot more energy and positivity when Paul came in, he did what we were good at under Wilder and made his own adjustments, to shape and styles that we are now seeing work well for him.
MC: The Blades currently have four points so this season, how would you summarise your start to the season?
CC: I think it's been steady.
The game against Watford as our opener we were very poor, we started slow, there were no patterns of play, it seemed like we must’ve had a bit of hangover from last season. But following that we’ve looked strong, the first half against Millwall was the best I’ve seen us in a long time at home, we had a lot of quality but also a lot of balance across the pitch. We looked sharp and meaningful and more like a side that will be up there come May.
And then the game against Middlesborough, we had a goal disallowed that shouldn’t have been and a clear penalty. It was a bit of a what if, but especially second half there were good rotations, we saw good quality against a side who definitely will be up there against a manager who knows us well also, and to come away from there with a point is a solid result really.
The main aim really has to be to make sure our home form is consistently positive like it was the back end of last season and then away from home we do need to be a bit more on the front foot to go and impact games because I think that cost us a bit at times last season.
MC: In terms of aspirations for the season, is another playoff push the aim or are fans expecting an automatic challenge?
CC: I think it's a bit of both.
I think as a minimum the fans want is the play offs, but with the form and quality we showed under Heckingbottom last season I think a lot of supporters are hoping for the top 2. And in my own opinion as well I believe that the Championship is probably the weakest it has been for a while, I don’t think there’s any side that stands out as being a runaway contender.
But I do think if there’s any sides that will be competing at the top end it will be us and Middlesborough. The only thing that I think would stop us from finishing top 6 at a minimum is injuries, if we can keep the majority of the squad fit for most of the campaign I believe we’ll be right up there.
MC: Sheffield United have recruited one permanent signing and four loan signings so far, are you satisfied with your approach in this transfer window?
CC: Obviously we would like more permanent transfers because it allows us to build more for the future but the lads we have bought in on loan we probably wouldn’t have been able to sign permanently.
So for the loans, we’ve bought in Ciaran Clark on loan from Newcastle. He gives us cover for the left side of the back three while Jack O’Connell is still out because we did only have Jack Robinson, however, as luck would now have it, those two are both injured as well.
Reda Khadra on loan from Brighton. He tore us apart in the two games we played against Blackburn where he was on loan last season, what he offers us that we only had in Illiman Ndiaye really, is the 1v1 ability he has and his pace to cause problems in the final third.
James McAtee from Manchester City. McAtee is highly regarded at City and has some outstanding goals and assist figures in the last couple of years, he will mainly play as an out an out number 10 which we don’t really have one of at the club. His calmness and technique in and around the 18 yard box should see him be a vital figure for goal creation in games where teams defend in a low block.
Tommy Doyle from Manchester City. He gives us a dead ball threat and is a lot more dynamic than the other central midfield options we have. Norwood and Fleck are more suited for their passing and ball carrying abilities respectively, however, one thing we do lack in the centre of the park is dynamism and athleticism in midfield, Doyle is good on the ball but also can cover ground better than the other two mentioned.
We have signed Anel Ahmedhodzic on a permanent deal from Malmo. With Chris Basham the wrong side of 30 it is massively important to bring in someone who can learn the role of the outside centre half for the future and Anel can do that. He was ranked the 7th best centre back in Ligue 1 at Bordeaux and his in possession statistics are outrageous, if he continues to stand out at this level he will get interest from the top flight very quickly.
MC: Ex-Sunderland defender John Egan has gone on to have an excellent career following his release back in 2014, what has led to him being so successful at Sheffield United?
CC: I think what has really helped Egan is that he has two centre halves at the side of him. The two outside centre halves are usually the more aggressive at going to win the ball, which then allows him to be the deeper of the three so he can pick up any loose balls and deal with things over the top.
But by being the deeper of the three, he will have a lot more time on the ball and I think that’s where he’s really developed his game. I think his passing range and technical ability has really improved, especially since we were in the Premier League he has used that experience and step up in quality to make his own game better.
I still think in a four he wouldn’t perform to the standard we expect but as a sweeper he’s in a role that suits his qualities.
MC: One player that Sunderland were heavily linked with last season was Dan Jebbison, are you expecting him to remain as part of your first team this year?
CC: Yeah I do think Jebbison will be staying at United for the season.
We do have a few forward options such as; Brewster, Sharp, McBurnie, Osula. I think he offers something different to the rest but more importantly, I think training with Billy Sharp, being coached by Jack Lester, he will develop more staying at the Blades for another year.
Plus he started our opening fixture against Watford so I think Heckingbottom definitely sees a role for him here this season.
MC: Sander Berge appears to have caught plenty of headlines so far this season, which Sheffield United players do you think can cause Sunderland problems during the match?
CC: Definitely Berge, technically I believe he is the best player in the division. He has a great passing range and his ball carrying is a level above. His physicality and ability can honestly bully oppositions. The only problem is he hasn’t been able to do it for a full 90 minutes yet, however, even if he only does it once, due to the ability he possesses that could genuinely be enough to win a game for us, the bloke is too good for this league.
Iliman Ndiaye has also started brilliantly, he’s another player who can make something happen out of nothing. He’s more of a raw talent compared to Berge and does like to play a little higher than the Norwegian but that’s beneficial to United. With no longer having Morgan Gibbs-White, we do need someone to step up as that flair player who has just the ability to win games on their own, and I think he’s definitely one who can step up and do that.
I will mention Anel Ahmedhodzic in the next question but the final player who can cause problems is the other player in that front three, Rhian Brewster. He has had the burden of a 24 million pound price tag on his head since he come in and hasn’t lived up to expectations since he came in. He did start to pick up just before he got injured last season but that came just at the wrong time. This preseason he’s scored a fair few goals but more than that, his performances have been brilliant. His movement off the ball now is so much better than it was at the start of his spell here. He’s got a spark and new energy since Heckingbottom come in and the goals will come I know that without a doubt.
MC: In terms of style of play, can we expect the Wilder-esque overlapping centre-backs or has your style changed under Heckingbottom?
CC: There definitely will be occasions where our outside centre halves get on the overlap 100%.
However, it is slightly more conservative than it was in the past, especially down our left side. Ciaran Clark started well on the left against Millwall but is now out for the foreseeable future, Rhys Norrington-Davies by trade is a left wing back.
He will get forward at times, but he won’t know the triggers for the overlap to start.
Compare that to our right side, Anel Ahmedhodzic won man of the match against Millwall, he’s a fantastic ball carrier from centre half and always looked to get beyond George Baldock, he’s been a superb acquisition and will cause problems on Wednesday night.
MC: Which eleven players do you think he will select to face Alex Neil’s side?
CC: Foderingham, Ahmedhodzic/Egan/Norrington-Davies, Baldock/Norwood/Fleck/Lowe, Berge/Brewster/Ndiaye.
MC: Sunderland won 1-0 on their last visit to Bramall Lane, courtesy of a Max Power goal - what is your score prediction this time around?
CC: Well Sunderland clearly have the momentum after promotion last season and have made some great additions during the transfer window to add to that.
Obviously the home factor is going to play a factor, as it would for Sunderland if it was at the Stadium of Light.
We played well the last couple of games, if we perform to the levels we did in the first half against Millwall we should be comfortable for the quality we have, but we do need to be wary of the threat Sunderland have.
Our left side has been caught out on a couple of occasions so far this season so that is a slight concern and something that Sunderland will look to try and use to their advantage.
Should we defend that side well also, I am going to say a 2-0 United win, I just think the Blades have a bit too much quality at the top end of the pitch.