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Opposition Report: Sheffield United

Middlesbrough travel to Bramall Lane to face fellow playoff challengers Sheffield United.

Middlesbrough made it nine wins in a row at home at the weekend. Luton Town travelled to the Northeast. Despite finding a late goal, Jones' side didn't do enough to turn around a 2-goal deficit. Middlesbrough earned this vantage point from a McNair converted penalty, and a low driven Duncan Watmore finish. Any regular readers may realise that we successfully predicted the scoreline for this clash.

Middlesbrough are currently going through a challenging run of fixtures. They have had to grapple with West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur, and Luton Town within the last four games. This difficult run of games will continue as they travel to the Blades in mid-week. However, Sheffield United are one of many challenging upcoming games as Boro has passed the halfway point in this run of competitive fixtures. Wilder's men still have to face the ever-combative Millwall and Chelsea in the three games following the clash with Sheffield United. A challenging run of fixtures only makes continuing in the same vein of form more critical. If they fall below their standards, a poor run could negatively impact the club's charge for promotion.

The Sheffield United clash takes on another dimension of intrigue, though. Middlesbrough's manager, Chris Wilder, spent an extensive period at Sheffield United. He would break into the top half of the league with the Blades outperforming expectations and earning the LMA Manager of the Year award in 2019. However, disagreements with owner Prince Abdulla over plans for the club's future led to him leaving the post. The fractured relationships that came with this separation may well resurface during the game.

Wilder's former club had a sluggish start to the season, but a change in head coach aligned with improvement in form. Since Heckingbottom took over, the club has returned to the playoff conversation. As things stand, the Blades are 7th. A single point separates them from Boro.

Middlesbrough is going into a second six-pointer in a row. If Sheffield United wins, they will overtake Wilder's side, dumping them out of the playoffs. Meanwhile, United would take Boro's place within the top six. On the other hand, if Middlesbrough won, then the traffic at the very top of the table will only get more congested (Middlesbrough have a game in hand on QPR and Blackburn above them, and only one and two points separate them respectively). Additionally, it would damage Sheffield United's campaign for a playoff finish dealing out two promotion-related blows in two games.

Owner: Abdullah bin Musaid Al Saud

Don't let his title fool you. We should not sniff at Prince Abdullah's business credentials. He owns a successful paper manufacturing company in Saudi Arabia, but most of his successes have been in the world of sports.

His first step into the world of sports would come as chairman of Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal FC. He would remain in the post for 18 months, but he would once again play a role in Al-Hilal's future through supervising the club's investments during his brother's chairmanship. He remains a fan of the club to this day.

A few years later, he would return to the football sphere by acquiring 50% of Sheffield United, sharing control of the club with Kevin McCabe. He would further strengthen his control over the club in 2019 when they concluded negotiations and a High Court legal case in Prince Abdullah's favour. As a result, he now owns 100% of the club and its properties.

Sheffield United underwent an impressive change in Prince Abdullah's tenure. The blades were sitting in League One when the Saudi Arabian prince acquired the club. They may have recently peaked momentarily in the Premier League, but they are looking like possible contenders to return to the promised land this season.

If club ownership and princely responsibilities were not enough to occupy him during his early period in charge of Sheffield United, then his role within other sports organisations helped to occupy his time. In June 2014, he was appointed General President of Sports Authority. A title that combined the head of the Olympic committee and the head of the Islamic Solidarity Federation. He has amassed considerable praise for his performance in this role, and rightly so. He was the founder of modern Saudi sport. He privatised numerous Saudi sports clubs, making them competitive in the contemporary sports economy, and he encouraged mass participation in sports in the country. He would leave the role in 2017.

In 2018, he would add to his football club portfolio by acquiring 50% of KFCO Beerschot Wilirijk, a club in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Prince Abdullah increased his share to 75% in January 2020. They have since won promotion to Belgium's top division (Belgium First Division A), where it has remained. However, the 2021/2022 season has been difficult for Prince Abdullah's side, leaving them wasting at the bottom of the table. They have 8 points to make up if they want to have a chance of staying up.

He would continue to build on his portfolio in recent years with the acquisition of the newly created Saudi side, Al Hilal United FC, Indian top side, Kerala United FC, and small French side, La Berrichone de Châteauroux.

If there is anything to garner from his extensive associations with sports, it is this: Prince Abdullah is a knowledgeable and wise operator in this sector.

Manager: Paul Heckingbottom

The mountainous task of finding a predecessor for Chris Wilder led to a protracted recruitment process. In the meantime, Under-23's head coach Paul Heckingbottom was appointed in his stead but only temporarily. The club wanted a big name and a prominent character to lead the club's return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

Enter Slaviša Jokanović.

The former Fulham manager is a highly successful at this level. He started his career in England at tumultuous Watford. Yet he would lead the Hornets to the Premier League before he was expectantly relieved of his duties. However, he would lead a second promotion campaign during a three-year stint at Fulham, adding to his reputation. Atypically Jokanović does not feel tied down to English football. He has also worked in Qatar, Israel and Spain. The extent of his experience across cultural lines and country borders has only deepened his reputation and capability as a coach.

By appointing the Serbian, Sheffield United were making a statement of intent. They may be back in the Championship, but it would be a flying visit.

However, there were early signs that concerned some onlookers. The squad was built to fit Wilder's revolutionary tactics, with the overlapping centre backs becoming synonymous with the Blades. This left the club in an interesting predicament. The question was: Evolution or Revolution? Naturally, the club opted for evolution. It was realising how successful the blueprint had been in previous seasons, giving them a 7th place Premier League finish, that educated their decision.

Unfortunately, the club's long-term planning didn't appear to align with their most recent head coaching recruit. This will come as little surprise to Boro fans, but Wilder almost exclusively opts for a back three, which is the foundation on which his overlapping centre back system functioned. Jokanović has often favoured a more stable back four. A preference that he didn't readily drop once he joined Sheffield United. He opted for a back four on opening day and continued to tinker with the formation before succumbing to a back three, albeit in a different ilk. Jokanović appeared to have turned a corner just before his sacking. He had settled on a three centre-back formation and had reaped two clean sheets and four points in two games for his troubles. So Jokanović was surprised when he was relieved of duty. The board referenced diverting too far from the club's long-term plan and the sides form as explanations for his sacking.

The team's playing philosophy conflict most likely worsened the early fractions between Jokanović and the board. One point of contention was the club's transfer business. In wooing Jokanović to the club, the board promised to reinvest 50% of the club's transfer income into the squad. However, the club would refuse to invest more than nominal sums into the team during the summer, instead relying on the loan market to fill holes in the team. Ordinarily, this is typical for a recently relegated side. But this promise and the club receiving £25m for Ramsdale left him disillusioned with the Blades transfer dealings. He found the squad so unsatisfactory that he took to the press to make his desire for numerous recruits in specific positions during the January transfer window known in November.

Additionally, Jokanović mirrored the complaints of Wilder before his exit. The current Boro manager informed the Blades board that the training ground was not satisfactory for a side that wants to compete in the English game's upper echelons. Jokanović agreed with this conclusion requesting improvements, much to the board's frustration, who believed he was deflecting from his shortcomings.

The dismissal of Jokanović put Sheffield United in a difficult predicament. While they had a good long-term plan, they needed to find a head coach to teach and evolve the rare tactic. Re-enter Heckingbottom.

Paul Heckingbottom was a fixture of the club during Chris Wilder's tenure. He has deployed Wilder's style of play, albeit at the Under-23 level, giving him a firmer grasp on the philosophy than most coaches. Neither is he a complete novice at this level of coaching. He has managed 160 first-team games. However, aside from his two years at Barnsley, his record had been average at best before he was appointed as head coach at Sheffield United.

His appointment is also in line with another shift at the club. Following Heckingbottom's announcement, the club revealed a change of focus towards the academy. Jack Lester's promotion to head of development alongside Heckingbottom's promotion from the under-23's will have the explicit aim of opening a path from the youth quarters into the first team should a player be good enough.

Since his return to the top job, Heckingbottom has reinstilled a Wilderesque style of play, and the improvements have followed. The system fits the squad available, and so it has helped to get the most out of the individuals available to Heckingbottom. However, a recent stagnation in form may question whether he has the wherewithal to turn tactical know-how, player development and man-management into a charge for promotion.

One To Watch: Billy Sharp

Billy Sharp needs no introduction. The 36-year-old has made a career out of being consistently clinical, including several goals against Middlesbrough. Yet, in the moonlight stage of his career, he remains a serious threat to any Championship defence.

Despite getting into the latter stages of his career, he has been picked constantly in the Championship this season. Sharp has played a role in all of Sheffield United's 34 games this season. He has far from making up the numbers in the team too. Sharp has contributed 13 goals and seven assists to the Sheffield United promotion cause, including one scored last time out. Before his last time out, Sharp had been in a short stuttering goal form, having not scored in two games. If he had continued in this vein, then it would have blunted Sheffield United's sharp edge.

Billy Sharp is a perfect example of a poacher. He rarely gets involved in the sides build-up play, preferring to spend this time sniffing around the opposition's defensive line for weaknesses. But once the ball gets into the final third, he comes alive. He is one of the best on the short burst in the box; if he gets half a yard on his opponent, he will fashion a chance for himself. These opportunities may not come all that frequently, as reflected in his 1.8 shots per game. Still, with 0.8 shots on target per match and a 180 minutes per goal ratio, it rarely takes him many opportunities to capitalise.

Surprisingly, Sharp also plays the role of facilitator with confidence. It is no coincidence that he tops the clubs' assists chart too. Due to his danger in the box, opposition defenders often overcommit to cover his shooting angles. However, this helps Sharp fashion opportunities for his teammates. While he may not have the highest key passes per 90 (0.9 key passes = 10th), the close parameter to the goal means a higher chance of his teammate converting (see xG statistics).

Finally, we can expect a Wilderesque side to press from the front. While Sharp is far from a natural defensively, he can occasionally break up the opposition's patterns of play. Unfortunately, this often results in fouls, further disrupting the rhythm but potentially at the cost of his further involvement.

In Billy Sharp, Sheffield United have as close to guaranteed goals as you can get. As his name suggests, he is a sharp finisher.

Hot Prospect: Morgan Gibbs-White

Morgan Gibbs-White has been regarded as a serious talent since he broke on the scene with Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, he remains contracted to the Premier League club that is carefully surveying his performances in the Championship to judge if he can make the jump up the leagues. A lack of game time hindered Gibbs-White's loan to Swansea last season. However, that has not been the case this season, and his performances have impressed fans and pundits alike.

An attacking midfielder by trade, Morgan Gibbs-White, had to fill in the wide areas for Jokanovic during the early months of the season before moving into a central position under Heckingbottom. Yet, despite a lack of consistency in his roles, he has consistently influenced proceedings for the Blades.

He has provided seven goals and six assists so far this season. His tally puts him second in both categories behind previously mentioned Billy Sharp. So it's unsurprising that he also has the second-best minutes per goal ratio sitting at 260. Further, it's essential to recognise that he would be topping these tallies if it weren't for Sharp's outstanding performances. His performance statistics indicate that he is arguably a more important figure than Sharp going forwards.

The 21-year-old makes up a large proportion of the side's shots averaging 2.2 attempts per game. However, only 0.8 of these have challenged the goalkeeper. It would be easy to dismiss him for this relatively low shot on target rate, but this signifies the type of shots he typically dispatches. Gibbs-White will unleash shots from outside the box. He is particularly good at fashioning such chances in the vicinity of the opposition's D. His technique allows him to be a considerable danger from this position. He is currently outcompeting his xG by two goals, which, if he can sustain it, will highlight that he is above average from distance. In having a good player from this range, Gibbs-White adds an extra dynamic to United's attack making them increasingly dangerous.

Gibbs-White is also important in chance creation. He may be second in the assist tally. Still, he has provided the most key passes per 90 with 1.7 showing the consistency by which he provides opportunities for teammates which is equally reflected in his 12 big chances created, the most of any player at the club.

He is also a dynamic force in the midfield, averaging 1.3 dribbles per game. Of course, these statistics were inflated due to his role under Jokanovic, but it highlights that he is comfortable ball carrying in dangerous areas of the pitch. Finally, Isiah Jones' trickery and pace have meant that the youngster has won several fouls for Boro this season. Gibbs-White shares a similar advantage for the Blades, having won 1.1 fouls per 90.

Heckingbottom recognises the inherent talent that Gibbs-White has at his disposal. However, to fit him into one of his preferred systems, Gibbs-White has had to deputise at central midfield. He is comfortable in this role with respectable distribution statistics this season. But it does limit his opportunities to influence the game from his favoured areas, resulting in some of his average performances in recent weeks.

Morgan Gibbs-White is too good for the Championship. A step into the Premier League limelight is due. Whether this happens at Wolverhampton Wanderers or a new club is yet to be revealed.

Honourable Mentions:

Oliver Norwood:

Experience and know-how will have increasing importance at Sheffield United as they turn their attention towards seeding young players into the first team. At 30 years old, Norwood has ample experience to call on to ease these youngsters through the trials and tribulations of Championship football and beyond. He is also an excellent defensive-minded central midfielder in his own right. He has supported the attackers with three assists, but we expect him to add a few more between now and the end of the season.

Chris Basham:

Another experienced head but at the heart of the defence, Basham is one of the club's overlapping centre backs. He can be a pleasure to watch when he is at his best. Chris Basham is a formidable foe, and one Middlesbrough will need to be very wary.

Sander Berge:

The Norwegian may have struggled to hit the heights expected from him this season, but he remains a very talented midfielder. In addition, he may have struggled to contend with the league's physicality as he typically thrives in more technical leagues (he was outstanding during his period at Genk). However, if he manages to adjust to the league, he could become one of the best in the Championship, reinvigorating interest in the 24 capped Norwegian international. After all there is a reason why Napoli were rumoured to be interested in him before his transfer to Yorkshire.

Prediction: Sheffield United 0-1 Middlesbrough

This one is shaping up to be a tight game. Both teams will line up in near-identical systems, and they will aim to play in near-identical styles. So it will either become a challenge of who can do it better or who's game changers can make the difference.

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