Leeds United head coach Paul Heckingbottom admitted he was fighting a “fear factor” amongst the club’s players after his first game in charge ended in defeat to Sheffield United.
Heckingbottom said raising the confidence of his players is an immediate priority and promised to give them “more freedom” as he reflected on the slow start which set the tone for Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Elland Road.
Leeds were picked off after two minutes by a Billy Sharp volley, scored at the end of Sheffield United’s first attack, and Leeds – under Heckingbottom for the first time following the sacking of Thomas Christiansen last weekend – took until the start of the second half to hit back and equalise through Pierre-Michel Lasogga.
The club had been guilty of starting games slowly in the final stages of Christiansen’s reign and Heckingbottom, who inherited a squad without a win since Boxing Day, made the worst possible start with Sharp’s early strike.
Leeds took control after Lasogga’s finish but conceding again on 74 minutes when Sharp converted a penalty.
Heckingbottom insisted the tension amongst his players had “lifted in the second half” but said: “It’s my job to give them that freedom and take the pressure off.
“The last thing you want is anybody playing within themselves or subconsciously being stifled, not being able to express themselves. You can do that by lifting the fear factor and changing expectations.
“With Sheffield United, it’s one of their traits, especially at Bramall Lane. They’re a team who like to build momentum, playing on the front foot. That’s what we want to be.”
Asked if his first game in charge had encouraged him or increased the task on his hands, Heckingbottom said: “Both but there were lots of things on there we don’t want to see in our team. We have to know how we want to play.”
Sheffield United’s penalty came after Eunan O’Kane was adjudged to have tripped John Fleck, despite attempting to halt his challenge at the last moment.
“I’ve heard a lot of different views on it and the gut instinct from my position and the reaction of everyone, I would have said no penalty with the way Fleck went down,” Heckingbottom said.
Referee Andrew Madley had earlier shown Blades midfielder Lee Evans a yellow card for a foul on Gjanni Alioski, showing leniency after Evans led with his studs up.
“Everyone’s asking me about it so I’m presuming it looked worse on telly than it did in actual time,” Heckingbottom said. “Gjanni’s got a nice mark on his leg so he’s definitely caught him a beauty but I assume you’ve all seen something I’ve not seen.” Leeds’ improvement in the second half was helped by the introduction of Pablo Hernandez, who appeared as a 45th minute substitute for Kemar Roofe. Roofe was withdrawn with suspected concussion having lost a tooth after taking a knee to the head.
Heckingbottom revealed that Hernandez had been unable to train until the latter stages of last week, leading the United boss to name him on the bench, but the Spaniard helped to make more of the 4-1-4-1 formation which Sheffield United made light work of before the break.
“Because we were on the back foot (in the first half), it was very much 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1,” Heckingbottom said. “When we were on the front foot in the second half, it was very much a 4-3-3. You saw two different sides of it and we’re disappointed with the result, especially with the way we came back in the second half.”