Paul Heckingbottom can console himself by thinking that no managerial change would have countered Billy Sharp. Sharp has Leeds United’s number and before their defeat at Bramall Lane on Saturday, his father messaged him to remind him that he was sitting on a tally of five goals in five games against the club from Elland Road. “He believed I’d score,” Sharp said. “I felt the same.”
By 2pm the tally was seven in six, to Sheffield United’s obvious delight, and Heckingbottom’s first match in the ever-hardening job of managing Leeds traced a well-worn plot. The same old Sharp and the same old Leeds, beaten once more by a poacher who sticks the knife in with relish and the shortcomings which brought Heckingbottom to the coal face at Elland Road last week.
Heckingbottom, fresh from two years managing Barnsley, was pleased to be taking on a squad with at least a sniff of reaching the Championship’s play-offs but it was not the league table which compelled Leeds to sack Thomas Christiansen eight days ago. The last month of Christiansen’s time as head coach created problems: players down on confidence and out of form en masse, brittle bones in defence and nowhere near enough potency in open play going forward.
Gjanni Alioski embodied the confidence issue with a performance littered with loose touches, overhead kicks and shots from the moon. Two misjudgements from Eunan O’Kane – captain for the day on his return from a headbutt and a three-match ban – were pounced upon by Sharp. It was all there from the start at Bramall Lane as Sharp scored after two minutes and Leeds hid in their shell until half-time. “There was a bit of apprehension out there,” Heckingbottom said. “I could sense it.”
Sheffield United were trying to eradicate tension too, having fallen behind the Championship’s top six, but there was bite in their football and genius in Sharp’s second-minute volley. Renowned as what Arsene Wenger once called a fox-in-the-box, he dispensed with tap-ins in the style of his goal at Elland Road in October and beat Felix Wiedwald with a swiveling finish, driven under the crossbar after Mark Duffy was left to cross from the right and O’Kane glanced a weak clearance towards the penalty spot.
Sharp never found his niche with Leeds, rendered peripheral by formations and tactics in his only season at Elland Road, but he drove Sheffield United out of League One last season and could force them into the play-offs this year. Between him and Mark Duffy, Chris Wilder had the devilment and touch which Leeds are sorely lacking without the suspended Samuel Saiz, and were lacking on Saturday until a bout of concussion forced Kemar Roofe to make way for Pablo Hernandez in the 45th minute. The Sheffield United manager was helped too by referee Andrew Madley declining to red card Lee Evans for a studs-up foul on Gjanni Alioski before half-time.
“Sheffield United, in my opinion, are the best in the league at building momentum with their style of play, keeping possession and playing forward,” Heckingbottom said. “They got the ball in the box and they got a goal from it. I know when I watch that goal back there’ll be things I don’t want to see. They’re the things that over time we need to improve.”
Sheffield United’s pressing and positivity shaped the first half. Pontus Jansson was denied an equaliser by a one-handed save from Jamal Blackman at the very end of it, meeting Hernandez’s free-kick with a header, but Sharp wasted a point-blank opportunity in the 10th minute and Duffy shot narrowly wide midway through the half.
The introduction of Hernandez was telling, though, and Leeds made their presence felt after half-time, levelling on 47 minutes through Pierre-Michel Lasogga. Heckingbottom felt the nervousness lift.
“It was pretty simple to see what the difference was,” he said. “Sheffield United were playing forwards all the time, putting us under pressure. In our own half we were playing backwards, inviting pressure. That made Pierre isolated when we did go forward so we had to change that.”
Lasogga’s goal was cleverly crafted and beautifully finished, headed down beyond the fingertips of Blackman after Hernandez robbed Jack O’Connell of possession and floated a cross in from the left. Lasogga met it cleanly and pulled the plug out of Sheffield United’s socket. “We made it hard for ourselves,” Sharp admitted. “Leeds started (the second half) well, scored the goal and looked the better team.”
Leeds’ impetus allowed Heckingbottom’s 4-1-4-1, the system he used at Barnsley this season, to look less like a holding pattern without ambition. Hernandez drove a deflected effort just wide and Leeds tried to turn the screw but Wilder’s players gradually found a way to restore some control. “They pushed us back and we pushed them back,” Wilder said. “My lads have shown they have that desire to outwork the opposition.”
The breaking point came on 74 minutes when Leeds failed to anticipate a quick free-kick from Duffy. John Fleck was first to it and went down under a challenge from O’Kane, who ran to challenge him before attempting to pull out of it. Sharp lined up the penalty and smashed it low to Wiedwald’s right, before the keeper could move.
It set the tone for an end-to-end finish in which Enda Stevens was lucky to escape with a handball inside Sheffield United’s box and Matthew Pennington was lucky to see a corner awarded after he tripped Leon Clarke in Leeds’.
Laurens De Bock lashed a volley wide in injury time but the camel’s back is not breaking for Leeds at the moment.
Heckingbottom’s reign begins in earnest with his side eight points away from the play-offs and Bristol City – the club in sixth – due at Elland Road on Sunday.
“As games run out, you get further and further away,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s fact. But the beauty is we’re playing lots of teams above us so when we’re winning, we’ll be taking points off teams we’re trying to catch. People tell me how difficult this run is but you can flip it and look at it a different way.
“I asked the players after the game, ‘what was the difference second half?’. They said ‘we played on the front foot, we were more positive, we had more energy’. So that’s a starting point. Now their commitment is to the details we’re going to give them because that’s what will make them win games. What we’ve spoken about there is a given every week.”