Luton Town v Sheffield United: Confusion gone as Blades are happy to set pace

WHAT a difference a year makes.

Almost exactly 12 months ago to the day, Sheffield United called in at Kenilworth Road and exhibited traits of an identity crisis under then manager Slavisa Jokanovic.

United laboured to a goalless draw – their fifth match without a league win at the start of the 2021-22 season – and were somewhat fortunate to come away with anything, in truth.

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Traces of the Jokanovic style were hard to detect. Players looked confused and options looked not exactly plentiful either with a return of one goal in five games telling its story. With those sort of statistics, it was no surprise that the Blades sat in the relegation zone in the early table.

Paul Heckingbottom manager of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Simon Bellis / SportimagePaul Heckingbottom manager of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Paul Heckingbottom manager of Sheffield Utd. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

A measure of the exasperation of the Serb arrived in a very public pronouncement for more support from the board to ‘refresh the squad’ in the aftermath of events at Kenilworth Road – and ahead of the closure of the 2021 summer window.

It was the precursor to a difficult autumn which ended in Jokanovic’s departure.

The mood music is somewhat happier ahead of the club’s latest trip to Bedfordshire.

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United top the table with 10 points from five matches and while Paul Heckingbottom can talk as much as he wants about the league standings meaning nothing, the fact that a victory could move the visitors four points clear at the summit will not be lost upon Unitedites.

Former Blades player Luke Freeman. Picture: Alistair Langham / SportimageFormer Blades player Luke Freeman. Picture: Alistair Langham / Sportimage
Former Blades player Luke Freeman. Picture: Alistair Langham / Sportimage

Under Heckingbottom, United have their verve and intensity back. There is no tactical confusion either.

Despite some early-season highs already, the grounded Blades chief is striving for much more. Home form is resoundingly strong, but his side have not won away from Bramall Lane yet.

A win at a Luton side who have lost just twice on home soil in the league since late November would be significant.

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Heckingbottom may not look at the league placings, but is smart enough to acknowledge that opponents probably will do.

A Luton side who punched above their weight magnificently last season en route to the play-offs and proved no respecter of lofty reputations will have duly noted it, rest assured.

Heckingbottom said: “It (the table) means nothing. I’ve no doubt Nathan (Jones) and Luton can talk it up and we have a target on our backs and I get that. We’d do exactly the same.

“Sometimes, It can be easier that way to talk about the team that’s coming.

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“Maybe it’s significant from that respect, but it’s not from our approach.”

Luton’s squad has a decidedly Yorkshire flavour, with strikers Cauley Woodrow and Carlton Morris arriving from Barnsley in the summer to add to a contingent which has plenty of White Rose links.

James Bree, Jordan Clark and Cameron Jerome all hail from the county, alongside Hull-born captain Sonny Bradley, who could return from injury this evening

Reece Burke used to ply his trade at Hull City, while Luke Freeman comes up against his former club tonight, of course.

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Heckingbottom continued: “They strengthened in the summer on paper and with the players Nathan has got available, it looks like they’ve done really good business.

“Not too much has changed in terms of their approach and we expect them to play on the front foot and try to make it difficult at home and we need to be ready for that and also be good enough to try impose ourselves on the game.”

The presence of Freeman, who joined Luton in the summer after being freed by United, adds a spot of intrigue to this fixture.

A former club record buy ahead of Blades’ foray in the Premier League in 2019-20, the midfielder struggled to carve out a niche at S2 and find the form which earned him so many admirers at QPR.

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As the saying goes, form is temporary and class is permanent, with United entitled to be conscious of the ex-factor tonight.

Blades stalwart Chris Basham said: “He’s a great player. A very good player. I made my (United) debut against Luke nine years ago when we played against Bristol City and I think he scored.

“I always said he was ‘top end’ and he came here when we were in the Premier League and it is always tough to come when you get promoted because of the players you have already got who have made that achievement. It’s hard to break into a side.

“He will be wanting to put a marker down and will be fancying himself against us.

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“He knows lads’ weaknesses and how we are going to shape up and he will be well up for it.

“He is a tough player to play when he gets going.”

John Fleck, Iliman Ndiaye and Anel Ahmedhodzic are expected to be available this evening despite picking up knocks last weekend.

The game comes too soon for Enda Stevens and Ciaran Clark, who are progressing well in their road back to fitness.

Billy Sharp, Ben Osborn and Jayden Bogle are also sidelined for the visitors.

Last six games: Luton DDLLLW; Sheffield United LWLDWW.

Referee: D Webb (Co.Durham).

Last time: Luton 0 Sheffield United 0, August 28, 2021; Championship.

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