Why Man City fans should be delighted with James McAtee’s recent form for Sheffield United
The Manchester City protegee has only continued to impress on loan in Yorkshire.
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Highly rated youngster James McAtee looks like ending 2022 as one of the Championship’s in-form players, which is good news for Manchester City and the club’s continued quest to produce the best young talent in the country.
Having joined Sheffield United on loan for the season, midfielder McAtee, then just 19-years old, found the rough and tumble of the Championship difficult to get to grips with in the early stages of his life away from City, and his first loan move caused some concerns about his progression.
The England under-21 international made his Blades debut in a Carabao Cup defeat to West Bromwich Albion having been an unused substitute in Sheffield United’s league win against Millwall a few days earlier. McAtee again failed to make it off the bench in the next Championship fixture against Middlesbrough, but a first start arrived a few days later in a home victory over Sunderland.
It was a decent display for the then teenager, but there were signs that the ultra-physical nature of the division might prove a stumbling block. Those fears were to materialise later that month when Luton Town’s midfield steamrollered McAtee in front of the Sky cameras and he didn’t come out for the second half.
It was a lesson for the player and to the management that there was work to be done and Blades boss Paul Heckingbottom acknowledged as much, post-match. “James will feel shocking, totally shocking,” Heckingbottom told The Sheffield Star.
“But if we’re watching him in the Premier League in a few years time, it’s a match he’ll always look back on and remember. He’ll never forget what happened out there and that’s a good thing. Everyone goes through it, and I mean everyone.”
Eventually that eye-opening 45 minutes would prove to be a watershed moment in McAtee’s fledgling career and as he was eased back into contention after dropping out of the starting line-up and upturn in form before the World Cup break provided promise and his first senior goal in a 3-3 draw with Blackpool.
Perhaps that pause in the Championship also offered a help, an opportunity to work on things on the training ground and take on board instructions without the concern of a packed fixture schedule confusing or at least distracting a young player learning on the job.
Since the return to action, McAtee has been one of the star performers in a Sheffield United team that, given the 11-point gap between second and third in the table, look set to join Vincent Kompany’s Burnley back in the top flight next season. "I have had quite a few chats with the gaffer [Heckingbottom], Jack [Lester] and Macca [Stuart McCall]. There is a lot I want to improve on," he said earlier this month.
“Going back to the Luton game that was a wake-up call for me. When I was playing I was a bit in the headlights, I was a bit confused and didn't know what was happening. But I feel every game I am getting stronger and better and getting used to the speed.
“Not doing so well at the start has probably helped me more because I have learned more from being thrown around and being fouled, so yeah it's been a great decision [to come on loan]. Hopefully now in the second half of the season I can kick on."
Another goal against Coventry on Boxing Day was swiftly followed on Thursday by a superb solo effort, again against Blackpool, which helped stretch the Blades’ winning run to five. The Luton Town horror show is now a distant memory but the fact that the young player mentioned it again, unprompted, following the win at Bloomfield Road shows Heckingbottom was right.
"I feel like looking back at the Luton game, it shows how much I've improved myself and how much I'm loving it here,” he told Sky Sports.
His current manager agrees, telling the club’s TV channel after the win over Blackpool: “I think he is feeling more and more comfortable. Certainly got better without the ball but that is not why we brought him.
“He needs to be good without the ball because we cannot carry anyone, but I think where he is standing now with his ability on the ball and everyone can see why we fought so hard to bring him here.”
This will all be music to the ears of the coaching staff at the Etihad. Pep Guardiola has already described McAtee as ‘a special player’ and no doubt plans will already be in place for the next stage of his progression.
City’s midfield is certainly not going to be easy to break into and maybe another loan move could be on the cards next season. If the club decide the time is right to make the step up into the Premier League, sticking around at Bramall Lane - should the Blades, indeed, win promotion - wouldn’t be the worst call for all concerned.