When 20-year-old midfielder James McAtee joined Sheffield United on loan in August, Manchester City fans were eager to see how the highly-rated youngster would fare with regular senior football.
After initially struggling to climatize to life in the Championship, three months on, his potential is clear to see as he enters the World Cup break on the back of his best performance yet for the Blades.
Man City fans will be pleased to hear high praise from Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom.
When questioned on how the youngster was coping with the physicality of the Championship, he said:
“The physicality isn’t what I’m bothered about with James… he was always going to get bashed about because of the skill set he’s got.
“Yes, you’ve got to be able to stand up to that, of course you have. And that’s an important process to go through, everyone has to do that when they come through.
“What I was actually referring to [previously], when we were talking about his displays, was his value without the ball.
“What he did when he wasn’t in possession, because there’s never been any doubt about what he’s capable of when he is.
“I think you can see he’s taking big leaps forward in that regard. Now we want to see it continue.”
So far this season, McAtee has scored one goal and made one assist in 15 appearances for The Blades, playing an increasingly key role in a team who currently sit in second place in the Championship.
A versatile, left-footed player who can play as either a number six or as an attacking midfielder, Man City supporters have already compared him to the likes of David Silva and Phil Foden, which, while it may be wishful thinking, is certainly the benchmark when it comes to Man City prospects.
McAtee has already featured a handful of times for England under-21s, showing he is highly rated by his country and not just his parent club.
However, it has to be said that while McAtee’s potential is clear to see, he is not yet the finished article.
Three games into his Sheffield United career, the youngster was dragged off at half-time by Heckingbottom after he was dominated by the Luton Town midfield.
Admittedly, this was not the first time he had struggled this season.
Heckingbottom also highlighted that there is a clear difference between playing for Manchester City under-21s and in the Championship, saying:
“At City, because they dominate teams even at under-21 level, James was only really practicing one thing.
“You can see the quality he’s got when he’s on the ball. But they also want him to understand about regains; how to apply pressure and get it back before keeping it.
“At this level, you rarely see teams having 70 or 80 percent possession during a game.
“So that becomes even more important. Then, when you do have it, you really have to make those moments count. That, what he does when he doesn’t have the ball, is something we’ve seen James really improve at.”
McAtee’s progress was clear to see against Cardiff City most recently, a performance which earned him high praise from Heckingbottom and Blades fans alike.
Coming off the bench, the 20-year-old injected some much-needed attacking spark and creativity into United’s performance.
Ultimately, it was McAtee’s run in behind a Cardiff City defender that led to George Baldock pinching the ball for the winning goal in a narrow 1-0 victory.
Pep Guardiola is known for having high standards of his young players, but is extremely keen on McAtee already, previously describing him as a “special player.”
In February, Guardiola said: “It’s important is he’s fully committed to the club, he’s a City supporter, and he loves to be here.
“We are delighted the confidence we have in him to extend for the years to come.”
McAtee has got a lot to prove before he can get himself in with a shout of first-team football at Man City, but if he continues to improve at the rate he is doing at Sheffield United, he has a great chance of a successful career at the Etihad.
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