Sheffield United surprised everybody last season by marching into the Premier League, having a look around and deciding that they were a top half team.
Truth be told, they were probably a little bit disappointed when the season ended and they found themselves in 9th position. At the start of the 2019/20 season they would have been thrilled at the idea of a top half finish, but as the season developed and they drifted between 5th and 8th, they would have been eyeing a European birth.
When football returned post lock-down, the Blades began play in 7th position. A disappointing draw, thanks in large part to a Hawkeye failure, against Aston Villa was the first of three games without a win. Defeats away to Newcastle United and Manchester United saw them drop to 8th, and saw the first real sign of frailty in defense.
United bounced with three wins and a draw from their next four games and climb back to 7th, but then fell to three straight defeats to end the season in 9th.
The absence of Jack O’Connell in the majority of their post lock-down games was felt massively. The Blades had been consistent in their team selections all season long, in terms of the goalkeeper, the defense and the holding midfielder. Dean Henderson and John Egan started 36 of 38 games, Oliver Norwood started 37 of 38, and George Baldock, Enda Stevens and Chris Basham started the lot. Only Jack O’Connell, with 32 starts, missed more than two games.
That continuity, the understanding of the system and each other, was so important to Chris Wilder and his team. Through the first 29 games of last season, Sheffield United conceded only 25 goals. And it’s not that they were a defensive team, both wing-backs pushed forward, their flanking centre-back pushed forward via underlaps and overlaps. The created overloads in a multitude of areas and rarely could have been tagged as a “defensive minded team”.
That back five, plus Henderson and Norwood had grown together in the Championship, but most of them had played together at League One level. They’ve developed unspoken understandings, they’ve developed trust. Take any of them out and the team suffers. It’s not that their the best players, from an individual viewpoint, but they have collective strength.
Each player in Wilder’s system is required to know not just their own role, but that of others. Positional interchanges are key to the system, with Wilder setting his team up in a manner that means his midfielders have to fill in as centre-backs and as wing-backs when the pattern of play dictates it. Familiarity is key, so when a player who’s not entirely familiar with how the system functions is put into the team, the well oiled machine begins to stutter.
They also have fantastic mental strength. Each of the starting back five have played in League Two, League One, The Championship and now the Premier League, as had Henderson during his many loan spells away from Manchester United. Norwood played in League One on loan early in his career. These players had never had anything handed to them, they’ve had to fight for everything. They’ve been discarded by other clubs. They’d all been written off by managers, scouts and fans.
Their collective strength and determination has given this team an identity, and it gave them a foundation. It allowed them to be adventurous, it allowed them to outperform expectations in multiple seasons across The Championship and The Premier League.
Unfortunately for that unit, for The Blades to continue to develop, improve and thrive, that back-line needs to evolve. At the Premier League level, individual deficiencies will eventually get highlighted and opposition teams will expose them. Chris Wilder and the recruitment team have already began to plan for the long term.
Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe have arrived from Derby County this summer, and will provide competition, and eventually replacements for Baldock and Stevens. Bogle in particular is a shrewd signing who could potentially replace Baldock as first choice in the coming months, given his talent and potential.
Depth at centre-back, as well as a possible medium term replacement for Basham, the eldest of the group at 32, was also a necessity this summer. Jack Rodwell and Jack Robinson had been brought in during the second half of last season to offer cover, but neither are of the standard required to start regularly in the Premier League. They were smart, cost effective buys to boost numbers, but Wilder needed to find someone of a higher calibre.
In loan signing Ethan Ampadu, they managed it. Ampadu is one of the biggest talents in the country who offers versatility across the back three and at holding midfield. Such is his talent, he could well displace Basham this season if given the opportunity. Like Basham he is comfortable on the ball and happy to step out from defense into midfield.
While Ampadu is just a loan signing, there is no guarantee that Sheffield United won’t be able to keep him at the club for multiple seasons given Chelsea’s decision to buy every player in the world this summer. No slight to Basham who enjoyed an excellent season and was crowned club player of the year, but Ampadu is a player with a far higher ceiling who could take the team up a level. If Ampadu doesn’t stay beyond next summer, that will be an area to address.
Sander Berge was the big money January arrival and the addition of him to the midfield trio of Lundstram, Norwood and Fleck gave the Blades a nice shot in the arm of added quality. The signing of Berge was quite the coup for the Blades and highlighted an ambition to evolve and develop the team. Capable of playing the right sided role in the midfield three, or the holding role when required, Berge was an instant upgrade who showcased the talents that made him one of the most sought after young players in Europe.
The midfield is an area that United could look to improve in. Outside of Lundstram, Norwood, Fleck and Berge, the only other senior midfielder at the club is Ben Osborn who made only six starts last season in the Premier League. Wilder and co. could go two ways with this, they could look to find an improvement on Norwood, or a creative midfielder who could replace Fleck. The latter is more difficult, given the complexities of Fleck’s role in the team.
A player like Baptiste Santamaria of Angers SCO, or perhaps Marc Roca of Espanyol, would represent realistic targets for Sheffield United and could, especially in the case of Santamaria, give a significant upgrade in midfield. Pairing Santamaria with Berge would mean having two midfielders of significant quality who could go toe to toe with any midfield in the league from an ability standpoint.
While it may seem harsh on Basham and Norwood to talk about looking for replacements and upgrades, given how they both performed since joining the club and their importance to the team, that is the nature of the Premier League. You always have to be looking for improvements or you run the risk of complacency and stagnation. Despite last season’s top half finish, Wilder’s men face a more difficult second season and don’t want to leave themselves with any possibility of a relegation battle.
Santamaria’s presence could give Berge, Fleck and the wingbacks even more license to attack and join the strikers. While there can be no doubting how good Sheffield United were defensively last season, there can likewise be no debating the fact that they struggled to score goals.
While Santamaria would be a good upgrade, it’s not necessarily an immediate need. What is an immediate need, is a goalscorer. Sheffield United need, more than anything else, somebody they can rely on to score goals. 39 goals across a Premier League season is not going to cut it if they want to build on last season. While Oli McBurnie and Lys Mousset are both good players, and both can be expected to improve on their tallies from last season, neither is a natural goalscorer.
McBurnie is at his best partnering a goalscorer. He’ll do all the dirty work, fight all the battles, make a nuisance of himself and show good hold up and link up play, but he’s best when paired with a proper goalscorer.
Likewise Mousset has great movement, good pace and is a highly intelligent player, but he’s best just off the main striker, freed to work the channels, link with his midfielders and become as much goal maker, as goal taker. Mousset is fantastic at occupying defenders with his movement, dragging them out of position to create 1v1 opportunities for others.
Both McBurnie and Mousset are capable of being 2/3s of a three man striker rotation, but neither is suited to being the number one option.
Oliver Burke has arrived from West Brom, but he looks like a project that Wilder will try and make something of. Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick are both at the tailend of their careers and while both will always give everything they have to offer, both are suited to squad roles at this point in their careers.
At time of writing there are some reports that a fee has been agreed with Liverpool for goal scoring prodigy Rhian Brewster. Brewster is a natural predator, capable of scoring all manner of goals and brimming with the confidence to back himself in any and all situations. Liverpool’s financial situation is the sole reason for their willingness to part with the young striker, though they will include a buy-back clause in any deal.
Brewster would thrive under Wilder, and give Wilder the perfect spearhead for his attack. Brewster has good pace, great movement and can finish with either foot. He’s not the type of striker who requires a lot of chances either, he’s a clinical finisher.
Some well respected Blades fans seem doubtful over whether the money is available for Brewster though, so it remains to be seen if this is a deal that can be pulled off. If the money isn’t there that would rule out alternatives like Odsonne Edouard of Celtic and perhaps
Perhaps a loan deal for Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal could be an option, or maybe Everton would part with Moise Kean on a loan with a potential obligation to buy once relegation is avoided. There will be other players out there for Wilder and his recruitment staff to target, but they unquestionably need to add someone else in attack.
The opening game defeat to Wolves highlighted the need for a little bit more control in midfield, a little bit more thrust in attack, and a goalscorer. Santamaria and Brewster represent just two of the options Sheffield United could look to in order to solve those problems.
Those problems are a hold over from last season, and while Monday’s game isn’t a sign of second season syndrome, such a thing is a real concern. While United proved more than a match for Wolves for the final 80 minutes, the lack of goals in the team meant that the game was effectively over after 10 minutes. Chris Wilder is an ambitious man, he’ll want to keep improving his team. It’s up to the powers that be to continue to back him, as they have so far, because there’s little doubt that he’ll continue to reward them.