Sheffield United chief Chris Wilder determined not to waste transfer window of opportunity

Lys Mousset: Learning process.
Lys Mousset: Learning process.
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Chris Wilder is determined not to stand still in January.

READ MORE - Blades linked with Everton’s Mason Holgate

Jack Rodwell.

Jack Rodwell.

His Sheffield United team have started the season better than even they could have expected, jostling those challenging for Europe. Not bad for the side most bookmakers had as favourites for Premier League relegation.

But the job is far from done yet.

Huddersfield Town ended 2017 11th in the Premier League, and Hull City were 10th on New Year’s Eve, 2013 but still got dragged into extremely uncomfortable relegation battles. Both survived, but the momentum pulled them down the next season. Those that stand still do not last long in England’s ruthless top-flight.

It is a message Wilder is clearly hammering home to his board, given how many times he has talked about the need for January reinforcements.

It’s key that we strengthen, it’s important we get the balance right and bring players in.

“It’s key that we strengthen, it’s important we get the balance right and bring players in,” he said.

“It’s a difficult window to work in but we were quite successful last season. Gary Madine and Scott Hogan (signed on loan from Cardiff City and Aston Villa respectively) gave us the boost we needed.”

Leeds United midfielder Connor Leak-Blunt, Kamari Grant and Emil Bohinen, son of former Blackburn Rovers, Derby County and Nottingham Forest midfielder Lars, are on trial at Bramall Lane, but with the greatest of respect to them, Wilder will have his eye on bigger deals than just them.

Ask him where he plans to reinforce, and he understandably becomes less talkative.

Sheffield United Oli McBurnie. Picture: Darren Staples/Sportimage

Sheffield United Oli McBurnie. Picture: Darren Staples/Sportimage

Perhaps the biggest issue is depth.

The back nine are more or less permanent fixtures, having missed four Premier League kick-offs between them this season. A team-sheet without the suspended John Fleck will look odd at Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.

Bringing players directly into the XI is difficult not only because of the high standards set, but also because Wilder prefers his new boys to spend time getting used to his methods, as Lys Mousset – the only new boy in Wilder’s first XI - can testify.

Having come up through the lower leagues, you might think playing twice a week would be no problem for the Blades but that ignores the intensity of a league populated by clubs with squad depth they can only dream of. They have only had three midweek games this season, and have lost two.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

Sheffield United have the best defensive record outside the top two, yet that is the area Wilder will be most concerned about.

Despite what the 3-3 scoreline might suggest, Simon Moore and Phil Jagielka were solid deputies against Manchester United in their first league starts this season. Their overlapping centre-backs and attack-minded wing-backs make the Blades so special, and it will be more difficult to plug the gaps if any are injured or suspended for any period.

They might have found out against Aston Villa, had VAR not overturned Chris Basham’s red card at Carrow Road. It showed how fragile those unblemished appearance records are.

Richard Stearman and Kean Bryan filled in at centre-back in this season’s League Cup, with Kieron Freeman and Ben Osborn outside them, but a 2-1 win at home to Blackburn Rovers and defeat to League One Sunderland were not great adverts when the bar is so high.

Of the four, only Osborn has been trusted from the bench in the league, and for a total of 12 minutes, plus added time.

Wilder has been linked with former Barnsley defender Mason Holgate – comfortable at right-back or centre-back – and free agent Jack Rodwell, who has tried to reinvent himself as a central defender since his career dropped off post-Manchester City, is training at Shirecliffe.

Mo Besic, on loan from Everton, showed as a substitute at Carrow Road he can make light of Oliver Norwood’s absence, which could be important with the holding midfielder one booking from a suspension until the slate is wiped clean in the new year.

The gamble on the super-talented but equally suspect Ravel Morrison has not paid off. August’s cameo against Leicester City has been his only Premier League football this season.

With eight league appearances this term – two from the start when Fleck was injured – Luke Freeman has been the midfield go-to man but Fleck and John Lundstram’s are big shoes to fill and the way they have consistently stepped up as the Blades have risen through the divisions suggests a bit of competition is unlikely to harm them.

Up front, the Blades have their record signing on the bench, and Oli McBurnie has made enough of an impact from it to suggest the money was not wasted. He is no like-for-like replacement for the speedy Mousset or the wandering David McGoldrick, but something different is not to be sniffed at.

Even with their playing time limited, Billy Sharp and Callum Robinson have made it onto the scoresheet.

McGoldrick has not, and that marks out an area for improvement, but the centre-forward gives so much to the team, dropping deep to help the midfield and making chances, an upgrade will be hard to find unless it comes from the man himself breaking his duck.

Bizarrely for the team with the joint second-most clean sheets in this season’s Premier League, it is defensively where they need to concentrate their recruitment.