Sheffield United will end today with one of the strongest squads in their history according to manager Chris Wilder after he broke their transfer record for a fifth time in seven months.
On the back of such a good start to the season – the newly-promoted Blades are eighth in the Premier League after 24 matches – raising the levels at Bramall Lane has not been easy, but Wilder has been determined to do it, turning his sights to unfamiliar markets and committing a record fee for midfielder Sander Berge.
With Jack Rodwell and Jack Robinson added earlier this month, and Panagiotis Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic set to follow, Wilder should have more cover and competition in every outfield position, and as usual he has added players with a point to prove. All have been picked for their suitability to play in Wilder’s innovative 3-5-1-1 formation.
“When the window shuts, the group will be as strong as it’s been for a long, long time in this club’s history,” Wilder reflected ahead of tonight’s 11pm deadline.
With all due respect to the squads of the past – the Blades won a league title in the 19th century and four FA Cups before the Second World War – they did not need the strength in depth required in the Premier League era.
Since Wilder’s unsuccessful attempt to sign Berge in the summer the 21-year-old has put in some impressive Champions League performances playing for Genk in a group including Liverpool and Napoli. That only increased interest, but his new manager’s persistence was persuasive.
“I felt the love and it’s felt like home since the first moment,” commented Berge, who has signed a four-and-a-half-year contract. “He (Wilder) told me how much he believed in me and what I will bring to the table here. He sees me as a good guy who will enter the dressing room in a nice way.
“Ever since I heard about it, I thought this was the right thing. It’s been a dream to play in the Premier League and I’m ready to contribute from the first day.”
Berge has been playing as the left of two holding midfielders at Genk, but four goals this season suggests he can also play a more box-to-box role. The fee is undisclosed, but surpasses Oli McBurnie’s £20m summer move from Swansea City.
Berge will wear the No 32 shirt, and is eligible to make his debut at Crystal Palace tomorrow.
Bringing in players from overseas is an unusual departure for Wilder, whose summer signings all came from this country with the exception of Dutch goalkeeper Michael Verrips. It is a sign of his determination to up the quality of his squad.
“It is tough, I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn and going to bed in the early hours” he said, “but that’s the work you have to do to improve your club in the window.
“The transformation from where it was three-and-a-half years ago (when Wilder took over as manager) has been incredible.”
Such has been the durability of the Blades’ first choices their fringe players have rarely been tested this season, but Wilder did not want to push his luck.
Rodwell was capped by England as a midfielder but his primary job will be providing competition for right-sided central defender Chris Basham, whereas Robinson can fill in for left-sider Jack O’Connell or wing-back Enda Stevens.
Retsos, who is set to join on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, is a versatile defender whose career has stalled because of injuries.
The 21-year-old Johannesburg-born Greece international is a right-footer whose only starts under Peter Bosz have come at right-back, but he has also played on the left, and even in central midfield for first club Olympiacos. In April he twice played on the left-hand side of a back three, and this could be his main job in South Yorkshire.
At Olympiacos, Retsos was the youngest captain to lift the Greek championship, aged 18.
He joined Leverkusen for £15.75m in 2017, with sporting director Rudi Voller describing him as having “special attributes”. He is noted for his aerial ability and composure in possession but has only made 35 Leverkusen appearances – including two in the Champions League – after serious injuries to both thighs.
Zivkovic is another who has not yet fulfilled his early promise at the age of 23, and is currently playing for Changchun Yatai in China.
Aged 16, the centre-forward was Gronigen’s youngest debutant, and the following season he succeeded Arjen Robben as their youngest goalscorer. Linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona, he joined Ajax in 2014, where he became the 50th player in the professional era to score on his debut for them. He did not find the net again, joining Oostende, then Changchun Yatai after loans in the Netherlands.
Since moving to China in February he has scored 15 goals in 25 appearances.
A Dutch Under-21 international – scoring in his only game – Zivkovic is eligible to play for Serbia, Montenegro and Curacao and can also play wide, although it is not a position the Blades usually deploy.
Others will make way, with Kean Bryan loaned to Bolton Wanderers until the end of the season, and Ravel Morrison linked with Middlesbrough. There has been no interest as yet in out-of-favour striker Leon Clarke, but the Blades will not discourage it.