Sheffield United's January transfer window priorities must be realistic but not defeatist
There is no bottomless money pit at Bramall Lane, where the club's transfer record has been broken six times since they won promotion to the Premier League. Now they seem almost certain to drop out of it, manager Chris Wilder will only be allowed to make two loan signings in the January window – one a possible loan-to-buy.
Wilder had hoped to sign a replacement for his injured centre-back Jack O'Connell in October, but having already pushed the boat out for £24m Rhian Brewster, the club decided it could not do so again. In terms of results, it has been a costly decision.
Now Wilder will look again to strengthen in that area. Jack Robinson was earmarked to provide cover for O'Connell but so unusual is the way the left-sided centre-back plays, it is hard to find stand-ins anywhere, never mind on a budget. Robinson is a solid stopper, but his inability to make the rampaging runs O'Connell did has taken something away from the Blades' innovative style of play.
Ben Davies was one of Wilder's October targets, but the board turned their noses up at Preston North End's £10m valuation. Now, with the Lilywhites in relegation danger themselves and Davies in the final months of his contract, that valuation is plummeting but Preston a loan would seem to make little sense to them when the player becomes a free agent in the summer – better to either cash in now or keep him.
Omar Colley of Sampdoria was another October target.
Despite not losing players, the other thing United have missed badly this season is the thrust from midfield that made them such a force to be reckoned with in 2019-20.
Add the runs of John Fleck and John Lundstram from central midfield to the overlapping of O'Connell and his right-sided counterpart Chris Basham, and it took real pressure off the Blades' forwards. This season their shortcomings have been exposed.
Lundstram is another out of contract in the summer, and Wilder made clear very early in the campaign he had written off hopes of the Merseysider agreeing to a new contract. Whether the midfielder has been distracted or mistrusted by his manager, he has not had much impact on his final Bramall Lane campaign which is a shame, because after his performances of last season he deserves to leave with fonder memories.
Fleck has also been a shadow of himself, struggling with injuries after the first lockdown and at the start of this season. With holding midfielder Oliver Norwood also off-colour, the centre of the park has gone from a real strength to a weakness.
The one exception to that rule was January 2020 signing Sander Berge – for what at the time was another club record fee – who is out for three months following tendon surgery.
Getting someone to make the runs from midfield – and not just make the runs, but score the goals at the end of them – is the Blades' second transfer priority. Manchester United and England outcast Jesse Lingard is a loan target, but competition from West Ham United could prove decisive. Wilder may have to cast his net further afield for an alternative.
Who will be attracted to a club which started the year with two points from 16 matches is another question.
The Blades's last two summer transfer windows were played out with a realistic air, knowing there was always a chance the club could be relegated. Having players who knew the Championship was sensible in terms of football and finances, and players like Oliver Burke and Brewster were proven in the second tier, but not the first.
It would be nice to make a statement signing, a show of defiance that the club has not given up hope, a figurehead who can revitalise a team who are not as bad as their points tally suggests. The reality, though is this month's signings – certainly the loan-to-buy option if they take it up – will have to be made with next season back in the Football League in mind.
Striking the balance between realism and defeatism will not be easy.
DONE DEALS – IN: None.
OUT: Michael Verrips (Emmen, loan); Rhys Norrington-Davies (Stoke City, loan), George Broadbent (Beerschot, loan).
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