Alan Biggs: Can Sheffield United's Oliver Burke be part of getting club back into Premier League?

There has to be a reason why Slavisa Jokanovic selected the much-derided Oliver Burke, from plenty of forward choice, in his first game as Sheffield United boss.

By Alan Biggs
Wednesday, 11th August 2021, 12:07 pm
Oliver Burke of Sheffield United playing earlier this year. (Photo by Oli Scarff - Pool/Getty Images)
Oliver Burke of Sheffield United playing earlier this year. (Photo by Oli Scarff - Pool/Getty Images)

It is also the reason I penned much of what follows below way back in March. The reason it never appeared was that I bottled it, fearing ridicule.

And the reason for that was partially in evidence again during the 1-0 defeat to Birmingham with Burke promising so much and delivering so little.

However, some fleeting bursts, including unluckily hitting the post, have persuaded me to rescue that draft - along with Jokanovic’s apparent faith in him.

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So here it is as written five months ago (with updates in brackets);-

This might prove to be as off target as Oli Burke has been in his Bramall Lane career so far but I just wonder: is this a player who can fire Sheffield United back to the Premier League?

Burke hasn’t been anywhere near sharp enough for the top flight. That is beyond dispute.

However, he’s well short of his peak and, to this observer at least, has the potential to be a real match winner in the Championship.

Which is a strange thing to say about a striker whose career goal tally from seven clubs, including three on loan, stands at just 16.

Hardly what was envisaged when LB Leipzig paid Nottingham Forest £13m for his services in 2016 - or when West Brom topped that with £15m a year later.

Only two of those goals have come since he joined United in a swap deal, with a cash adjustment in his current club’s favour, taking Callum Robinson to Albion last summer.

And finishing, whether it be shooting or crossing, has not been his forte despite (then) manager Chris Wilder opting to play the former winger in a central role.

Yet there is enough in his game, at still only 23 (turned 24 now), to suggest Burke can play a big part in United’s future if, or more likely when, their relegation is confirmed (as it was).

Certainly, he has qualities that the team lacked, but coped admirably without, in their promotion of two years ago, spearheaded by the goals of Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick.

Burke is quite a frightening proposition for defenders even at the higher level. He has exceptional pace and power, big with it both in height (6’ 2”) and physique.

Where his threat has fizzled out is with decision-making and execution near goal (again seen last Saturday).

If he can improve in those aspects - albeit the hardest skills for a striker - you’re tempted to think he could tear up Championship defences.

Realistic thoughts have to turn to next season (now this) and how the Blades can bounce back.Sharp and McGoldrick, 35 and 33, are capable of contributing once more, based on their pride, professionalism and fitness.

But the dash of someone like Burke becomes ever more important when partners are of advancing years.

Rhian Brewster showed at Swansea what he can do at the level below, hopefully able to survive this (last) season’s ordeal as United’s most expensive player (now he is off the mark).

He and Burke can offer a way back. In theory, too, Oli McBurnie’s formidable record below the top tier should ensure United have none of the scoring problems encountered this season (still in evidence v Birmingham).

Lys Mousset? More than capable but beset by too many fitness problems (sadly pulled up in first game) and general question marks to bring confidently into this conversation. If United can get their £10m back they might be wise to take it.

And I reckon Burke’s challenge is to emerge as the most exciting of the bunch they have. (It very much still is. Reward my bravery please, Oli!)