Chris Wilder explains why Sheffield United are now identifying transfer targets in a different way
By his own admission, Chris Wilder is someone who prefers to trust his eyes rather than a spreadsheet crammed full of facts, figures and algorithms when judging the merits of a player.
Sometimes it’s better to trust your instincts, Sheffield United’s manager believes, rather than the work of a sports scientist.
But with the suspension of the fixture calendar meaning that is now out of the question, Wilder admits the information supplied by Bramall Lane’s analytical department are proving an invaluable tool as he attempts to ensure its is business as usual, or as usual as possible, during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Yes, that data and that work is even more important now,” Wilder told The Star. “More important than it’s ever been in fact.
“To be honest, we’ve always had a balance between using those methods, which are really useful and can tell you a lot, and actually watching people in person, which is something I also think is vital and often gets overlooked.”
Despite his reputation for being a footballing traditionalist with an intense distrust of modern methods, Wilder’s recruitment has always been driven by a combination of technology and good old fashioned leg work. The 52-year-old, whose squad were seventh in the Premier League table before the season was mothballed last month, relies upon United’s team of researchers and chief scout Paul Mitchell to identify a plethora of potential new signings before whittling down their list by watching as many as he can in person.
It is a time-consuming and laborious process but one which, Wilder explains, have made precious few false steps in the transfer market since his appointment four years ago. Two of the players he signed before leading United to the 2017 League One title started the 1-0 win over Norwich City; the last outing Wilder’s squad made before the sport entered lockdown.
The contribution made by the number crunchers and statistical experts Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and Mitchell have assembled has nevertheless played a key role in helping United climb through the divisions despite spending less than their rivals every step of the way.
Although the size of his budget has increased significantly of late, Wilder acknowledges it is vital United stay ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying emerging talent. Because, unlike those around them in the top-flight rankings, they can not afford to purchase the finished article. Even Sander Berge, who in January became the most expensive player in United’s history when he completed a £22m move from Genk, fits this particular profile. Napoli, Manchester United and Liverpool, who had also been monitoring Berge’s progress in Belgium, were reportedly planning to submit offers this summer before United’s owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud granted Wilder permission to swoop first.
“Our recruitment has been outstanding as far as I’m concerned,” Wilder said. “People look at the squads and the investments others have made and they know where we’re at. Look at the wealth of some of the owners in the Premier League and it blows you away at times.”
“Data is key for us,” Wilder continued. “It’s vital in terms of how we recruit. Yes, we’ve made mistakes in the past with some of the lads we’ve brought in not kicking on as we thought they might.
“But generally, our recruitment has been right up there and, pound for pound, I think it compares to anybody. That balance between your eye and the data is so important.”
Given the progress United have made this term - thrusting themselves into contention for Champions League qualification only a year after gaining promotion - how they apply science has arguably become even more important as Wilder looks to establish the club at the highest level.
With some PL sides boasting hundreds of scouts on their payroll, even the most obscure of competitions in the farthest flung corners of the globe are now routinely being mined for undiscovered gems. Knowing which ones to buy is no longer the most important weapon in a manager’s armoury. It is understanding exactly when to harvest them, before their value soars.
With social distancing measures forcing United to close their Steelphalt Academy training complex, Wilder and his colleagues are now performing that work from home; using applications such as Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom to coordinate their efforts.
“If we put a team out at the start of next season and we haven’t signed anyone, it won’t be for the want of trying,” Wilder said, acknowledging the amount he has to spend could be smaller than expected because of the challenges created by Covid-19. “It won’t have been because we’ve been lazy.
“The staff are working away in every aspect to improve us, window upon window and season upon season because that’s what we’ve got to do.
“We have to do it in a different way and we’ve managed to do that in the past. It also has to be our goal moving forward too.”