How can Sheffield United get the best out of Sander Berge?

He was supposed to signal a new dawn for Sheffield United’s future and if it didn’t work out, would at least recoup a substantial fee on the Blades’ investment.

Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 4:50 pm

But with United mid-table in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League, and his latest appearance coming off the bench for six minutes of normal time on a cold midweek night away at Preston North End, it’s fair to say that neither has really happened for Sander Berge.

That fleeting appearance - as United threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Preston, who had played with 10 men since the 38th minute – was his 42nd in United colours, and in English football.

Are United any closer to really knowing what sort of player Berge is? Is he any more acclimatised to English football than he was when he arrived in January 2020? And where does his United career lie?

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It’s important to note that this conversation may be rendered irrelevant if United receive the sort of offer for Berge in the coming days that would see them consider sacrificing their prized asset.

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The release fee in his contract, thought to have been lowered from £45million by £10million after the Blades were relegated from the top flight, seems a long way off. In the depressed Covid-19 transfer market, and after two recent hamstring injuries, so does the £22m United paid Genk for his services in the first place.

The offers United did receive in the summer for Berge were laughable, considering their asking price and the status of the club in question who submitted them. But there has been little indication of follow-up interest in January, for a player United expected to move on in the summer to help negate the financial shortfall caused by relegation.

Sander Berge of Sheffield United (L) holds off Alan Browne of Preston North End: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Berge is clearly a talented footballer – attracting praise from Jurgen Klopp after a Champions League game against Liverpool during his spell in Belgium – and behind the scenes is a popular and affable character.

But even his most ardent fan would struggle to assert that the Blades have seen the best of him and two years after he arrived, to considerable fanfare, are United any closer to knowing his actual best position?

Played as a ‘six’ in Belgium, screening the defence in a deep-lying position, Berge was utilised on the right of United’s midfield three in the Premier League – a move that essentially signalled the end of John Lundstram’s Bramall Lane career.

Under Slavisa Jokanović he was then at times deployed even higher up the pitch. But despite all the games, all those positions, there is a sense that Berge’s impact so far at United can be measured in moments of games, rather than games as an entirety when he really takes control and dominates as a player of his stature clearly can, and should.

In mitigation, the player has not had things all his own way either. A global pandemic just months into his career saw him stuck abroad, forced to communicate with friends and family via FaceTime and play at stadia he will have dreamed of gracing in front of no fans, in glorified training games.

A hamstring injury suffered just before Christmas was more serious than many fans realise – the muscle detaching from the bone and forcing Berge to undergo a rigorous rehabilitation process – and after a late goal in front of the Kop against Preston that could have been a turning point, he damaged his hamstring again in the warm-up at Hull and missed another two months of football.

Of his five appearances since, only two have come from the start and none have lasted 90 minutes as Paul Heckingbottom and Co. manage Berge’s return.

“Games, getting minutes on the pitch and training hard,” Heckingbottom said recently when asked how he can bring out Berge’s best form in a Blades shirt.

“There’s no shortcuts. He has been working hard. He’s had such a long lay-off, the middle of last season and got back at the back end, and until now, so he’s missed a lot of time and a lot of training sessions.

“That’s all we can give him, time and effort from our point of view. Keep pushing him. But he’s a determined boy and he’ll keep working hard and keep improving every day.”

Fully fit and firing, there’s no doubt that Berge would be a huge asset for the Blades in the second half of the season as they look to make up the gap between themselves and the play-off places.

The mind wanders back to the first game of the season, at home to Birmingham City. It ended in defeat, Jokanović’s United reign kicking off with a 1-0 reverse at Bramall Lane, but in the second half Berge was superb – to the point where Ryan Woods, the City midfielder, had about four goes at fouling the Norwegian and picked up a booking.

The trouble is that so far, such moments have been few and far between. Berge was back in the side at Derby County on Saturday and despite a few nice moments, he departed just before Tom Lawrence’s opener leaving the impression that there is so much more in the tank.

Coaxing that out could be Heckingbottom and Co’s biggest challenge of their respective coaching careers. But get it right, and the transformative effect on player and team could also be their greatest success.