How do Sheffield United solve a problem like Rhian Brewster? Boss tells ex-Liverpool youngster how to get through tough spell
Of all the trials and tribulations faced by Sheffield United during one of the worst campaigns in their long and illustrious existence, it is the struggles of their record signing that has been one of the most excruciating and possibly problematic for the future.
Rhian Brewster was far from the finished article when he arrived last year as the most expensive player United had ever bought. United were buying potential, rather than proven; 10 goals in 20 games in the Championship for Swansea was about the body of his senior, professional work.
Neither club nor player can deny that the move has not worked out thus far. The ticker moved to 28 games without a goal for United during Sunday’s game at Tottenham Hotspur, where Brewster also suffered the ignominy of being replaced at half-time after a first half that could be described as ineffective at best.
An infectious character behind the scenes, Brewster is suffering from an obvious crisis in confidence and the headache for Paul Heckingbottom and his coaching staff must be how to play it from hereon in for the rest of the season. Taking him out of the firing line may rebuild his brittle belief, but the only way it stands any chance of being repaired is by playing games and scoring goals.
Brewster, for his part, knows he has to do better. He appeared with teammate Aaron Ramsdale recently for a Soccer AM interview about his Fifa 21 rating, a video game relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things but something that footballers are really invested in.
They always seem to believe their rating should be a little higher, that they are quicker or stronger or generally better than the game suggested. But when host Adam Smith told Brewster his rating was 70, he seemed a little taken aback by the striker’s response. “Considering the season I’ve had,” Brewster said, looking away from the camera with a wry chuckle, “that’s about right.”
After the start from hell to his United career, being thrown in at the deep end for games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea after coming off the bench to make his debut against Fulham, Brewster has steadily improved by the week, even if the goals have not followed.
He was inches away from getting off the mark at Chelsea away in the FA Cup, and few could have any complaints about his work-rate. But even that seemed to elude him at the Spurs stadium. He was shrugged off the ball easily by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, and one left-footed effort was high, wide and not particularly handsome.
But the moment that best summed up Brewster’s evening came when David McGoldrick was sent clear down the left wing and looked up to locate his strike partner. Brewster was nowhere near, and the cross was gobbled up easily by Hugo Lloris as if it was a training drill.
If it may be a bit unkind to suggest he was jogging to keep up with play, he certainly was not busting a gut either. When he did not reappear for the second half, not many of a red and white persuasion watching from home would have been particularly surprised.
“He's going to be suffering for confidence because it's been a big step up and he's not been able to find the target and find the goals,” Heckingbottom said after the game.
“But he's responded very well to what we're asking him to do, he's working hard in training and he understands that's the only way to get out of it.
“Keep working hard, keep getting your head down, and I'm convinced something will drop for him. Sometimes you go through these runs. As a striker, it might be not scoring goals or a midfielder might be other parts of the game.
“But that's part of football and it never goes easy all the way through. You find moments when you're in and out of the team, or your form is good or bad. But one thing's for certain, you have to know how to battle your way out of it.”
Brewster turned 21 in April and is a baby in footballing terms. He is a World Cup winner with England at U17 level, winning the Golden Boot award for the top scorer in the tournament. His 10 goals for Swansea in the Championship have their own highlights reel on YouTube, including one from about 40 yards out against Reading.
He clearly has pedigree. But at the same time, he is clearly struggling and all concerned will hope that he has an easier time of things in the Championship next season. At the minute, he looks a long way from a player that was rated so highly by the champions of England, that they inserted buy-back and sell-on clauses in the deal that brought him to Bramall Lane.
“He’ll come out stronger from it,” Heckingbottom added.
“I’m sure the ball will drop for him soon and he’ll get his goals. The only way out of it is to work hard. That’s the same for any player. No-one’s career is plain sailing.
“Everyone has dips in form and spells in and out of the team. Rhian won’t have experienced this before. He’s scored goals, won the World Cup with England and had a big-money move to a Premier League club.
“But until you’ve been playing for 100 league games and got used to it, you don’t really know what it’s about and you’re still finding your feet.
“Rhian is still finding his feet, but he’ll continue to work hard. The one thing you have to be, to have a long career, is resilient.”