Sheffield United: The big challenge now facing Sander Berge after his attacking midfield masterclass

It started with a Tweet, continued with an Instagram post then another and another.

Thursday, 24th February 2022, 5:00 pm

I’m talking about the rebuilding of Sheffield United midfielder Sander Berge. Or should that be the rebranding? The Norwegian, a £22m signing from Genk, hasn’t exactly bombed since arriving at Bramall Lane a couple of years ago. But no one, not even his most loyal of supporters, can claim that he’s been a roaring success either.

So rather than starting from scratch, which is pretty much impossible given that he’s made 50 appearances since arriving in England, Berge and his image consultants are trying to change people’s perceptions about him instead. Aided and abetted - and this is important - by an attacking midfield masterclass during yesterday’s win over Blackburn Rovers.

You can’t blame United for instructing their social media team - for my money, one of the best and most creative in the country, nevermind the Championship - to pump out content highlighting every single one of his telling passes and feints. The club has invested a lot in Berge. Not just financially but strategically as well. The second most expensive player in its entire history, his purchase was pushed through by the board - or their footballing advisors to be exact - not the manager who was in situ at the time.

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Yes, Chris Wilder was delighted it went through. But only a week or so earlier, he had been working on the assumption that his budget for that transfer window, wages included, was around a tenth of what it cost to persuade the Belgians to do business. Yes, United’s hierarchy should be commended for showing ambition, particularly at a time when Wilder’s time was busy tearing the Premier League a new one. But the fact the money suddenly materialised for one of his employers’ picks - when it seemingly wasn’t there for one of the now Middlesbrough chief’s own - perhaps, on reflection, was the first indication that something wasn’t quite right behind the scenes. Fourteen months later, after one of the longest and ultimately most predictable divorces in history, Wilder was gone. In, it must be said, similar circumstances to those which did for his successor Slavisa Jokanovic as well. Thankfully, Paul Heckingbottom has shown himself to be a gifted politician as well as a bright young coach after replacing the Serb, with United sixth in the table ahead of this weekend’s visit to Millwall.

Anyway, back to Berge. There can be no doubt that some of his best performances for United have come in recent weeks. Whether or not they’ve been quite as decisive as the footage and hyperbolic comments which accompany it on United’s official channels would have us believe - this week’s shift excepted - is open to debate. George Weah’s ‘cousin’ probably looked like Pele on the YouTube showreel his agent delivered to Southampton before that infamous match against Leeds in 1996. Okay, so YouTube probably didn’t really exist back then, but you get my drift. Nor, just to clarify, am I comparing Berge to Ali Dia. Or questioning his ability.

The trouble is, we’ve seen far too little of that in United colours. Particularly for someone of Berge’s physical and technical gifts. Oliver Norwood and Billy Sharp have been far more influential of late.

The best barometer of Berge’s contribution is the fact he is still at Bramall Lane. When United were relegated back to the Championship - and representatives purporting to be acting on their behalf were privately hawking him around the market - had Milan, Napoli, Newcastle and Arsenal really wanted him, he wouldn’t be here right now. But he is. Because flashes of quality aren’t enough to get you on their rosters. You need to be bossing it. Week in. Week out.

Sander Berge produced one of his best Sheffield United displays against Blackburn Rovers: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

My problem with Berge isn’t that he lacks talent. He doesn’t. He clearly possesses a lot. As well as, standing six feet five inches tall and scaling in at heavyweight, the build to dominate opponents. Particularly those in the second tier, where very often footballers have either the skills or the stature but rarely both.

But a half a century of outings in, we shouldn’t be talking about Berge’s potential. We should be discussing how he is dictating matches and running the United show on a regular basis. Except we aren’t. The narrative surrounding Berge’s career in South Yorkshire still revolves around how good he can be. Not how good, and good consistently, he is.

United need to take some of the blame for that, because they’ve struggled to find a consistent role for him in their starting eleven. And to be fair, Berge’s first full season here was a disaster on a number of different levels. Even Odd Iversen in his pomp would have struggled to make an impression as they suffered defeat after defeat, lost one of the greatest figureheads in their history and become embroiled in a series of internal rows before sliding out of the top-flight.

But Berge must shoulder a pretty big portion too. Injuries can’t be helped. But he needs to impose himself more, make greater use of his build and gifts, on a regular basis. In short, take responsibility for his own career. Which would benefit him, and also United.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

In a world where everything is black and white, some readers of this column will view it as a character assasination. It isn’t. Just constructive, well-meaning, criticism. And even then, Berge’s cheerleaders should regard my words as a backhanded compliment.

Why? Because I think he’s got what it takes to do a whole lot better. Consistently. To reach a position where, instead of relying on folk to tell the sceptics he’s a genius only those with a deep understanding of the game appreciate, it becomes evident to all and sundry.

Fingers crossed, for United and Berge, he is able to do that. Hopefully last night was the start of that process.

Paul Heckingbottom is preparing Sheffield United to face Millwall: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sander Berge in action against Blackburn Rovers: Simon Bellis / Sportimage