James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Yes, Blades look stronger but serious questions remain
Calling it ‘radically different’ might be a step too far.
After all, only four new players joined Sheffield United during last month’s transfer window. Not the five manager Slavisa Jokanovic believed would be coming once the money from Aaron Ramsdale’s switch to Arsenal had been banked. (Still, I’m sure those holding the purse strings will claim that pledge has been kept if Adlene Guedioura, a free agent after leaving Al-Gharafa earlier this summer, is eventually added to the roster at Bramall Lane).
But United’s squad should definitely have a fresh look when Peterborough visit South Yorkshire on Saturday. I say ‘should’ because the latest trend in football is to ease new signings into action. Even though, unless they have been hired simply to boost numbers, it is an approach which makes no sense whatsoever. If people have been brought in to revitalise an under-performing team, which is certainly true in this case, it doesn’t take a UEFA Pro Licence to know they aren’t going to do that from the bench.
Injuries permitting following the international break, United could have three debutants in their starting eleven against Darren Ferguson’s men. Goalkeeper Robin Olsen and midfielders Conor Hourihane and Morgan Gibbs-White must all surely join defender Ben Davies, who pitched up nearly a month ago, in Jokanovic’s line-up.
They are quality performers with experience and proven track records. Even in the case of Gibbs-White who, despite still being four months shy of his 22nd birthday, has already amassed 96 senior appearances with 20 of those coming in the Premier League.
Whoever identified these targets deserves to be applauded. They should help United, still without a win in the Championship this season, start climbing the table.
But the people who brokered the deals don’t. Why? Because that’s what football clubs are supposed to do. They make signings. And although Ramsdale commanded a “head-turning” price tag - the club’s words, not mine, because I don’t think it was - all of these arrivals have joined on loan teams. In other words, they’re borrowed.
No amount of spin, PR double-speak or insidious campaigning from social media cheerleaders can disguise the fact this isn’t a good thing. After two seasons in the top-flight, United either don’t have enough money to make permanent acquisitions or have taken a conscious decision to base their entire recruitment strategy on temporary ‘purchases’. And this means they are vulnerable. Whether they gain promotion, remain in the second tier or, God forbid, get relegated.
If United go up, they will need a completely new squad. And if the speed with which they moved during the last market is a guide, the reconstruction process will finish sometime around 2036. If they stay in this division, half of those who have just joined will probably move on for the sake of their careers. If they drop, the same goes again. Having more than a third of your first choice side on temporary contracts is not a strong position to be in.
Loans, for those outside the ‘elite of the elite’, should be used to provide the icing on the cake. Not buy the core ingredients. United are stronger right now than they were a fortnight ago. But those who pretend the absence of a long-term strategy is not concerning are doing them no favours.