Sheffield United: Why The Blades trip to Portugal revealed how they will tackle the Premier League
Early on Saturday morning, as the sun began rising over the Portuguese horizon and he packed his bags for the journey home, Chris Wilder stared out across the ocean and reflected on a job well done.
The night before, his Sheffield United team had beaten Real Betis in a friendly at the Estadio Algarve. But it was events earlier in the week, at their training complex near the Ria Park Hotel, which really brought a smile to the 51-year-old's face. Not to mention the sight of another new signing - former Preston North End forward Callum Robinson - coming on board ahead of the Premier League season.
"It's been good," Wilder said. "It's been a very good week and we're coming back in a much better place, which was the whole point, than when we went out.
"It's been good in terms of fitness and in terms of integration. It's been good in terms of everyone getting to know one another again and in terms of us getting over the messages about what we want."
Rather than positioning himself in the thick of the action, Wilder preferred to flit around on the periphery during United's time in Vale do Lobo. It was a deliberate ploy, designed to ensure he gleaned as much information as possible about the fitness and more importantly the psychology of his players. They knew he was in charge but, by removing himself from the maelstrom of shuttle runs, relays and complex drills designed to improve strategy and technique, Wilder was able to take a much broader view of the squad's fitness, readiness and mental state. Strengths - and just as importantly, imperfections - are sometimes easier to identify from a distance. After the conditioning staff had done their work, it was the voices of Wilder's assistant Alan Knill and coach Matt Prestridge which reverberated around the training ground. The manager, for the most part, remained silent.
"There's loads of things going off," Wilder said. "We have to build and create a squad that's going to go well in the division we're going into. And there's lots of different things that go into that, lots of different aspects."
When United returned to their accommodation - a luxury five star retreat overlooking the resort - Wilder became a more vocal figure. But he also observed how members of his squad were interacting. The data he collected - about friendships, interests and personalities - was then committed to his memory banks, ready to be dusted down when United need cajoling or inspiring over the coming months. The 51-year-old likes to apply plenty of science. But he trusts his eyes too. Particularly during Terror Tuesday; a brutal event designed to push the players to their absolute limits which has now become a tradition under his leadership. It was no accident that, the night before, United's players were granted permission to visit some nearby bars and restaurants. Down-time is important. But Wilder and his staff also wanted to measure their professionalism and personal discipline.
"Why do we come away? So we can focus on our work and be together 24/7," Wilder said, responding to a question about his preference for holding training camps abroad rather than at home in England. "We live in each other's pockets over here and, in particular for the lads who have just come in, I think that's invaluable because they get to understand all about the group."
"We don't want a group that's going to accept defeat," Wilder continued. "They're professional footballers and we want them to have that desire to win in whatever they do, be it training ground games, friendlies or even a game of table tennis back at the hotel. They need that streak going through them and they have. That's one thing they've got."
Robinson's arrival, for a fee understood to be somewhere between £7m and £8m, came too late for him to be involved against Betis on Friday evening. But after being introduced to his new team mates, the Republic of Ireland international did watch the match from the stands before being interviewed by journalists who had also made the trip. Listening to Wilder explain the vetting process which led to Robinson's arrival was instructive because, perhaps inadvertently, it revealed the principles which govern his entire recruitment strategy.
"He scores, he's got good pace and has got really good ability," Wilder said. "He's got a hunger and a desire to move his career on to another level.
"Statistically, even though he missed a few games last season, he was pound for pound one of the best attacking players in the division and we've had our eye on him, been watching him, for a long time now.
"We got on what we see," Wilder added. "But statistically too, he fits the bill as well. He ticks all the boxes. I believe he's going to be a big player for us but, as he's seen, he's going to have to work hard to get in the team because there's other big players, other good players, out there as well."
Wilder, who gave Phil Jagielka and Luke Freeman run-outs during the second-half, has now unveiled three players since leading United to promotion last term. More are expected to follow later this week, when further friendlies against Burton Albion and Northampton Town have been arranged. A decision will also be taken on Ravel Morrison’s future, with the midfielder known to have impressed Wilder since joining on trial.
Betis beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga last term, en route to a 10th placed finish. So Wilder, after watching David McGoldrick's second-half strike settle the contest, was encouraged by the result.
"We needed to be a bit more tidy at times but that's understandable because, and the same went for Betis, we're coming back after a break when we've not played any football," he said. "But we will get better in that regard.
"The one thing you saw though, the one thing this group as never lacked, is heart, desire and a hunger to go well. Jack O'Connell and John Lundstram, for instance, showed that out there. For them to play 90 minutes straight away, for them to not to want to come off even though the conditioners are looking at me, that tells you what they boys are about."