Where - and why - Sheffield United need to strengthen during the transfer window
It was on August 9th 2019, 24 hours after the last transfer window had closed, when Chris Wilder first began plotting his manoeuvres during this month’s market.
The dust had barely settled on another busy period at Bramall Lane, with 10 new players joining Sheffield United before the Premier League deadline. But Wilder and his staff, including assistant manager Alan Knill and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, were already making plans for their next recruitment drive.
Well, that isn’t strictly true. The process of identifying and tracking United’s January targets actually began a year earlier as their coaching staff attempted to stay ahead of the curve.
“We always look ahead,” Wilder explained during a recent interview. “We look at scenarios that might develop and the people we follow aren’t always for the window coming up.”
It is a formula which has proven remarkably successful in recent seasons, with United climbing from the the third to the first tier of English football since appointing their former player in May 2016.
And although Wilder is still willing to seize opportunities when they arise - as Jack Rodwell’s arrival at the Steelphalt Academy demonstrates - it means the club will continue to take a strategic rather than reactionary approach to squad development. Despite, given the rapid progress they have made over the past five months, the fact they are now battling to reach Europe rather than avoid relegation.
Having bolstered his attacking options following United’s promotion from the Championship, Wilder has made defence and midfield their two main areas of concern as he attempts to build upon a fine start to the campaign which sees them enter Friday’s game against West Ham in eighth; only two points behind fifth place.
Right wing-back and centre-half, specifically those tasked with rampaging down the flanks in United’s preferred 3-5-2 system, are among the priority positions Wilder has identified. It is a sensible call because, with a lack of dedicated cover for George Baldock, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, he could be forced to adopt a new shape if two or even all three members of this trio became ineligible for selection at the same time. Kieron Freeman pushed Baldock hard following the latter’s move from MK Dons three years ago. But while Baldock’s career remains on an upward curve - there have been calls for him to be recognised at international level by either England or Greece, for whom he also qualifies - Freeman has struggled for opportunities this term. His appearance during last weekend’s FA Cup win over AFC Fylde was only Freeman’s third since United returned to the top-flight. None of those have come in league competition.
Having brought Phil Jagielka back to United in July following a long and successful stint with Everton, Wilder is not short of choices at the heart of a rearguard usually anchored by John Egan. Despite being linked with a move away, Richard Stearman also provides an experienced alternative should Egan or Jagielka be otherwise indisposed.
But the same can not be said either side of Egan, where Basham and O’Connell have been mainstays of United’s starting eleven. Given the specialised nature of their positions - while Egan sits, they are required to move upfield whenever circumstances allow - Wilder is also wise to begin searching for other players capable of performing this unusual and demanding role.
Rhys Norrington-Davies, currently on loan at Rochdale AFC, is viewed as a genuine first-team prospect. But United would prefer the youngster to continue his education elsewhere before asking him to nullify the threat posed by some of world football’s most dangerous strikers.
The fact O’Connell is under contract until 2023, while talks about a new deal are on-going with Egan, means they are in no rush to push Norrington-Davies through the ranks and potentially risk stunting his development.
The decision to scout Rangers’ Glen Kamara, coupled with United’s previous interest in Kalvin Phillips of Leeds, provide clues as to Wilder’s intentions in midfield. Oliver Norwood and John Lundstram, who is also negotiating a new contract, have both impressed at the highest level. But, for reasons of tactical flexibility, United are keen to acquire someone who is not only technically adept but also capable of moving from box to box during games whilst providing a physical presence. Kamara, described by one former coach as “part Viera, part Modric” fits the bill. However, with his parent club now pushing for a first Scottish Premier League title since 2011, officials at Ibrox will be reluctant to sell at this point in time.
That could persuade United to temporarily park their interest and search elsewhere. Rodwell, acquired on a free transfer, Luke Freeman and Ben Osborn provide subtlety different possibilities. Osborn and Freeman were signed from Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest respectively.
Although it is not a major requirement at present, United are also likely to be monitoring goalkeepers ahead of next summer. Wilder’s preference would be to purchase the on-loan Dean Henderson from Manchester United. Henderson has previously suggested he would be open to the idea, particularly if he is given no assurances about succeeding David de Gea at Old Trafford. But after forcing his way into the England reckoning, Henderson’s value is likely to have ballooned since he renewed his temporary agreement last summer. Either way, United are not in control of the 22-year-old destiny. And Wilder, as history tells us, does not like leaving things to chance.