Revealed: How Sheffield United completed a seemingly impossible job
At first glance, it appears almost impossible; identifying players capable of thriving within a system no other team in Europe employs.
But that was the task facing Sheffield United when, after Chris Wilder resolved to increase cover and competition for his overlapping centre-halves, they began the search for defenders capable of deputising for Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell. Or, should either lose form, ensure United did not have to devise a completely new strategy for the remainder of the Premier League campaign.
Detailing the selection process with saw Panos Retsos and Jack Robinson emerge as the successful candidates, Wilder explained how, together with his assistant Alan Knill and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, he began whittling down the list of potential options.
“They’ve got to have qualities,” the United manager said. “These were the things we were looking at from the software we’ve got which covers all players in Europe and this country, including things like minutes (played), age, interceptions, aerial duels, completion of passes and the areas of the pitch they get into.
“It’s a unique position, a hybrid between a big full-back and a ball-playing centre-half. When you look at Jack and Basham, Jack's played in a two, Basham has, Panos and Jack Robinson have, so they can do that position pretty comfortably.”
Retsos, aged 21, arrived on a six month loan from Bayer Leverkusen, although United have the option to turn that into a permanent agreement. Robinson, five years the Greece international’s senior, signed for an undisclosed sum after leaving Nottingham Forest.
Crucially, both have been deployed at full-back at various stages of their careers despite primarily operating at the heart of defence. And tellingly, with United climbing to fifth in the table after beating AFC Bournemouth last weekend, both have experience of performing in highly pressurised environments. Retsos represented Olympiacos before moving to Germany while Robinson progressed through the system at Liverpool, going on to make 11 appearances for the Merseysiders.
“It's quite hard to pick them players up but there are enough out there we feel will do that job,” Wilder added. “I'm looking forward to watching Panos although he's got a tough gig to get past Bash, as Jack Robinson has, but now we're comfortable if they do go in that's it up to Jack and Bash to oust them.
“That's what you need – genuine competition right the way through.”