Sheffield United midfielder Sander Berge on his biggest influences, brand new hobby and facing Manchester City
Biographers of Sander Berge are fond of chronicling his journey through football by talking to former colleagues, coaches and even chief executives of his former clubs.
But in order to truly understand the midfielder, whose recent performances for Sheffield United ahead of tomorrow’s game against Manchester City have placed him at the heart of Chris Wilder’s gameplan, one needs to go right back to the beginning - before a brief stint with Asker earned a move to Valerenga and then, following a pitstop in Belgium, a high-profile switch to Bramall Lane.
“My family has always been very important to me,” Berge explained earlier this week, identifying the people responsible for framing his outlook and who continue to exert the greatest influence over his career. “We are all very sporting, both my mother and my father and also my older brother.
“My parents still work out a lot and after every game, they always come to me with advice and comments about my performances. Basically we’re a family who live for sports and are very passionate about them. So yes, I guess that’s why I’m me.”
Berge’s parents, Asmund and Linnea, were both international basketballers while elder sibling Askel also played professionally. Indeed it was his move to the United States, after being awarded a scholarship in Chicago, which ultimately proved the catalyst for Berge’s decision to follow in their footsteps; albeit in a totally different discipline.
“I definitely think that helped a lot, because I was always watching him and then, when he went overseas, we used to go and see him every year,” Berge said. “College sports over there are very professional and it was the same in Spain, where he also spent some time with a team there.
“When I was younger, I always played with my dad and my brother so that pushed me, because they were older, and that put me in a competitive environment.
“I was always watching what they did and, when you see what other people do, that teaches you a lot providing you are willing to sit back, observe and learn. He (Asker) was always a role model for me, and he taught me a lot. We FaceTime every single day and I’m very thankful having him there for me.”
Berge, aged 22, joined United in January after spending three-and-half seasons with Genk where he faced the RB Salzburg, Liverpool and Napoli in the Champions League before arriving in South Yorkshire for a then club record fee of £22m. Despite making a slow start to life with United, acknowledging that even his six foot five inch frame was ill-prepared for the physicality of Premier League football, his displays since returning to action following the Covid-19 lockdown have reminded why both Jurgen Klopp’s side and the Italians were reportedly among those considering bids before United, using their owners’ contacts in Flanders, stole a march on their competitors.
Although Wilder’s men have so far struggled to hit the heights they achieved en route to a ninth placed finish last term - they enter the lunchtime meeting with City still searching for their first win of the new campaign - Berge’s fortunes have gone in the opposite direction, with his display at Anfield six days ago, which included a first-half penalty, arguably his best in a United jersey.
“In Sander, we invested in a talented young footballer from a different league,” Wilder said. “One of the highlights of my time here so far was how the players took to him when he came in. He came off after an hour during his first game at (Crystal) Palace and was blowing so hard he could hardly breathe. There were a few young players around that time who couldn’t go home when lockdown happened who couldn’t see their family and it was tough. But he got his head down and showed me what he’s about.
“He was arguably our best player after lockdown and he’s been right up there this season. He can play in a number of positions, he’s got the intelligence and the power to do that.”
Berge, who is expected to take up an advanced position in United’s midfield against Pep Guardiola’s side, attributes his success of late to a series of lifestyle changes which were again inspired by his parents. On the evidence of his performance on Merseyside, team mate and neighbour George Baldock is also reaping the benefits.
“My mum and dad still work out and they’ve got good values about health and fitness,” Berge said. “I’ve got interested in nutrition, I spent a lot of time in the same apartment building as George and we just push each other all the time.
“When you live for football, you want to live your life away from it as best as possible too. I can feel the difference, that I’m taking care of my body more now. I eat less carbs, I try to eat clean and stay healthy through the week.”
Like United, City have endured some disappointing results of late with Guardiola’s squad making the journey to South Yorkshire in 13th place. However, as Wilder noted during his pre-match media conference on Thursday, the sheer depth of talent at the Catalan’s disposal means a surge - City have won two of the last three PL titles - is probably not far away.
In order to prevent that happening now, United must find a way of cutting off the supply lines to an attack which, despite being shorn of the injured Sergio Aguero, can still call upon the services of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez. Completing that challenge will involve shackling Kevin de Bruyne; another Genk old boy who Berge rates as “the best player in the world right now.”
“I don’t really speak Flemish so I’ll just try and put him off in English,” Berge joked. “We could possibly have a short conversation.”