Sheffield United: Why Arsenal, Napoli and Sander Berge's other suitors are convinced The Blades will blink first

It could hardly be described as subtle. More gunboat diplomacy than calm and considered negotiation.

Wednesday, 30th June 2021, 5:30 pm

Napoli, Arsenal, Lazio and all the other clubs supposedly interested in Sander Berge are clearly attempting to force Sheffield United into a corner. The midfielder apparently has a £35m buyout clause written into his contract. But, aware that he is less than enamoured about the prospect of playing Championship football, none of them have any intention of triggering it.

Barring a major change in tactics from one of Berge’s suitors, the battle for his signature looks set to become one of the longest running transfer sagas of this summer as all of its major characters prepare for a protracted struggle.

Clearly those directing operations in Campania, north London and Rome believe United will be forced to blink first. Relegated from the Premier League last season and, as a self-financing institution with a significant shortfall to make-up, their board of directors spent the second half of what proved a sobering campaign touting the player around to folk they suspected might be potential buyers.

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In a sense, with United willing to sell and Berge not short of suitors, it should be a relatively easy deal to broker. The only trouble is, as they attempt to raise funds for their new manager Slavisa Jokanovic without organising a fire sale, United are looking to raise as much of money they have lost after being demoted from the top-flight via the Norway international’s departure.

Eventually, something will have to give. And, after performing their own investigation into the situation at Bramall Lane,, not to mention making a note of Berge’s desire to prolong his career at elite level, those hoping to lure him out of South Yorkshire suspect it will be at United’s end.

In an ideal world, given the youngster’s undoubted pedigree, Jokanovic would be able to retain Berge’s services and maybe build a team around him.

Still seven months short of his 24th birthday, the youngster obviously possesses great potential and serious ability. The only trouble is, which makes things even more difficult from United’s perspective, is that he has yet to truly showcase either since arriving in England. We have seen flashes of both, with his display during a win over Chelsea two seasons ago likely to feature prominently on his showreel. But with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the country into lockdown soon after his unveiling, consistency has been an issue. Which means United are aware of his value. But also the fact they can also prosper without him; particularly if Jokanovic can use a portion of the funding generated from any sale to draft in a high calibre replacement such as Tom Cairney or Joe Allen who, despite Michael O’Neill’s claims to the contrary, can leave Stoke City as p[art of a cost cutting exercise at the bet365 Stadium. It is, in one sense, a strong position to be in. But also, when one considers the bigger picture, an awkward one too.

Sander Berge in action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage
Sander Berge in action for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage

With the Jordanian intermediary they have granted permission to act on their behalf liaising between United’s board of directors and those looking to buy Berge, The Star understands that a concrete bid has still yet to be tabled. Napoli are said to be amused by the valuation Jan van Winckel, Jokanovic’s de facto director of football, has placed upon someone purchased for £22m and are demanding access to his medical records before pressing ahead. Again, that is all part of the phoney war, with Luciano Spalletti’s employers aware that he has fully recovered from the hamstring complaint which required surgery before Christmas. But they will attempt to use it as a weapon to drag out talks and, as their sporting director Cristinao Giuntoli suspects, force Berge to begin agitating for a move. If that happens, it will weaken United’s position. But it is a ploy which carries a risk for Napoli too, particularly as their procrastination saw them miss out on Berge when he swapped Genk for United 17 months ago.

Although Berge has so far shown little desire to force the issue, van Winckel will be aware that his decision to make it plain he had no intention of agreeing a new contract with the Belgians forced them to accept £8m less than the £30m they were demanding at the time. A placid and unerringly polite individual, Berge nevertheless knows what he wants and how to get it.

Now with experience of one of the world’s toughest competitions, Berge probably is worth the money United are demanding. Particularly as his present contract has another three years left to run.

But with John Lunddtram’s refusal to extend his stay at United meaning Jokanovic needs to recruit a replacement before August’s return to competitive action, they could eventually decide to compromise over a demand that the majority of the fee he eventually commands is paid up front. Both Napoli and Arsenal, who are also keen on United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, will interpret that as a sign of weakness; encouraging them to adopt even more entrenched positions.

Although they are actively exploring other options to Berge, Arsenal could attempt to break the impasse by rolling up an offer for him with another for Ramsdale. Selling the former England under-21 international, who is currently on duty at the European Championships, would provoke an angry response from United’s supporters and chip away at the enthusiasm surrounding Jokanovic’s appointment. But it could be a way of allowing United to accept less for Berge and still save some face.

Ultimately, time will tell who gets their way. But you suspect there are plenty of twists to come in this take yet.