Sheffield United's embarrassment of midfield riches
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While coaching staff, supporters and directors alike championed the 22-year-old’s arrival following a club record move from Genk, John Lundstram looked on from the sidelines; knowing, given the size of his new colleague’s transfer fee, the chances were he would not begin that weekend’s game at Crystal Palace on the substitute’s bench.
It was, despite Wilder’s repeated pronouncements that “it’s all about the group”, a chastening experience for the former England under-20 international. And a potentially debilitating one too, after emerging as one of the driving forces behind United’s climb into top six contention only a season after winning promotion.
Wilder sympathised with Lundstram. Particularly when his suspicions proved correct and Berge was parachuted straight into United’s first choice eleven during their visit to London. But rather than summon Lundstram to his hotel room and place a consoling arm around his shoulder, the manager who has signed him from Oxford two seasons earlier resolved to sit back and monitor the player’s response. It would, Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill decided, provide them with an invaluable insight into Lundstram’s personality as, after offering him a new deal before Christmas, United continued their discussions with his agent.
What has happened since, even though those negotiations have yet to be concluded, will have made Wilder even more determined to reach an agreement.
Lundstram hasn’t sulked or brooded. Instead, after producing a superb second-half cameo against Palace, his game promises to scale even greater heights than those he achieved during the first 20 matches of the campaign. Indeed, as United prepare for Tuesday’s FA Cup clash with Reading, it speaks volumes that Lundstram can view the fifth round tie as an audition to start Saturday’s Premier League game against Norwich City instead of an opportunity to simply get some minutes under his belt.
“John has shown us what he’s all about,” Wilder admitted recently. “He’s shown what he’s made of, not that we had any doubts.”
It would be a mistake, perhaps even a gross error of judgement, to draw a direct link between Wilder’s desire to acquire Berge and his assessment of Lundstram’s performances over the Christmas period, when the latter appeared to be suffering from fatigue. Rather the physical and mental demands of elite level football means it is necessary, if United are serious about progressing to the next level, that Wilder has cover and competition in all areas.
Lundstram and Berge are different players too, bringing a slightly different dynamic to United’s engine room.
Whereas the latter operates almost exclusively in central areas, barring to odd foray towards either flank, Lundstram’s heat map confirms he prefers to go roaming along the right flank; seeking out space in front of the opposition’s defence. It explains why, with Berge scoring six goals in 101 outings for the Belgians, Lundstram has found the back of the net on four occasions in the PL so far this term.
Berge, regarded as one of the continent’s most exciting young talents, has made a solid if unspectacular start to his United career. That is inevitable, given the difference in pace between English football’s highest division and the Jupiler League, and the complexities of United’s tactical system.
But he still already boasts one of the highest passing accuracy percentages in United’s squad, completing over 90 per cent in total and nearly 70 per cent of his long balls. Berge has also shown his bravery by constantly making himself available to receive possession - and then using it efficiently - despite acknowledging he is in transition.
“He looks like a Sheffield United player,” Wilder said after assessing his debut in the capital. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s athletic. He’s a good footballer.
“The look on his face when he came off was ‘wow.’ He knows he needs to get up to speed. But he will and he did well.”
“Sander can be pleased with his performance and there’s to come,” the United manager continued. “He’s young, he’s played Champions League football and he’s won a league title in Belgium. He’ll get better and he’ll adapt and he’ll certainly improve us as a football club.”
In order to accelerate that process, Berge has been undergoing an intensive crash course in United’s take on the 3-5-2 system, which revolves around the use of attacking centre-halves and enterprising wing-backs. Members of United’s youth academy, who employ the same strategy during under-18 and under-23 matches, have also been enlisted to take part in extra coaching sessions laid on for the most expensive purchase in United’s history.
But ultimately, Wilder hopes Lundstram’s resurgent form will have the same effect on Berge as he had on the Liverpudlian. If it does then, not only can Wilder expect to enjoy a series of welcome selection headaches between now and the end of the season - whilst retaining the flexibility to adjust his approach if required - United will have two superb midfield options at their disposal. Options which, when Berge becomes familiar with the nuances of the English game, will make them even more sophisticated in a tactical sense.
“Good players are intelligent players,” Wilder said. “They figure things out, they improve and they work things out for themselves.”