The potentially devastating mistake Sheffield United must not make this month
It is impossible not to sympathise with the argument that, after finding themselves 12 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the Premier League, Sheffield United should keep their hands in their pockets during this month’s transfer window and begin saving for the summer market instead.
Members of the club’s coaching and playing staffs continue to insist survival remains possible. But the chances are, even though the unpredictable nature of this season’s competition means they are still in with a fighting chance, Bramall Lane will be a Championship venue next term.
However, although folk who claim United would simply be throwing good money after bad if they decide to bolster a squad which has lost 15 of its last 17 matches are right in one sense, the case for reinforcements is actually even more compelling than ever.
Even if the only purpose it serves is to prevent a side which has achieved so much since Chris Wilder’s appointment five years ago being remembered as the worst in the division’s history.
Three wins and a draw between now and May, or a similar combination of results, are required for United to surpass the total set by Derby County in 2008. A group of players, many of whom are veterans of 2017’s League One title winning campaign, deserve so much better than that.
“These lads are fighting,” United’s manager said, following Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace. “They care about what happens. They’ve shown that time and time again.”
With funds being made available for two loan signings, United have chosen their targets carefully. Wilder began sifting through the list of names presented to him by head of recruitment Paul Mitchell during the autumn, before providing owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and chief executive Steve Bettis with a series of “recommendations” over the Christmas period.
Some of those on the email he sent to Prince Abdullah and Bettis have been the subject of long-standing interest, with Preston North End’s Ben Davies being tracked ever since it became apparent he is reluctant to extend his contract at Deepdale.
Others, such as Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard, have emerged more recently - with at least one meeting between the England international and Wilder, where he outlined the role he has earmarked for the 28-year-old, understood to have taken place within the past six weeks.
“We’ve put things forward,” Wilder continued, when pressed on the progress of talks by The Star. “Now we’re just waiting. It’s above us now.”
Although the sight of United only being able to name six of their permitted nine substitutes for the visit to Selhurst Park revealed the extent of the problems injury, suspension and illness are causing behind the scenes, two obvious vacancies exist on a roster shorn of influential figures such as Jack O’Connell, Sander Berge, Oliver Burke and Oli McBurnie.
The first has remained unfilled for nearly four months, when it became clear that a long-standing knee complaint was having such a destructive effect upon O’Connell’s performances that surgery was required to correct the issue.
The niche nature of his role in United’s 3-5-2 system - overlapping from deep and, even more critically, instigating quick fire counter attacks by spraying accurate long passes diagonally across the pitch - meant no obvious replacement existed with the group of players Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill had assembled.
The increasingly desperate nature of their attempt to find a solution - asking Kean Bryan, Ethan Ampadu and Enda Stevens to partner John Egan and Chris Basham after initially handing Jack Robinson the job before turning full circle - has only served to highlight the need for an external fix to be sought.
United’s flirtation with Lingard, who has suddenly dropped out of favour at Old Trafford, suggests that not only have they conceded John Lundstram’s departure is inevitable following his refusal to agree a new deal but also a lack of dynamism in the middle of the pitch is to blame for their problems in front of goal.
The blank United drew in south London was their 10th of the season; a miserable record which has prompted claims strikers such as McBurnie, Rhian Brewster, David McGoldrick and Oliver Burke lack the qualities required to make a difference at the highest level. But a closer, more forensic, inspection of United’s displays of late reveals the dearth of clear cut opportunities the quartet have been presented with.
United’s approach play has been too ponderous, pedestrian and predictable to trouble top-flight defences. Acquiring someone possessing athleticism and experience - Lingard has netted 33 times in 203 appearances for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team - would potentially bring huge benefits. West Ham are also reportedly holding talks with his agent.
Given the predicament United find themselves in ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup third round tie at Bristol Rovers, the hierarchy’s decision to focus on temporary target than permanent transfers makes both financial and footballing sense - removing the excuse for players who have no intention of pursuing a career in the EFL to ignore their overtures.
But even if United do surrender their PL status, the need for reinforcements is obvious.
Relegation is a fact of life for all but the most minted of clubs, with three going down every year.
How you go down, though, is important. Those who put up a fight, rather than accepting their fate and sinking without trace, tend to stand a much better chance of making an immediate return.