The truth behind Sheffield United's transfer strategy

Somewhere in Dubai, amid the sun worshippers and pleasure seekers who descend upon the city at this time of year, a delegation from Sheffield United will shortly convene a meeting which could be among the most important in their club’s history.

Thursday, 13th February 2020, 6:05 am

The location is a secret. Images of their discussions, after photographs of a previous get-together inadvertently revealed Chris Wilder’s recruitment plans, are unlikely to be published on its social media channels.

But the agenda is already a matter or record. Wilder, alongside owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and chief executive Steve Bettis, will use the gathering to devise a strategy for this summer’s transfer window.

“We’ve got meetings this week in Dubai with Prince Abdullah and the board talking about what we’re going to be doing,” Bettis said. “Chris has already highlighted positions and by the end of the week, we’ll be close to agreeing numbers so that Chris knows exactly where he can start looking to strengthen when the window opens.”

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By the time that happens, on Wednesday 10 June, United could be preparing to take part in European competition after reaching the last 16 of the FA Cup and climbing to fifth in the Premier League table.

The possibility of Europa League or even Champions League football will have to be factored into any strategies Wilder and his employers devise. But the United manager’s decision to begin the process of identifying targets now, less than a fortnight after the winter window closed, is evidence of the importance he places on working to a blueprint covering the short, medium and long term.

“Before the January window even opened we had a plan in terms of our monetary sum, but also a plan for the forthcoming summer as well,” Bettis explained. “They were both looked at together.

“Chris and I talk about it regularly, not only Europe but finishing higher up the league because every position there’s an extra sum of money.

Sander Berge of Sheffield United holds off Andrew Surman of Bournemouth during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“When you start talking about not finishing 17th but seventh, that ends up being a significant sum and if you utilise that to strengthen the squad you get a lot back for it.

“The key is the board and Prince Abdullah want to continue to push this club forward as much as they can but it’s being done in the right way, in a sustainable way, it’s not boom and bust. “There’s a three to five-year plan. We sat and talked about it last time we were in Dubai, and we’ll be updating it again this week.”

When United returned to the Middle East on Monday, for warm-weather training during the PL’s mid-season break, new signings Sander Berge, Panos Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic were among those in tow.

Retsos, a Greece international defender, and Zivkovic, the former Ajax centre-forward, were acquired on loan from Bayer Leverkusen and Changchun Yatai respectively. Berge, however, recently completed a £22m move to United after leaving Genk in a deal which saw him become the most expensive purchase in their 131 year existence.

Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder and chief executive Steve Bettis: Scott Merrylees

Describing how the trio came to appear on his radar Wilder, who also captured Jack Robinson and Jack Rodwell, confirmed United have built their own statistical model to identify future targets as well as utilising commonly used systems.

“A lot of clubs have individual scouts and a number of scouts in different countries but we go about it a different way,” the United manager said. “We use software, video analysis, WyScout and other forms of watching players.

“We’ve got our own individual statistic-based model for looking at what we need from our individual players. There’s always a subjective and an objective view, and we’re looking with our own eyes and getting around.”

“We watched Sander personally four or five times and have watched clips and games right the way through,” Wilder added. “I didn’t manage to get out to China but I knew a lot about Richairo, Sander and Panos as well.

Panagiotis Retsos is welcomed to Sheffield United by manager Chris Wilder after joining on loan from Bayer Leverkusen: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“Everybody has been seen and we’re a real tight recruitment group, we trust each other implicitly.

“Paul (Mitchell, United’s head of recruitment), myself and Alan (Knill, United’s assistant manager) head it up and if it’s a goalkeeping situation Darren (Ward) will head that up because he knows a bit more about that position than me.”

United were languishing in League One when Wilder was appointed four years ago, and the former Northampton Town and Oxford chief accepted that rapid progress has created new possibilities for them to explore.

“We’ve benefited from the profile of the team,” Wilder, whose interest in Berge traces back to last summer, when United had just been promoted from the Championship, said. “These boys are watching Premier League football week in, week out and want to be part of it and I totally understand in the summer why there might have been a reluctance from Sander, his agent and his family.

“But now, because of our performances and the consistency and quality of our results, that’s changed.”

Wilder, speaking before United travelled to Dubai, predicted there will be a direct correlation between the ambition they show in the market and the calibre of future signings.

Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder and chief executive Steve Bettis: Scott Merrylees

“There’s no way we would have attracted the likes of the boys we have this January if we hadn’t progressed in the ways we have. The board has made funds available and when players can see the football club moving forward.

“Sure, Sander wouldn’t have signed for us in the summer but all of a sudden it changes because of performances and results and it is about momentum and moving forward.

“Unfortunately there are casualties in every window but it has to be that way if you are going to move forward and I do believe in every window we have moved forward.”

Having spent nearly £50m as they prepared to return to the PL, concerns have been expressed in some quarters that United are abandoning their previous policy of fiscal prudence.

Bettis, a close ally of Wilder and conduit between him and Prince Abdullah, allayed those fears; reminding United are simply taken advantage of the wealth PL status brings.

“We’re spending these large sums of money on proven talent that’s young, with many years left of their career and we think they’re assets for the football club.

“In our first two windows in the Premier League we’ve shown real intent to strengthen and stay here. What Chris is doing with the players on the pitch is showing that, so we couldn’t be happier. Long may it continue.”

Wilder, a lifelong United supporter and former player, acknowledged he feels a responsibility to ensure his team grasps the opportunities a seat at England’s top table brings.

Noting how the business United completed at the same stage last year helped them plot a course out of the Championship, he said: “It’s always raised the standard of the group and January was always going to be a key month for us. It was last year when we brought in (Kieran) Dowell, Scott Hogan and Gaz (Madine) and the timing of that gave us a boost as I’m sure these boys will now.”

“Legacy’s a big thing that if, when, we all depart, this club has established itself in the Premier League,” Wilder added, “And it’s got a foothold in this division and is here to stay.”