What John Lundstram's fall from grace can teach both Sheffield United and the player himself
Sometimes, probably more times than people realise, it all boils down to demeanor.
Players whose boots have been touched by God can be criticised for appearing insouciant. Others are worshipped, beautified and lauded because they always leave it all out there. Even though they’d struggle, relatively speaking at least, to trap a bag of cement.
John Lundstram is probably trying to fathom this familiar footballing phenomenon as he prepares for Sunday’s game against Arsenal. The Sheffield United midfielder, who 12 months ago was viewed as a hugely significant cog in what was a liberally oiled machine, now finds himself being described as symptomatic of everything which is wrong with a club which enters Sunday’s contest hoping to avoid a 25th defeat in 31 Premier League outings.
So where did it go wrong for the Liverpudlian? How has Lundstram, once a posterboy for perhaps the most exciting United team in a generation, become a whipping boy for those who have understandably had a gutful of watching it produce some pretty lamentable results and performances since September’s return to action? The answer, or rather the answers, contain lessons for both the individual concerned and also those tasked with running the institution he appears destined to leave in June.
There can be little doubt that Lundstram’s displays have fallen well short of what is expected following the first national lockdown. Nor is there any, after watching it flooded by white and blue shirts during last weekend’s derby at Leeds, that he is failing to effectively contribute, either technically or physically, in United’s engine room. Which given that he has spent the past season-and-a-half steadfastly refusing to sign a new contract, is a pretty toxic mix.
Although some folk will argue the situation is inevitable, given fans seldom take kindly to anyone who wants to leave, it is actually anything but. Chris Wilder, despite being more frustrated by Lundstram’s actions than he was ready to publicly admit, did a decent job of glossing over the issue during August’s training camp in Scotland. The former manager’s words also resonated, with most United followers prepared to give the lad the benefit of the doubt. Lundstram’s side of the bargain was to impress when the campaign eventually got underway. Instead, as what became an inexorable slide towards relegation began, he went missing in action.
Well, sort of. You could see him but weren’t quite sure what he was doing there.
It happens. Even Marco Tardelli and Sandro Mazzola went through the odd woeful spell. People who watch United know form is temporary but class is permanent. But what they also know, what they can detect a mile off, is a troubling disposition. Unfortunately, maybe unfairly, Lundstram’s disposition has created the impression he just doesn’t care. Or doesn’t care enough.
Although that is an unjust charge to level at any professional sportsperson, Lundstram can’t really complain about the position he finds himself in.
Paul Heckingbottom, placed in caretaker charge after Wilder’s abrupt exit, reminded “those boys are still fighting” before leaving Elland Road following a 2-0 loss which exposed United’s confidence, Lundstram’s included, is absolutely shot. But by also choosing to reference how injuries are limiting his options, the former Barnsley, Scarborough and Bradford City defender seemed to acknowledge he would consider withdrawing the 27-year-old from the firing line if there was anyone available to step into the breach. Iliman Ndiaye could conceivably fill that role. But as he looks to nurture some of the Steelphalt Academy’s most promising young graduates Heckingbottom is understandably torn between granting them opportunities and exposing them to the potentially damaging experience of trying to compete at the highest level in a squad not, for both self-inflicted and also unavoidable reasons, is not currently fit for purpose.
Lundstram is not solely to blame for the predicament United are in. However, he could do more, including making some simple cosmetic changes on the pitch, to improve how folk perceive him .
But United must also shoulder some of the responsibility for his fall from grace, after making such a flying start to the previous campaign.
If Sander Berge was fit, Lundstram almost certainly wouldn’t be featuring against Mikel Arteta’s men. A serious hamstring injury, now supposedly only a couple of weeks away from healing, means he isn’t. But is it a coincidence that the Norway international’s arrival in South Yorkshire, for a then record fee of £22m, coincided with Lundstram’s downturn?
Berge is a fine player and a personable one too; polite, friendly and helpful whenever he is interviewed.
He owes his presence at United to the fact he was scouted, monitored and then championed by a member of their hierarchy who, when it became clear he would be leaving Genk midway through last year, persuaded the board to pay double the entire January budget they had previously agreed with coaching staff. Wilder was more than happy to take Berge. And indeed he rated him, agreeing with Jan van Winckel’s assessment of his prowess.
But Berge’s price tag meant Lundstram knew he would probably be nudged out of the eleven. His suspicions proved correct when his new colleague replaced him in the line-up for a visit to Crystal Palace.
Initially responding to the challenge, even out-performing Berge initially, Lundstram’s mood has gone downhill ever since. Likewise, United’s chances of convincing him to extend his deal. Seldom a regular pick during ‘Project Restart’, Lundstram’s rhythm disappeared.
With a number of top-flight clubs thought to be preparing bids, Berge will prove a sound financial investment. But an unintended consequence of his purchase underlines the importance of devising a joined-up, consensual recruitment strategy and then sticking to it. Particularly when you consider, although one has to grasp opportunities whenever they arise, that what United probably needed more at that moment was a prolific centre-forward rather than replacement for Lundstram.