What Sheffield United's transfer policy tells us about the future at Bramall Lane
An attacking midfielder and left-sided centre-half, someone capable of filling the void which has existed at the heart of Sheffield United’s defence ever since Jack O’Connell was admitted to hospital for surgery in September, remain Chris Wilder’s top priorities during this month’s transfer window.
But with only 11 days remaining for directors to deliver the two loan signings they factored into the Premier League club’s budget, and which the manager believes are required to bolster an ailing, injury ravaged squad, Wilder has already provided a glimpse into his plans for the summer - when, without the boost only new arrivals can provide, it will almost certainly be competing in the Championship.
Although Jesse Lingard, Omar Colley and Ben Davies all featured among the list of “recommendations” Wilder presented to Bramall Lane’s hierarchy before Christmas - a description which suggests a change in the dynamics of power behind the scenes - it has also become apparent that United are monitoring several strikers too.
Wigan Athletic youngster Kyle Joseph and Kevin Nisbet, who has scored 13 goals in 28 appearances for Hibernian, are both known to be persons of interest inside the open plan office suite overlooking the Steelphalt Academy’s first team training pitch, where Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and talent spotter Paul Mitchell plot United’s recruitment strategy.
Adolfo Gaich, of CSKA Moscow, has also been mentioned in dispatches although, given the coaching staff’s preference for buying closer to home, one suspects the Argentine’s name has been suggested by someone from outside their inner circle.
Despite struggling for goals - United enter Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Plymouth Argyle having scored only 14 in all competitions this term - increasing their stable of centre-forwards is not Wilder’s most pressing concern at present.
After analysing footage of their displays since finishing ninth last season, the 53-year-old and his advisors suspect the imbalance caused by O’Connell’s absence, coupled with the ineffectiveness of United’s work in central areas, ultimately responsible for their poor attacking record.
David McGoldrick (5) and Billy Sharp (2) are Wilder’s most prolific marksmen during the present campaign, although the latter has been used only sparingly after being diagnosed with Covid-19 before a recent visit to Burnley.
However, aged 33 and 34 respectively, both have entered the autumn of their careers, meaning United have already begun the process of identifying their eventual replacements.
Although Athletic’s perilous financial situation means Joseph could be sold at any moment, officials at Easter Road have made it plain they are loath to part company with Nisbet until the end of the Scottish Premiership campaign.
With both men boasting a long list of potential suitors, United would prefer to mark their territory now and, if the relevant permissions are granted, possibly hold preliminary discussions with both players’ representatives to ascertain their wage demands.
By his own admission, Wilder likes to make “short, medium and long term” plans. Although ensuring United action the former, particularly with a pivotal battle against fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion looming on the horizon, is dominating his thoughts at present, casting admiring glances in the direction of Joseph and Nisbet marks the start of a drive to reprofile their attack.
McGoldrick and Sharp are unlikely to be eased out next season. But with United 11 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table and facing an uphill struggle in the battle to avoid relegation, neither is likely to relish the prospect of returning to the second tier, where clubs must shoehorn at least another eight fixtures per season into their schedules.
With Oli McBurnie, the third oldest member of United’s strikeforce still five months short of his 25th birthday, the need for fresh blood is apparent.
Lys Mousset, also 24, should be spearheading Wilder’s frontline right now. But concerns about his fitness and professionalism off the pitch mean the Frenchman, who possesses every other quality required to become a consistent top-flight goalscorer, can not be relied upon.
Unless there is a major change in Mousset’s approach, and assuming a buyer can be found given his terrible track record of late, a parting of the ways seems inevitable.
In the meantime, Wilder faces an anxious wait to discover if United’s hierarchy will complete deals for the reinforcements he insists are necessary; regardless of whether his side has a realistic chance of survival..
Although Wilder privately acknowledges they are probably going down, how they go down then becomes important. The argument United should resist the temptation to throw good money after bad and simply start saving for the summer ignores, members of his cadre insist, how meekly surrendering their seat at English football’s top table would cash a shadow over attempts to make an immediate return.
It could also, they fear, make them a less desirable destination for players hoping to eventually establish themselves at the highest level.
That explains why Wilder has invested so much time and effort trying to tempt Lingard, an England international with nearly 150 PL appearances for Manchester United under his belt, to South Yorkshire.
Wilder’s pitch revolves around what United can do for Lingard - regular first team football, a return to the spotlight and therefore more bargaining power when the time comes for him to leave Old Trafford. But he is more concerned with what Lingard can do for United; providing them with a much needed injection of experience, know-how and enthusiasm behind the scenes.