The Norway international, a £22m signing from Genk, spent the first part of an eleven-a-side game screening his team’s rearguard. But suddenly, after seizing possession on the edge of their box, he decided to burst forward with the ball. Maybe, McCall now reflects, out of sheer frustration. But whatever it was, after watching him do it again and then again and again, the idea was sown.
Berge’s talent, McCall fathomed, was being wasted as a ‘Number six’. This was a player, United’s assistant manager suspected, who really should be encouraged to venture behind enemy lines.
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“I’ve got to say, the first week we came in, it was more about trying to get the best out of Flecky (John Fleck), Ollie Norwood and Conor (Hourihane), because I knew them more,” McCall told The Star last night. “He (Berge) was coming back from an injury and hadn’t had a lot of game time.
“Then, I can always remember this spell one morning, where he started just swatting everyone off and running with it. It was 10 versus 10 on the outfield and, seriously, even our most physical lads were either getting knocked out of the way or struggling to stop him.”
Berge, who gained Champions League experience during his time in Belgium, has often flattered to deceive following his move to Bramall Lane; injuries, combined with an apparent reluctance to impose himself on fixtures, leaving many observers wondering if United’s money had been wisely invested. But he enters tomorrow’s match at Millwall on the back of perhaps his best performance in United colours, after helping Paul Heckingbottom’s men regain sixth place by beating Blackburn Rovers. Ben Davies’ added time winner, after Charlie Goode’s red card, might have dominated the headlines over the past 48 hours. Yet, the sight of Berge causing the visitors all manner of problems with his driving runs from deep lying positions prompted many of those in attendance to wonder if they had just witnessed his breakthrough performance.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve really been concentrating on Sander,” continued McCall, himself a former midfielder with Rangers, Everton, Scotland and, towards the end of his own playing career, United. “His mindset is about keeping possession. That’s still there. Good. But we want a little more.”
“Having watched clips of him, this makes better use of the real gifts and qualities that he’s got. Because he’s a quality player. Speaking to Sander, I think he likes it.”
Of course, McCall discussed his theory with Heckingbottom too before confirming Berge’s change of role. Appointed as Slavisa Jokanovic’s successor in November, the 44-year-old boasts the final say on tactical matters with his authority only being boosted by the fact United, 16th when the Serb departed, travel to London in the top six and unbeaten in nine.
“Sander, after a bad hamstring injury, is finding his feet now,” said McCall. “He’s got this lovely languid style, even though two matches before (Rovers, a draw with Huddersfield Town), he covered more distance than anyone. But the evidence of your own eyes is still important.”