Manager Paul Heckingbottom has made no secret about it. In fact, he went on the record to detail his shopping list even before the market reopened - telling journalists, and therefore the entire footballing community, that strengthening United’s defence and possibly trimming their attack would dominate the agenda at Bramall Lane this month.
So why is Heckingbottom so determined to bolster his rearguard when the likes of Chris Basham and John Egan remain at his disposal? And are United’s recruitment experts focusing on individuals with specific attributes or simply good ‘all-rounders’?
The Star answers these questions - and more - ahead of Monday’s deadline for new signings, as Heckingbottom attempts to ensure his squad is equipped to mount a serious challenge for promotion during the second half of the season.
WHY A CENTRE-HALF?
United were already short of them when they switched to a back four under Slavisa Jokanovic earlier this term, before Heckingbottom’s predecessor reluctantly returned to a ‘three’ during his final game in charge. Appointed as the Serb’s successor in November, Heckingbottom has continued with the formation which proved so successful under Chris Wilder, who twice won promotion and steered United to ninth in the Premier League, before departing as they spiralled towards relegation last year.
The fact Jokanovic reverted to a strategy he was clearly keen to dump revealed two things. Both of which underline why it is so important to strengthen in this key area.
Firstly, after experimenting with a variety of different systems without seeing an upturn in results, Jokanovic clearly felt United were so wedded to a 3-5-2, both mentally and because of the personnel at their disposal in other areas of the pitch, that doing anything different was doomed to fail. At least until the whole squad has been reprofiled.
For a whole host of reasons, Heckingbottom has been unable to do that yet. But he also seems happier to continue working within the framework laid down by Wilder than Jokanovic. Yet even Wilder seemed to have concluded that United were short in this area of the pitch before leaving in March.
After all, he wanted to bring in Ben Davies long before, having joined Liverpool from Preston North End, he eventually arrived on loan under Jokanovic.
Secondly, after reporting that Davies’ quest for optimum fitness had been complicated by Covid-19, Heckingbottom is one injury or positive test away from a major selection dilemma. If Egan, Basham or Jack Robinson suddenly become unavailable, then youngster Kyron Gordon would be forced to step in or someone like Rhys Norrington-Davies or even Enda Stevens asked to play out of position.
Gordon is highly rated behind the scenes. But as the campaign enters a critical phase, Heckingbottom would prefer to be able to call upon tried and tested players right now.
WHO HAS BEEN LOOKED AT?
James Hill’s name certainly featured on the list of players being monitored by United’s recruitment experts. But Heckingbottom’s comments after he completed a switch from Fleetwood Town to AFC Bournemouth appeared to suggest the youngster, whose father Matt represented United during his own playing career, was not his number one target.
John Souttar did attract concerted interest, with the Heart of Midlothian man thought to have been shown around United’s stadium before reaching a pre-contract agreement with Rangers.
United’s attention now seems to have switched to Liverpool, a club with whom they have done business in the past with both Rhian Brewster and Davies making the switch from Anfield to South Yorkshire during the past year-and-a-half.
WHAT QUALITIES DO UNITED NEED?
Experience is a given. Otherwise Heckingbottom, who remains convinced United can qualify for the play-offs, might as well just pluck someone out of their development squad.
When talking about attributes, things become a little more complex. With only one centre-half expected to arrive, whoever comes in must be able to operate across the back three. If they aren’t left-footed, someone comfortable operating on this side of the pitch would be good too.
Given the way United like to approach games, using their centre-halves to launch attacks, whoever comes in must be comfortable on the ball as well as strong in the tackle. Which explains why Souttar, who is both, appeared such a good fit. Actually, make that a perfect fit.
Although most folk’s attention has focused on the two outside central defensive positions, if Egan was ruled-out it would leave United with a real headache. Basham isn’t perfectly suited to playing in the middle. Davies can perform there, which is why Jokanovic and to a lesser extent Wilder wanted him. But he is unavailable at present.
IS A LOAN OR PERMANENT DEAL MOST LIKELY?
Initially, United’s flirtation with Souttar suggested a permanent was more likely. However, it now appears as if loans are a more realistic option. However a late change of tact can not be ruled-out, as the club has unexpectedly changed strategy before. Sander Berge’s arrival from Genk, for a price tag way beyond what United had initially planned to spend in the 2020 winter window, is an example of that.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF SUCCESS?
There are no guarantees and United’s apparent decision to investigate loans will be greeted with disappointment in some circles. However, although they must reduce their reliance on temporary deals in the future, they should be simpler to arrange than permanent ones. Simpler, though, not simple.
With the window set to close on Monday, that is no bad thing.