Why Sheffield United's loan transfer business is a risk - and only time will tell if it was one worth taking

It was fast, it was frenetic and, at times, it was a little bit fanciful.

By Danny Hall
Wednesday, 1st September 2021, 5:00 pm

As tends to be the case on transfer deadline in modern times, Sheffield United were linked with all and sundry as they looked to get Slavisa Jokanović’s top targets over the line ahead of the 11pm deadline on Tuesday evening.

The rumours went from the sublime, Barcelona wingers and players previously dubbed as the “next Mbappe”, to the ridiculous; those from Europe linked with the Blades who were never on their radar.

A deadline day that promised four signings and for a time had fans worried that there would be none ultimately delivered two, with Morgan Gibbs-White and Robin Olsen both confirmed as United players for the rest of the season.

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But it will be the players that United did not land that will become the focus. Alex Collado and Yann Karamoh, of Barcelona and Parma respectively, were willing to join the Blades for the remainder of the season, before representatives moving the goalposts and red tape over a work permit respectively scuppered both moves.

Jokanović, then, failed to land any players in the priority position he had identified as he began reprofiling a squad he inherited from former boss Chris Wilder in the summer; wingers.

After experimenting with a 4-3-3 shape in pre-season, it is clearly the Serb’s preferred formation. The trouble is that, because it was shaped for so long in its former manager’s image, his squad does not have the necessary personnel and as such, 3-5-2 seems the way forward for the foreseeable future.

Morgan Gibbs-White joined the Blades on deadline day: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

There was inevitable – and, in some ways, understandable - disappointment and frustration amongst the Blades fanbase as the window slammed shut at 11pm, only tempered somewhat by the announcement of Olsen on loan from Roma about five minutes later.

Three of United’s four summer signings came in the last 48 hours of the window and even if the club cannot be blamed for the collapse of Collado’s move, after refusing to be held to ransom by “unreasonable demands” from the player’s lawyer, there will inevitably be question marks raised about why the deal was left so late that an alternative could not be sourced before the deadline once that one broke down.

The Star understands that United were working on alternative targets earlier in the window, so moved onto Karamoh after those proved unattainable. It’s understood also that United enquired about Leeds winger Heldar Costa before he eventually moved to Valencia, but sources in West Yorkshire suggest the player did not fancy a move to the Championship.

Sweden's goalkeeper Robin Olsen gestures during the UEFA EURO 2020 round of 16 football match between Sweden and Ukraine at Hampden Park (PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

If one problem position was not addressed in the window, another certainly was. United’s midfield, misfiring and low on confidence for so long now, will receive a much-needed shot in the arm with the arrivals of Conor Hourihane and Gibbs-White, a player who will bring some much-needed invention.

Hourihane’s experience and dead-ball ability will also be welcome, while Jokanović will be able to call upon Sander Berge until at least January after the deadline came and went with the Norwegian still a Blades player, albeit one forced into isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.

Berge, formerly United’s record signing, has only shown glimpses of his best form this season after United were relegated last season, and United will hope that he comes out of his shell a little with more confident players around him in midfield having shown, in spells against Birmingham on the opening day in particular, what an awkward proposition he could be against second-tier opposition midfielders - if he can adapt to the physical challenges they will no doubt pose him in return.

Conor Hourihane signs on a season long loan for Sheffield United: Simon Belliis/Sportimage

United come out of the window having banked a considerable sum from selling Aaron Ramsdale, replacing him with a goalkeeper of greater pedigree in Sweden No.1 Olsen. They have strengthened defence with the signing of Davies, who looks at home alongside John Egan and is arguably the arrival United have been crying out for ever since Jack O’Connell got injured, and have more options in midfield with Hourihane and Gibbs-White, who could play a more advanced role with Berge and Hourihane sitting behind him.

But for all that, there are still concerns. Taking out loans from clubs such as Liverpool, Aston Villa and AS Roma will not have come cheap – all four incomings will be on substantial salaries, without taking into account any loan fees and bonuses agreed – so temporary deals do not necessarily always equate to “taking the cheap option”.

In the short-term the lack of wingers means Jokanović either sticking with a formation he doesn’t prefer or continuing to put square pegs in round holes, as we saw at Swansea with Rhian Brewster on the left wing. Neither seems ideal.

But where does this transfer window business leave United in the long-term? In the best-case scenario, these four players help the Blades back into the big time and then they go into the Premier League looking for a new goalkeeper, a new first-choice centre-half and half a midfield. As a top-flight club transfer prices increase, value for money reduces and the cycle repeats again.

Worst case, United need to do exactly that but as a second-tier club again, with the subsequent further reduction in parachute payments and no established, first-choice goalkeeper. Bringing in four loan players does not hint at a club with a particularly firm long-term strategy but in mitigation, a similar emphasis on loans did Jokanović’s Fulham side no harm when they were promoted to the Premier League in 2018.

Ben Davies signs for Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Repeat that, and it will be hailed as a masterstroke. It can work; only time will tell if it was a gamble worth taking.