When Luton Town won the Playoff final against Coventry City to earn Premier League status for the first time in their history, the focus quickly switched to questioning how on earth they were going to compete in the richest league in the world. Since then, Luton have strengthened, signing solid players who performed well in last season’s Championship campaign both in order to try and compete at the highest level and to ensure solidity if they do end up being relegated.
The same cannot be said of their fellow newly promoted side Sheffield United. Paul Heckingbottom guided the Blades to a second-place finish, totalling an impressive 91 points as well as reaching an FA Cup semi-final. Sheffield United played a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1, the formation which became a staple under the club’s successful era under Chris Wilder.
Heckingbottom also utilised some of the features of play his predecessor had implemented, such as overlapping central defenders – the back three can often be seen bursting into the box, Anel Ahmedhodzic ended the season with 6 goals and 2 assists from defence. He is expected to implement the same system in the Premier League, but it may prove a difficult task with Sheffield United’s summer so far less than ideal, with the departure of key players, do the Blades have enough stay up?
The most notable departure from last season’s promotion-winning side was Senegalese forward Iliman Ndiaye. The brilliant forward was central to everything that the club did well, his ability to carry the ball from deep with a great combination of pace and close control meant his team could counter-attack at such a speed that defences couldn’t keep up. Ndiaye ended the season with 14 goals and 10 assists, having featured in every single league game.
It was assumed that Ndiaye was looking forward to playing in the top flight with the team he had worked so hard to get there but an offer came in he felt he could not turn down: a chance to return to his boyhood club Marseille. As a result Sheffield United had to accept a decent fee of around 17 Million Euros and move on.
The second, perhaps even more surprising, departure was Sander Berge. The leggy Norwegian midfielder had been at the heart of the team’s midfield since January 2020. Berge was as important as ever last season both defensively and in the attacking third of the pitch, contributing to the intense style of play Heckingbottom had created. Now Berge has opted to jump ship to join last season’s championship winners in Vincent Kompany’s Burnley.
Finally, the Blades have also lost both of their Manchester City loanees: James McAtee and Tommy Doyle. McAtee was one of the vital creative components of the team despite having more of an eye for a goal than an assist. Doyle had what many would consider a breakout season after a less successful spell on loan at Cardiff, he looked at home in Sheffield often dominating the centre of midfield. Again the club will have to do without these two young gems.
So far Sheffield United have brought in a total of 8 players, 1 of which was a loan. The best signing on paper looks to be that of the insatiable Gustavo Hamer. The Dutch-born Brazilian was incredible last season in helping a modest Coventry squad to the playoff final. It’s not at all outrageous to suggest that the all-action midfielder may well prove to be an upgrade on Sander Berge, possessing significantly more quality in the attacking third than the departing Norwegian international.
Auston Trusty is similar to Hamer in that he has been brought in after an impressive Championship season. Trusty performed superbly on loan at Birmingham from his parent club Arsenal, equally adept at both left back in a 4-man defence or on the left side of a back 3. He joins Sheffield United permanently as a replacement for Enda Stevens, the jury remains out on whether he can make the step up to Premier League football.
Other than these two signings and Tom Davies on a free transfer from Everton, the club have had to look further afield to try and find more value for their slender budget. Defensive midfielder Vini Souza joins from Lommel for a sizable fee of 12.5 million euros, however, there is little doubt that the Brazilian will prove a good signing in due time. Souza had proved himself to be too good for the Belgian Pro League and spent last season on loan in Spain with Espanyol, his game is typified by his ability to break up opposition play and utilise his combative nature.
Elsewhere Benie Traore and Anis Slimane join from Swedish side Hacken and Danish side Brondby respectively. Traore was prolific in the Swedish Allsvenskan but again it feels a big ask for him to replace the goals lost in Ndiaye and club legend Billy Sharp leaving the club. Slimane is a 22-year-old Tunisian international with tidy dribbling ability and an eye for a pass, if he can adapt quickly he could prove an intelligent alternative to James McAtee.
There is no getting away from the fact that on paper, Sheffield United look a weaker side than the one promoted from the Championship last campaign. However we all know the game isn’t played on paper and many have snubbed signings from leagues outside of Europe’s top division only for those players to come good in time, to the delight of hardworking scouts. The Belgian Pro League in particular is earning quite the reputation as a hotbed of talent.
If the season opener against Crystal Palace is anything to go by then the chances of survival are indeed slim, with the South Londoners playing the home side off the park despite only scoring once. Survival will require the core players from last season to step up and the likes of Hamer and Souza to hit the ground running.
If and it is a big if, the players that the Blades have brought can adapt to Heckingbottom’s system quickly, there is no reason his team shouldn’t be able to compete, but this will require patience, something which Premier League managers are not always afforded.
By: Wilf MacDonnell / @WilfMacDonnell
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto