Sheffield United will be hard-pushed to top their 2019/20 season. The Blades have surpassed all expectations during their first campaign back in the top flight, sitting in seventh place and with a genuine shot at attaining UEFA Champions League football when the Premier League resumes.
Manager Chris Wilder has performed miracles at his boyhood club – they are just five points off fourth-placed Chelsea with a game in hand, while even finishing fifth could be enough to earn a seat at Europe’s top table if Manchester City are banned from UEFA competitions.
Any form of continental football would undoubtedly set the pulses racing in Sheffield, considering the Blades were playing in League One as recently as 2016/17.
Their rise has been meteoric, but what do they need to do in the transfer market this summer in order to continue that progress next season?
Sheffield United have ten players out of contract at the end of this season and a further four on loan at the club, so the next transfer window is likely to see a whole host of departures from Bramall Lane.
A number of fringe players look set to leave, including Leon Clarke, Mark Duffy (on loan at ADO Den Haag), Ravel Morrison (on loan at Middlesbrough) and Jack Rodwell. Injury-prone winger Ricky Holmes is expected to retire, while a new contract for 37-year-old defender Phil Jagielka feels unlikely – unless it is simply to act as cover, or perhaps in a player-coach role.
John Lundstram has been a revelation since stepping up to the top flight. The Blades are likely to take up a 12-month option in his contract when this season reaches its conclusion.
They would love to keep on-loan Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson at the club for another year after two highly impressive campaigns in Sheffield, but there is a feeling that the England Under-21 international believes he is ready to challenge David de Gea for the No.1 shirt at Old Trafford next season.
Fellow loanee Mo Bešić is expected to return to Everton, but Richairo Živković and Panagiotis Retsos could both sign permanently from Changchun Yatai and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. The COVID-19 pandemic means neither has had a chance to make their mark at Bramall Lane.
Wilder has built a team that is greater than the sum of its parts and short of star names, but some of the Blades’ top performers are starting to attract attention. United will perhaps be most afraid of losing centre-back Jack O’Connell who has been linked with Tottenham Hotspur. Along with Henderson, he has been the club’s best player in 2019/20.
Key areas to strengthen
A significant chunk of Sheffield United’s summer transfer budget was spent in January, when they acquired Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge for a record fee of £22million from Genk. The club felt they had to act quickly to beat their rivals to the 22-year-old’s signature, but that big money move is likely to result in a more bargain-focused approach to the next transfer window.
The key position to strengthen is in goal, where United’s board will have to find the funds to adequately replace the departing Henderson.
Then the Blades can turn their attention to improving the team’s potency up front. Wilder’s side are ninth in the Premier League’s expected goals table with an xG of 40.01, but have only managed to score 30 times so far this season – the sixth-lowest total in the top flight.
Finding a striker to convert more chances could be key to Sheffield United maintaining their lofty league position in 2020/21, though 15-goal-a-season forwards are notoriously difficult to come by on a budget.
Only five sides have older teams than United (with an average age of 27.4), so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a concerted attempt to bring that number down at Bramall Lane over the coming months.
Sheffield United are being strongly linked with Club Brugge striker Emmanuel Dennis, who has scored nine goals in all competitions for the Belgian outfit this season. The 22-year-old would reportedly set the Yorkshire side back £22million, but they would have to fight off interest from the likes of Arsenal, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United.
BK Häcken hot prospect Ali Youssef has also revealed that the Blades are interested in bringing him to England – the 19-year-old winger is one for the future, but could offer useful squad depth if he does indeed join the club this summer.