When Rhian Brewster missed the crucial penalty for Liverpool in the loss to Arsenal at the Community Shield last August, little did he know that it was only the first act in a season of fear – for Liverpool, for him and even for Sheffield United, he would join the club in October for a record fee.
If the two clubs meet today at Bramall Lane and United at the bottom and Liverpool try to lose in the fifth division Avoiding in a row Brewster may not be there. He has only played four minutes in United’s last four league games. His numbers for the season so far are anything but flattering: 18 games in the Premier League, seven starts, no goals. A meager return on the £ 23.5 million paid to lure one of England’s hottest prospects.
It was a hell of a challenge for a 20-year-old who had next to no top experience to quickly become a prolific goalscorer that the blades haven’t had since promotion. Brewster had a pedigree at some level – for England’s triumphant youth teams and in last season’s championship as a loanee at Swansea – but it has become clear he wasn’t ready to take on so much of the Blades’ goal load. Though he showed flashes of his predatory instincts with some smart runs and sharp touches, he looked mostly lost, not entirely in tune with his team, and a little lightweight. Which shouldn’t be a surprise.
« He’s 20, he’s not fully developed, » said David McGoldrick, the 33-year-old who is United’s top scorer with five league goals. « The club works hard with him in the gym and training to get him used to our game and the physical aspect. »
The integration into a new team was uniquely difficult for all players this season. This could be one reason none of United’s recruits, with the exception of Jayden Bogle, have impressed so far. « Not everyone is in the same locker room, we do different things, we’re not even all on the same bus, so you miss out on things that you normally get, » says McGoldrick.
Part of Chris Wilder’s success as a manager comes from his ability to rehabilitate players who flopped at other clubs. So there’s no chance he’ll give up Brewster just yet. United have adjusted their expectations of the striker and not given up. McGoldrick says the player’s class is evident – « There isn’t a better finisher I’ve seen when I was 20 » – and that he will become a valuable asset to the Blades, although it may not be until after he is from a full one Pre-Profit has benefited. Season there. « And when he goes online, he doesn’t stop, » says McGoldrick.
Brewster’s difficult customization is one of many factors that contributed to the battles of the blades. Injuries and loss of shape hit you harder than most. When Wilder’s side took the Premier League by storm last season, their three center-backs were among the most sensational units in the division. Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham and John Egan were delighted with their solidity and their skillfully orchestrated ventures. Neither of these trios will play against Liverpool, and the list of victims includes influential midfielder Sander Berge and left full-back Enda Stevens.
Last season Wilder had remarkable selection consistency, only Burnley making fewer line-up changes. This season United have had to switch teams more than anyone but Chelsea, Newcastle and the giants of Manchester.
None of these changes have resolved the damage caused in particular by the loss of O’Connell, whose injury in September was even more damaging to United than the absence of Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool.
« He’s the key, » says O’Connell’s McGoldrick. “He plays the left side of the back three and knew how to downplay them to a T. He knew when to overlap, when to stay, when to fit. And as a defender, he’s solid. Nobody can get past him, he is fast, he is strong and he is a real leader without being loud. He’s the best coach in the club, the toughest worker. But what happened isn’t just because of him. We missed a lot of players. If you’re used to playing with certain players and the team is cemented, that’s different. Not everyone plays like us, it’s not a normal formation and it takes time to learn. «
With so many defenders, Wilder may have no choice but to put in place a new system for visiting Liverpool. With the games over he still has problems to solve at both ends of the field.
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