Berge or Lundstram? Chris Wilder’s midfield selection headache
Background image: Bill Boaden, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Sander Berge’s £22million transfer to Sheffield United from Belgian side Genk was well received by Blades fans. The 22-year-old Norwegian midfielder attracted interest from Chelsea and Manchester United in January, but he is settling in well in Yorkshire. Chris Wilder demonstrated his faith in the youngster recently as he came straight into the starting line-up for the back-to-back victories over Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.
But Berge’s transfer had a knock-on effect on Sheffield United's key man, John Lundstram. The Englishman was dropped for the last three fixtures despite being a huge reason behind the excellent season Wilder's men are having.
Lundstram’s hard work in the box-to-box role is effective in Wilder’s favoured three, so his dropping was a major surprise. The 25-year-old started 22 of the Blades' 23 fixtures in all competitions before Berge’s arrival, scoring three goals and providing two assists. He is also the club’s third top-scorer this season alongside Ollie McBurnie.
The 26-year-old scored the late winner for Sheffield United in the 2-1 win over Bournemouth last weekend. This winning goal typified what Lundstram does so well, running from deep, getting into dangerous positions and then finishing with aplomb.
Although they won their last two fixtures, Sheffield United looked less dynamic going forward, particularly against Crystal Palace, where the Blades didn’t have a shot in the first half. This is an element they lack without Lundstram and it was clear in the Bournemouth fixture that the team attack well with him in the side. United produced the better chances in the final third of the match and eventually found the breakthrough through Lundstram in the last five minutes. An excellent little cameo.
Lundstram is more productive in attack than his midfield partners, too. He had 34 shots this season, more than John Fleck (27) and Oliver Norwood (17). His pass completion is the best in in the entire squad with 84%, which should seem particularly important for Wilder when looking to retain the ball on the counter-attack.
But much of Sheffield United’s success under Wilder in recent years centres around defensive solidity rather than attacking contributions. The Blades have the second-best defence in the Premier League, conceding 24 goals this season and keeping nine clean sheets. Prioritising this approach explains Wilder’s dropping of Lundstram in favour of Berge.
Berge does not contribute hugely when attacking but his intelligent positioning will free up the likes of Fleck and McBurnie to support the team driving forward. Berge barely put a foot wrong against Crystal Palace and Bournemouth recently and provides a physical presence in front of the overlapping centre backs in Wilder’s 3-5-2. He displayed this particularly well against Palace in a standout performance. He won six tackles and four aerial duels, more than any other of his teammates.
Wilder seemingly wants to integrate the 22-year-old to English football slowly, having substituted him on 60 and 70 minutes for both games. His consistency over the next few fixtures could be important in deciding the outcome for the third midfield spot at Sheffield United and this could see Lundstram missing out on game time.
It is likely Wilder will stick with Berge for the upcoming fixture against Brighton this weekend. He rarely changes his tactics and personnel, so Berge will be the preferred option. This will cause some concern for Lundstram but if he continues to impress from the bench then Wilder will have no option but to bring him back into the side. If this is the case, it's likely that Fleck or Norwood would be sacrificed rather than Berge. However, the competitiveness Lundstram demonstrated with his late appearance against Bournemouth will please Wilder and will give him confidence with the strength in depth he now has in central midfield.