“I would look back and regard this as one of our best - if not the best - window we have had since I have been at the club,” declared former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder after his side spent just under $69 million over last summer’s transfer window, including breaking the club’s transfer record by signing striker Rhian Brewster for $32.5 million. You can rarely pinpoint the exact moment a manager put himself on the clock, but Wilder’s enthusiasm meant there was little room to work with. It is difficult to blame his response considering that he had taken over United in League One five years prior. He spent $180,000 on two players during his first window.
Six months after he made his declaration, he left his hometown side by mutual consent with United at the bottom of the Premier League table. We’ve seen this before, of how the highs of a transfer window ultimately bury a manager under new expectations. The art is in the messaging. The results would have stayed the same, but at least Wilder could have blamed injuries or disagreements with the board instead of staring at the wasted millions.
Such a turn would have seemed impossible a year ago, with Wilder’s side finishing ninth place in their first season after promotion. It wasn’t so much in the results, but the how: Wilder’s 3-5-2 formation, made up largely of castoffs the team signed since it’s days in League One, showed an ingenuity that flummoxed wealthier opposition. He even had the branding of the “overlapping centerbacks,” in which Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham, playing right and left centerback, would have the freedom to move forward in possession and create numerical overloads in attack (O’Connell was a free transfer in 2016, with Basham costing $314,000 in 2014). The fear then was that Wilder would leave for a larger Premier League side.
We’ve seen managers and clubs be a victim of their own success in the past. Wilder reportedly clashed with club chairman Musa’ad bin Khalid Al Saud over the latter’s desire to create a Director of Football position to formalize the club’s growing ambitions, thereby taking away the manager’s power from the previous mom-and-pop setup. On the field, O’Connell only played two matches this season after an early injury. Given his unique role as an “overlapping centerback” and the difficulty of finding a replacement equally comfortable defending and attacking, there were arguments that O’Connell’s injury was even more devastating to United than Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool.
The strength of his unorthodox approach turned against Wilder, with United’s remaining centerbacks unable to replicate the 26-year-old defender’s attacking runs. You could question the resiliency of a system when one piece unbalances it completely and extol the virtues of production-line simplicity where several players can fill in when needed. You could also question the wisdom of sticking with an approach that clearly did not fit the available players. But Wilder got United to the Premier League playing this singular style; there was no plan B because there never was a plan B.
On the other end, David McGoldrick embodied United’s attack. The striker, who rose with Wilder from League One, never played in the Premier League until last season at age 31. His link-up play and off-ball work sacrificed for the larger attacking system as much as O’Connell did on the defensive end. Yet he also went viral for his lack of goal scoring last season, finding the net just twice in 28 matches off 6.8 Expected Goals.
If McGoldrick could score goals, he would surely have been in the Premier League much earlier in his career. Of course, that is the point: players in the lower leagues have pronounced flaws, almost by definition. But that is also the strength of playing a clearly defined style, adding a framework for uncovering overlooked gems. Recruitment then is a question of whether a player’s flaws can be covered up by the system.
So couldn’t you purchase goals in the transfer window? That was the idea behind buying the 20-year-old Brewster from Liverpool, leading to Wilder’s “best ever” statement. The thinking of building a foundation of a defense and midfield first, then going after the glamour of goals with that security in place seemed sound. Yet Brewster and Oli McBurnie (signed for $27.4 million the season prior) combined for one goal in 41 matches this season.
Predictably, they’ve scored the least amount of goals in the league with 16. Maybe Wilder leaving the club wasn’t as nuanced as it seemed.
Even the most cursory scouting reports on Twitter predicted Brewster’s goalscoring difficulties at United. Several of the striker’s ten goals in the Championship for Swansea were scored off early chances with passes played in behind defensive lines. United build up patiently through overloads in wide zones, requiring a striker to similarly be as patient in finding spaces in the box. Not all goals, or goalscorers, are the same.
The high-priced Brewster also showed the tension between journeyman players developed from the lower leagues and high-priced players brought in with new funds. Wilder’s charm was in building a competitive side without a budget, a skill of maximizing local resources different from recruiting from a wide base on the continent. The free transfers were appropriate for 2016, but shouldn’t a club with European ambitions act like it?
But a $30 million player is fundamentally different from a free transfer. O’Connell was sent on loan five times from 2012 to 2015; McGolderick has played for nine teams since making his professional debut in 2004. By the time McGolderick was Brewster’s age, he had already played in League Two, League One, and the Championship.
That unresolved paradox added to the weight and expectations of a second season in the Premier League once the glamour of their debut wore off. Those cautionary second season tales are as much about managing expectations off the field as the table itself. McGoldrick threw in another wrinkle, admitting that United’s overachieving players could have used the extra energy of home supporters. But a modest, overachieving side navigating this global soccer climate shouldn’t be resigned to a fatalistic tension, and there could be another way - as long as success isn’t measured by results.
Wilder didn’t necessarily need to leave United despite the looming relegation. For one, the rising standing of the Championship means that relegation is not the existential crisis of a previous era.
There are also immediate examples of a new paradigm of a yo-yo club. Norwich City were relegated by 14 points under Daniel Farke last season. So? With Farke now in his fourth season at the club, and Norwich holding onto last season’s core players, they now top the Championship table (Watford, also relegated last season, are in second place). A philosophy is a philosophy, no matter what the results.
Farke also messaged to supporters at the start of last season that Norwich were a “self-funded club” two to three years ahead of schedule, thus there would be no big signings. There was a larger project to follow regardless of the league. Each club decides its own meaning with the Premier League so stratified by budgets and global ambitions. It’s not the results that ruin seasons from the inside out, but the attempt to keep up within the trappings of billion-dollar television deals and European places. Wilder and United lost their way in the transfer market, then lost each other altogether.