When Rhian Brewster missed the decisive penalty for Liverpool in their shootout defeat by Arsenal in the Community Shield last August, he could not have known that was merely the first act in a season of anguish – for Liverpool, for him and even for Sheffield United, the club he would join for a record fee in October.
When the two clubs meet at Bramall Lane on Sunday with United marooned at the bottom and Liverpool aiming to avoid a fifth league loss in a row, Brewster may not feature. He has played only four minutes in United’s past four league matches. His figures for the season so far are anything but flattering: 18 Premier League appearances, seven starts, no goals. A meagre return, then, for the £23.5m paid to lure one of England’s hottest striking prospects.
It was asking a lot for a 20-year-old with next to no top-flight experience to swiftly become the prolific goal-getter the Blades have lacked since promotion. Brewster had pedigree at a certain level – for England’s triumphant youth teams and in the Championship last season as a loanee at Swansea – but it has become clear he was not ready to bear so much of the Blades’ scoring burden. Although he has shown flashes of his predatory instincts with some smart runs and sharp touches, he has mostly looked lost, not quite in tune with his team and a little lightweight. Which should not really come as a surprise.
“He’s 20, he’s not fully developed yet,” says David McGoldrick, the 33-year-old who, with five league goals, is United’s top scorer. “The club are working hard with him in the gym and in training, getting him used to how we play, and the physical aspect of it.”
Integrating into a new team has been uniquely difficult for all players this season, which may be one reason why none of United’s recruits, with the exception of Jayden Bogle, have impressed so far. “Not everyone is in the same changing room, we’re doing different things, we’re not even all on the same bus, so you miss out on things you would normally get,” says McGoldrick.
Part of Chris Wilder’s success as a manager is down to his ability to rehabilitate players who had flopped at other clubs, so there is no chance of him giving up on Brewster just yet. United have adjusted their expectations for the striker, not abandoned them. McGoldrick says the player’s class is evident – “There is not a better finisher I’ve seen at 20” – and that he will become a precious asset for the Blades, though that may not be until after he has benefited from a full pre-season there. “And then, when he starts hitting the net, he won’t stop,” says McGoldrick.
Brewster’s difficult adaptation is one of many factors that have contributed to the Blades’ struggles. They have been hit harder than most by injuries and losses of form. When Wilder’s side took the Premier League by storm last season, their three centre-backs were among the most sensational units in the division, with Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham and John Egan delighting with their solidity and cleverly orchestrated ventures forward. None of that trio will be fit to face Liverpool, and the casualty list also includes the influential midfielder Sander Berge and the left wing-back Enda Stevens among others.
Last season Wilder enjoyed a remarkable consistency of selection, with only Burnley making fewer lineup changes. This season United have had to alter their team more often than everyone except Chelsea, Newcastle and the Manchester giants.
None of those changes have repaired the damage done, in particular, by the loss of O’Connell, whose injury in September has been even more detrimental to United than the absence of Virgil van Dijk has been to Liverpool. “He’s key,” says McGoldrick of O’Connell. “He plays that left side of the back three and knew how to play it down to a T. He knew when to overlap, when to stay, when to pass. And as a defender he is solid. No one can get by him, he’s quick, he’s strong and he’s a real leader without being vocal. He’s the best trainer at the club, the hardest worker.
“But what’s happened isn’t all down to him. We’ve missed a lot of players. When you’re used to playing with certain players and the team is cemented, it’s different. Not everyone plays the way we play, it’s not a normal formation and it takes time to learn.”
With so many defenders out, Wilder may have no other choice than to adopt a new system for the visit of Liverpool. With matches running out, he is still having to solve problems at both ends of the pitch.