The wage structure at Sheffield United is the key to explaining why their form has dropped so dramatically this season.
The Blades won many admirers last term as they finished ninth in their first Premier League campaign in 12 years. It was their highest position since 1992.
The now famed overlapping centre-back system Chris Wilder has introduced at Bramall Lane helped secure impressive wins against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Their defensive record in 2019/20 was only bettered by the top three of Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.
Yet that has all disappeared this time around. After 10 league matches, Wilder’s side are bottom of the table with just a single point.
It’s the worst start to a season in Premier League history.
Their defensive resolve has also gone, with only five teams having conceded more in in the top flight this term.
So what’s gone wrong?
Sheffield United wage structure isn’t the only factor
The absence of key personnel has not helped the Blades.
George Baldock, Chris Basham, Ollie Norwood and Enda Stevens started every league game last season. John Egan and Dean Henderson only missed two matches apiece, while the likes of John Fleck, Jack O’Connell and John Lundstram were also mainstays.
Wilder relied on a core group who had helped him win promotion from the Championship the previous year – along with a sprinkling of new signings.
Henderson has since returned to Man United after two successful seasons on loan in South Yorkshire. O’Connell is set to miss the majority of 2020/21 after having knee surgery. Fleck, Stevens and last term’s top scorer, Lys Mousset, have all been injured.
Lundstram is set to leave the club next summer after turning down a new contract.
All of this is bound to have an impact on an already small squad, built with far inferior resources to most others in the division.
But the wage structure is taking its toll
Yet the real thing that is always going to hold the Blades back is how much they pay their players.
The top earners at the club are on around £30,000-a-week. Last year, the Mirror reported the Blades paid out the lowest weekly wages on average in the top flight at £9,000.
Manchester City topped the list, sanctioning £115,000-a-week on average. Yet even Aston Villa in 18th position paid out almost three times more than their fellow newly promoted side with average weekly payments of £25,000.
This saw the Blades miss out on several key targets ahead of the new campaign as they looked to build on last term’s success.
Villa beat them to Ollie Watkins, not only paying a club record £33m fee but also offering wages believed to be around £70,000-a-week.
Matty Cash also made the move to Villa Park after being linked with the Blades.
Meanwhile, Antonee Robinson was another who bypassed Bramall Lane despite a deal being agreed with Wigan Athletic. Robinson instead joined newly promoted Fulham after they apparently offered the left-back £50,000-a-week.
The Blades are operating in a different market
Instead, Wilder has to gamble on players who have potential, but are not yet the finished article.
Signing established Premier League stars is not an option. Even the best of the crop in the Championship are beyond the Blades’ finances.
Not that they haven’t spent big in the transfer market. The club have broken their transfer record six times since being promoted in 2016.
The most recent was £20m, plus £3m in add-ons, for striker Rhian Brewster – who is yet to score.
Newcastle United, for instance, paid around £20m for Callum Wilson – according to BBC Sport. Wilson already has seven league goals for Newcastle this season.
But the Blades could never sign someone like the 28-year-old. They could clearly afford the transfer fee, but Football Insider claims Wilson signed a five-year contract on £100,000-a-week at St James’ Park.
Wilder is having to take more risks on new players and that often means they are young and raw. And therefore take more time to settle.
Add to that an absence among the trusted core of established leaders, and the Blades are finding it tough.