Blades pressing choices help get the most from a very difficult task against City

The best way I can sum things up is that the Blades managed the game against Manchester City as best they could and grabbed chances when possible.

The xG shotmap and xG timeline show City’s dominance.

Meanwhile, the PPDA maps show we didn’t press them high up at all compared to other matches (see vs Arsenal away the weekend before).

Whether that was by choice or simply because Man City have the ability to dominate possession and to keep the ball in our half/final third is impossible to say, but I suspect a good chunk of both was in operation.

As with the opposite fixture, and against Liverpool, the approach seems to be to not press high anywhere near as much.

The danger in pressing high as a blanket approach during a match against extremely high quality opponents risks the team being strung out the length of the pitch (although, of course, our transitions are fantastically rapid).

Instead, we seem to have often left their back line alone, which means an overload to us higher up, almost man-for-man in cases, or at least paying close attention to key opposition players (eg, De Bruyne on the night in question).

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Blades press hard and go toe-to-toe on xG to get a deserved point at Arsenal

Two good things stand out from the stats and shotmaps from the Arsenal game.

The first is that we registered higher xG than the Gunners, with a number of shots from really good positions in front of goals. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s efforts — except for their opener — are from less favourable angles.

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The second thing is the number of touches we had in the opposition box. At 26 it was more than Arsenal’s 21, and came from what was quite a direct display. (Directness is the proportion of forward pass distance to overall pass distance).

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You can tell those touches in the box are the result of quite direct play because they heavily outnumber the number of deep completions (passes in the final 20m), so there was clearly not a lot of fannying about before arriving in the danger area.

Other things to note:

Another good pressing performance, where we went toe-to-toe with a costly, quality-laden, athletic side to almost match them on PPDA (opposition Passes Per Defensive Action).

We seem to be playing up the right a lot more than the left these days (see passmap and heatmap below)

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Blades at Arsenal preview

Arsenal this season have been a bit of a flop, considering the quality in the team, and find themselves in 10th place with 28 points (4 behind Sheffield United) as they go into the game.

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Their big issue? They’ve shipped more shots against (329) than they’ve taken themselves (253) over the season.

Now they have a new manager — Mikel Arteta — but it’s hard to see a bounce yet in those numbers, although they are unbeaten since he took the reins (2-0 vs Man Utd at home, 1-1 vs Palace away).

Blades beat West Ham last time out after two away losses at the best teams in the league. Arsenal are full of quality but will not run rampant in the same way as Man City and Liverpool did.

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McBurnie tactical shift ramps up game involvement

Oli McBurnie was way more involved in the Blades’ final third action after the tactical switch that came with the introduction of Lys Mousset on Friday against West Ham.

The substitution on 60 minutes saw David McGoldrick go off and from that point Mousset became the most advanced forward while McBurnie dropped into a slightly deeper role.

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If we count the number of actions McBurnie was involved in before the substitution and after, the difference is noticeable.

Prior to Mousset’s introduction, McBurnie had been involved in 26 actions during the game. That includes offensive and defensive actions and over 60 minutes that averages to 0.43 per minute.

The transformation following the Mousset substitution is quite staggering, with 24 involvements racked up in 23 minutes, at which point McBurnie went off (replaced by Sharp on 84′). That’s more than double the previous hour’s worth, at 1.04 per minute.

Prior to 60 minutes the former Swansea forward had been playing point man to McGoldrick’s deeper lying link role.

The shift to a deeper position suited McBurnie, with lots of duels won and some good interplay, particularly with Mousset, and was more in keeping with his role last season at Swansea.

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Blades’ midfield by numbers

At just past halfway in the season (after the Liverpool game) the Blades sit 8th in the table and have had a pretty successful start to their first PL season in more than a decade.

As it’s found its feet, the team has developed its playing style. It has found it can’t play the same way as in the Championship and has evolved a slightly more conservative style, becoming more direct and taking less touches high up the pitch.

That said, the desire to play high and make chances when possible is still there and is a major factor in keeping opponents away from our goal and goes a long way to explaining the very low shots-against count for this Sheffield United team.

Key also to success so far this season is the midfield. With Fleck and Lundstram as the more attacking elements, and Norwood taking up a more deep-lying role, the engine room of the team has achieved good balance.

If we look closely at those three players we can see where they complement each other, and by focussing in on a couple of those metrics we can also see how parts of their on-pitch performances might be changing as the season progresses.

Left, right and deep-lying

First, let’s look at the big picture.

The obvious division of roles concerns footedness – Fleck on the left, Lundstram on the right – and how high or low the player plays, which puts Oliver Norwood in a deeper role and with a less-defined axis to work on.

Also, as Norwood often covers for whichever CB bombs forward on the overlap, he can find himself on the left or right for extended periods.

Here are the heatmaps that show that. These show these players’ touches in all matches this season, with corner-taking removed so there’s no bias for these for Fleck and Norwood.

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Between Fleck and Lundstram we can see that the latter has played a slightly freer role, perhaps less bounded by strong and weak foot bias.

Attacking and defensive strengths

Digging deeper we can look at a few metrics that reflect attacking and defensive activity and see how the players complement each other but may also provide strengths and weaknesses up the left and right axes of the pitch.

In the three radar charts of midfielder performance the right side of the chart indicates attacking metrics and the left defensive. (The ranges are approximate ranges for PL midfielders.)

On the face of it, the three charts look pretty similar.

As we’d expect, Norwood’s bulges out to the left more, ranking higher on all defensive counts, with about double the number of tackles as Fleck and nearly double the amount of ball recoveries as Lundstram, for example.

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Looking more closely at Fleck and Lundstram, what’s clear is that the latter is more of an all-rounder. Lundstram puts in more tackles, makes more interceptions and commits about the same number of fouls per 90 minutes. He’s also more box-to-box than Fleck.

Fleck makes more ball recoveries than Lundstram per 90, however. That’s when a player gains the ball from situations where no team has possession or has it played to them by an opponent.

The interesting bit of their respective attacking profiles is that Fleck is the one more likely to have taken players on this season. Lundstram is less of a ball carrier, and more likely to send a pass off after one or two touches.

On the flip-side though, Lundstram is more likely to get involved in passing in the last 20m of the pitch (deep completions) than Fleck. There seems to be a passing hot-spot high on the right in nearly every game this season and Lundstram has usually been part of it. He’s also often the one to receive throw-ins in that part of the pitch.

The time factor

The trouble with the charts so far though is that they are season averages. In fact, players can have a run of games where they do, for example, take players on repeatedly, then a few where they don’t.

So, while we can see which players tend to do more of one thing than another, we need to look at rolling averages (or even per-game figures) to get a more realistic picture.

So, for example, while John Fleck comes out as the take-on meister of our midfield trio, looking at the data in time series shows he came back from injury to his record number of take-ons this season against Southampton on 17 September, but hasn’t quite achieved that since and his average has dropped away.

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Meanwhile, however, Fleck’s average number of ball recoveries has been increasing during the season. That could be down to his individual performance or could be down to changes in team tactics. Maybe the evolution towards occasional bouts of energetic pressing has seen our no.4 pounce on loose balls more often?

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What’s clear from looking at all these stats and charts is that while they can give lots of insight, they can also mask a lot of things. So while we’ve seen here some key features of how our midfield three tend to play, we’ve also seen that averages can mask a lot.

What we do know, though, as Blades fans is that these three have been a revelation in stepping up to a higher level and being the engine room of a fine first half of a season back in the PL.

Addendum: Defensive actions maps

Here are where the three midfielders have carried out recorded defensive actions so far this season. These pretty much accord with the players’ pass heatmaps, with Norwood the deepest. The other two have a bias towards each flank with Lundstram being a bit busier than Fleck, up and down the pitch as well as across it.

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Foster saves Watford. Blades settle for a point.

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One look at the shot count, pass count, xG timeline or xG shotmap shows Sheffield United to have dominated this game. Ben Foster made some magnificent saves to deny the Blades.

Having said that, it didn’t feel like that watching the game live. Charting Blades passes per 10 minute period shows a lot of activity early in each half, and that seems to be faily usual for Sheffield United.

The passmap, however, also shows that a lot of passes were in our half and beyond Watford’s front line. They came to play deep and block up the central areas in front of goal with the hope of getting an opportunity on the break via Deulofeu, which they did.

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