Blades lack balls. . . to the final third

What’s happened to Sheffield United this season?

Is it possible to pin it down to one or very few key stats?

Maybe. In this case I’d say it’s getting the ball into the final third and keeping it there. Or the lack of it. And it looks like three key players – two injured, one not – are at the core of the issue.

If we look at the numbers of balls into the final third delivered by Blades players since the beginning of last season, a few big contributors stand out.

They are:

  • Oli Norwood, who led the pack with nearly 11 balls per game into the final third in the first half of last season.
  • Jack O’Connell, who sent about 7.5 per game into the opponent’s defensive third.
  • Enda Stevens at just over 6 per game
  • John Fleck with 5 per game, and
  • Chris Basham.

The obvious thing is that three of the main producers of balls into the final third have hardly played this season, either by injury or lack of selection.

And I would argue we have sorely missed that particular contribution from Norwood, O’Connell and Fleck.

Other players have gone some way to try and make contributions in this sense – hats off to the often maligned John Lundstram, as well as Sander Berge and Ben Osborn, and even John Egan – but these players can’t replace the quarter-backing skills of Norwood and O’Connell or the penetration of John Fleck.

Why balls into the final third?

To get why I’ve settled on that metric as important, we have to look at some of the other key measures across the two halves of last season and this one.

xG/xGA shows poor outcomes

First off are the more obvious ones, namely expected goals per game (down), expected goals against per game (up). These correspond loosely with shots for and against. They tell us more about outcomes at each end of the pitch and not really about what causes them.

Possession down but system still there

When we look at absolute amounts of possession per game over the three periods there’s another clear decline in the amount of ball we’ve had.

When we’ve had the ball we’ve been about as successful as ever in passing it, and we’ve had touches in pretty much the parts of the pitch we always have done since promotion. IE, pretty high up the pitch. In fact we play second highest up the pitch in the Premier League based on an average of where we take touches of the ball. The problem is that we are getting far less of them than we used to.

Possession down, but penetrating possession down even more

When we look at the decline in touches of the ball and passing it has dropped by about 10% since the beginning of last season. That’s the same for touches in the final third and in the opponent’s box.

But balls into the final third are down more than that – by about 20%. So, when you look at the players who deliver those the most – Norwood and O’Connell in particular, it starts to look like a major reason for Blades’ poor performances.

Is Oli Norwood the answer?

If it was me I’d get Norwood back into the starting line-up immediately, and keep him there, probably with Osborn and Berge also in midfield. It seems to me his quarterbacking skills are just too important.

Having said that, we lack Jack’s penetration into the final 20m. And there is also the missing Fleck. It might be that CW/AK need to work on an alternative line of approach up the left. But they eat, sleep and breathe this kind of thing so I’m sure they’ll have been working on it for a while. It takes time to coach a system that works.

What haven’t I talked about here?

The big one is the effect of the lack of fans in stadia. The numbers show United performed worse since the first lockdown. But coaches are taught to “control the controllables” and this is not one of them. There are plenty of things that are, potentially, as mentioned above, so CW/AK will be working on those.

Another thing is pressing, or defensive pressure in general. I’d like to run some numbers on this because United are currently second least pressing-est team in the PL (behind the tactically quite different Newcastle) and I am pretty sure that wasn’t the case last season.

Going by eye it looks like we’re pressing less, and less effectively, but I need to check that out.

Rusty Blades fail to turn possession into penetration

1ASTSHUxgTimelineLeaving aside the ridiculous ball-in-the-net-that-wasn’t incident . . .

Despite looking rusty as hell, there was a lot about Sheffield United’s performance at Villa that was familiar last night.

The key issue, however, was a failure to turn overall possession into something that could create chances.

1ASTSHUstatsThe Blades had a lot of possession (53%), of which a lot was relatively high up the pitch (see average line stats left) and which resulted in a higher final third pass count than Villa (deep completions 20 vs 15).

All that is pretty familiar, as is the bias towards multi-pass sequences high on the flanks, especially the right.

But while the Blades had more passes than the opposition in the final third (20 vs 15), Villa had way more touches in the penalty box (23 vs 11).

That kind of stat — passes in the final third not being translated into passes in the box — was a familiar story for the Blades early in the season and I wrote about it here. The good news from that story was that Sheffield United had tended to become more direct, with touches in the box equalling or outweighing final third passes.

So, why didn’t United play as directly at Villa as we’ve been used to seeing? Numerous potential reasons:

  • Two left-footed players with a habit of penetrating play were missing (O’Connell and Fleck).
  • Not being able to play so directly against a Villa side that sat back rather than pressed high (see PPDA and defensive actions vs passes chart).
  • Whether that was lack of ability on their part and/or lack of home pressure pushing them on is a moot point.

Having said all that, many patterns of play were familiar if not as well-executed as we’ve seen previously and while many players looked less than fully match fit/sharp, there were some individual bright spots from the likes of Jack Robinson and Deano.

Pressing high up the pitch and PPDA
These two maps show the attacking team’s defensive actions (red blobs) the opponent’s defensive 3/5 of the pitch plus the defending team’s passing. What’s clear is that only one side was committed to pressing high up the pitch. Villa generally sat back and waited for Utd.

The numbers show PPDA. That is, opponent passes per defensive action, all of which can be seen on the pitch maps.




Lockdown training in a 5×5 garden? No problem


With no chance of playing football or training, me and my U13 little fellah have been practising in our 5×5 bit of astro three times a week.

The aim of these training sessions is to maximise touches, using lots of surfaces of the feet and covering lots of movement patterns/body shape.

Key things to remember:

  • Repetition. Do a solid 2-4 mins of each routine at least
  • Good, clean control and touch. Get to know how it feels when the ball hits the right part of your foot.
  • Do everything with both feet.
  • As it gets easier try to go more quickly and do things more cleanly. Get your head up and do it by touch alone.

It’s not fitness training. We’ve been going for a run before doing this. Usually about a mile, or a bit less if we incorporate speedier sections.

It’s also no substitute for real football and all the awareness and decision making it involves. But it is a way to maintain some basic football movement and maybe improve a few things by trying to form new habits through repetition.

1. Dribbling with cones – outside of foot
The aim here is lots of touches, using only the outside of the foot. Go for loads of little touches. It’s all about feeling the ball, being able to move it on in tiny increments, but also about making sure the foot that’s not touching the ball is getting to the right place.

2. Dribbling with cones – inside of foot
As above but with the inside of the foot: Lots of touches and keeping the feet moving to where they need to be.

As a variation we add a lateral shuffle. You can use this to progress to Iniesta’s la Croqueta move.

3. Xavi cut
This is a simple but basic escape move. Run one way then cut the ball back with the outside of your foot.

4. Cruyff
Another escape move. Cruyff’s original was done from a static position. We call this a Cruyff but it’s basically a chop inside behind the standing foot. It forms the basis of lots of other moves, like the Ronaldo chop.

5. Soles
The sole is a hugely useful surface of the foot to be able to use. As with a lot of these you may find one foot isn’t as good as the other. Transitioning from one foot to the other smoothly when changing direction feels like a challenge at first too.sole

6. L-cuts
A simple escape move. Bringing the ball back across the body

7. V-cuts
Similar to the L-cut but going behind the standing leg. Here we’re trying to do them in a ‘strict’ way, without moving around so that we can train ourselves to get the angles of the roll and touch from behind just right.

8. Receiving on the back foot
A basic football movement pattern. Give yourself a pass off the wall, open your body up and receive on the furthest away foot so you can send the ball on rapidly (or in real life touching it on for yourself). You can do this on your own with one wall. You just have to make a point of sending your first touch away (in different directions every time, preferably).

9. Passing square
Similar to the last one but passing to each other, receiving on the back foot, then passing. Getting a precise touch in a small area is a challenge.Square






Premier League marksmen find sweetspot between xG and shot volume

It’s a great thing when something pops out unexpectedly from a plot. And even more so when it shows how data can help show the value of the less expected gems among players.

Here we have a plot of PL goalscorers that shows expected goals totals and volume of shots.

What struck me was how well grouped along the average line the highest scorers are. That was a benefit of colour coding for goals scored.


The question is begged, is that an accident?

I don’t think so. It’s because the most successful goalscorers don’t fire off shots wildly, but shoot from good locations.

Most of the PL’s top scorers are in the top right of the chart. That’s where you end up if you get lots of shots off and rack up a decent xG total.

Now, digging deeper into that top right quadrant you could be like Mohamed Salah, who has had the most shots in the league, but for whom the xG-per-shot ratio comes out as less than optimally efficient. You’d guess he’s been shooting from some low-xG locations.

The opposite is true for, eg Chris Woods, who tends to bang in headers from about 3 yards out. So, he gets a lowish shot count (playing for Burnley explains that) but high xG.

So, the guys with the red points strung out along the average line — Vardy, Aguero, Ings, Aubameyang, Abraham — are the ones that have struck a good balance between volume of shots and xG totals. They’re the ones getting into good positions to score, regularly shooting, and scoring.

Among them, Danny Ings is well worth taking note of as the only player from outside the top four (13th at the time of writing).

Playing for a club that’s struggled for big chunks of the season, and that has often meant struggling to get into goalscoring positions as a team, he has done remarkably well. It speaks volumes about his ability to fight for good goalscoring positions in quite adverse situations.





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).


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.


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).


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)






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.


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.



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.


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.




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.

ONradar copy

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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.


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?


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.