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.
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.