We’re 22 games into the season, with the all-important Christmas schedule to come.
I’ve crunched and plotted a few key numbers for the Blades season so far.
My verdict: We’re doing really well. Punching above our weight. But we need to exceed our xG and that requires more efficient conversion of chances, with more pace up top and a Plan B in our style of play.
First, the good news.
Blades are up with the best in terms of expected goals (xG).
And we’re at the right end of the table in expected goals against (xGA).
And below, here are United topping the table in expected goal difference (xGD)
Then we translate things into actual goal difference and Sheffield United keep good company once more.
“We need to be more clinical!”
OK, so that’s all good news. We’re doing better than most of us probably expected in terms of league position this season. And we’re doing it with high-pressure, attacking football that’s pretty tight in the defensive department too.
But when we compare what expected goals says we should be scoring and what we are actually converting, there’s a slightly worrying disparity. It’s one that might account for the calls to “be more clinical” we’ve all heard at some point this season.
Look at the table of actual goals scored vs xG. Four of the Championship top six exceed their xG. Only United and Boro haven’t. (Preston and Ipswich get into the top slots by virtue of doing well with relatively few chances, in case you wondered.)
Should we want to exceed our xG? Absolutely. It shows that teams/players are more skilled/expert at what they do. The top strikers in football – Kane, Messi, Aguero, Suarez, Ronaldo – regularly exceed their xG, often by big margins.
United have four players we’d recognise as forwards – Sharp, McGoldrick, Clarke and Washington. Only one has converted his chances at a rate exceeding their xG this season, and that’s Billy Sharp, with xG of 10.21 and 11 goals scored after 22 games.
Meanwhile, David McGoldrick puts up better xG numbers than Billy (11.66) but has scored just six, while Leon has not had a good enough run to attempt to match his xG-beating performance from last season.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch we’re letting in more than we should, when we measure goals allowed against xGA.
A distinctive style of play, but do we need a Plan B?
It has to be said, Wilder’s United have a definite way of playing. We top the tables in touches in the opponents box, and are clearly coached to head for the 6-yard box, or “Billy Sharp’s office” as I call it .
This plot clearly shows that, with United leading the Championship in touches per shot in opponents’ penalty areas.
Championship average is about 0.46 shots per touch. United average 0.36 shots from the box per touch in the box – that’s nearly three touches per shot – with relatively few punts from outside the box.
Meanwhile, counter-attack kings West Brom average 0.53 shots per touch in the opponent’s box.
The plot above is what the Blades style of play so far this season looks like.
And it has served well. With the addition of more efficient goal conversion we could get back to the levels of deadliness in front of net seen earlier in the season (the Villa game, for example).
That might come by coaching, by players (like Washington) getting a better run, or by additions during the January transfer window.
An injection of speed would also allow for development of a plan B. The plot above shows the United are very distinctive in terms of pushing into high percentage areas, and playing high-tempo passing football.
It has worked, maybe more so during the first half, but often we seem not to be converting that possession in dangerous areas. And then we often also see a dip in the second half with our attacking 2-3-5 pinned back to a 5-3-2 with an outnumbered midfield and no outlet for an embattled defensive line.
I wonder if the latter is a consequence of the former. That is, that playing at such a high tempo early on leaves players fatigued, then prone to mistakes.
It certainly felt like that during the WBA match. If the the Baggies aimed to let us wear ourselves out in the first half – knowing perhaps that we sometimes struggle to convert territorial superiority into goals – and then hit us with sucker punches in the second, it was a plan executed to perfection.
So, I also feel like we need a plan B. One that allows us to play deeper. It often feels like there isn’t an in-behind for United player to play into, and that we don’t have the players that could really exploit it.
So, looking forward to the transfer window, we won’t get the likes of Dwight Gayle or Tammy Abraham at the Lane but perhaps we can hope for someone that can help build on what has been achieved so far this season.