“It’s a derby, so you can sling the form book out of the window.”
That’s something we’ve all heard. But is it true?
It seems not, at least in the case of meetings between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday.
In those matches form does seem to have had a bearing on the outcome, with the team that shows a form advantage winning more often than they lose.
And in this fixture that team has most often been Sheffield United.
Wednesday fans like to trot out the mantra – “older, bigger, better” – but the Blades have won the Sheffield derby more times than the Owls. They’ve achieved a higher average league position during the clubs’ league histories too.
In this article we look at detailed stats for the Sheffield derby since 1893, when both clubs first met as members of the Football League.
Since then there have been 115 league meetings, with United wining 42 times, Wednesday 36, plus 37 drawn matches. In those games the Blades have scored 157 goals and Wednesday 147.
The most frequently occurring scoreline is 1-1. That has been the result 21 times, followed by 1-0 (17 times) and 2-0 (10 times). Those scorelines account for about 41% of all Sheffield derby results*.
Wednesday’s 4-0 1979-80 Boxing Day Massacre and United’s 4-2 away win in 2017-18 have each occurred as scorelines only once. They were literally once-in-a-100-years events.
0-0 has only happened six times, so Jos Lukuhay has the dubious honour of achieving one third of them in two successive meetings at Bramall Lane.
It’s hard to imagine a fixture competed in by two better-matched teams, looking at the historical sweep of things.
Average league position for all seasons since 1893/1894 puts United at 20.7 while Wednesday achieve 21.1. In seasons where the two have been in the same division United have an average league position of 16.2 and Wednesday 16.9.
There seems to be a clear home advantage, historically, with 50 home wins, 28 away wins and 37 draws. United have been the home team 58 times, Wednesday 57. The number of home wins is evenly split, with 25 each, but United have a better away record, having won 17 (Owls 11).
So, what about form?
Form has its drawbacks as a marker for performance. A particular form period could be about to end, or have witnessed peaks and troughs, for example. It could also reflect the strengths or weakness of particular opponents faced, but it seems a reasonable way of averaging performance over a given period.
In this analysis I took the points for each team on the eve of the fixture and what they had amassed six games previously. From that I got a points-per-game average for the six games prior to the derby match. These were adjusted so that the three-points-for-a-win period matched up to the two points era. Then the form advantage for the team doing better, if any, was assessed, with an advantage of 0.33 points per game (PPG) over the other being considered significant.
By that measure Sheffield United came out as the form team on the highest number of occasions – 40 – compared to 33 times for Wednesday, and 42 times when both teams were within 0.33PPG of each other.
The number of times United have been the form team is close to the number of times they’ve won (40 vs 42). Meanwhile, Wednesday have been the form team 33 times, and won 36 times.
But, while the absolute numbers of times each team has been the form team bears some relation to the amount of times they’ve won, those occasions aren’t the same ones.
That would have been a neat outcome but reality is not that obliging.
However, form does have some bearing on the result and United have been the team with a form advantage – and pressed it home – a little more often.
As you can see from the chart, United have been the form team 19 times and won, 12 times and drawn, and 9 times and lost.
Wednesday have been the form team 14 times and won, 11 times and drawn, and 8 times and lost.
How much does playing home or away affect form?
We can see that form seems to have some effect on outcome. A look at the chart shows a correlation between having a form advantage and the amount of wins, draws and losses.
If we break down form advantage and result to factor in home/away, the result is less neat.
Blades wins – whether in-form, level in form or suffering a disadvantage – are mostly distributed around 60/40 home/away. United’s level form and in-form draws are in the same ball park.
Owls wins in general are more skewed towards the home venue, with a ratio averaging 70/30 for wins.
Another feature that stands out is the amount of times Wednesday have been the form team and drawn away (8 times against 3 at home).
Can we draw any conclusions from all this?
Well, the Sheffield derby is clearly very closely contested, with the teams only a Brexit apart in terms of win percentage (52% to 48%) and less than half a percentage point difference in average league position over 115 years.
Looking at form, we can say the team with a significantly better last-six form record going onto the derby tends to win more often than not.
And, United fans can take comfort from a historical record that puts them on top more often when they have a form advantage and with the better away record of the two teams.
What about the next Sheffield derby?
At the time of writing (27 February) last six points per game form adjusted to the two-points-for-a-win used in this study puts United at 1.66 and Wednesday at 1.5.
That wouldn’t class as a significant form advantage in the study I’ve done here, and that probably shows the limits of last-six-game form on its own.
The two teams’ form is similar going into this game. The Owls have won three and drawn three, the Blades have won one more.
But drill down beyond that and the team’s those results have occurred against is quite different.
Wednesday’s good run has mostly been against teams in the bottom five plus mid-table Swansea and Brentford. The Blades meanwhile, have beaten two of the top six and drawn against table-topping Norwich as well as Aston Villa. It’s almost like the two teams have played different halves of the division.
So, can we chuck the form book out of the window?
No, I think it has a bearing, and we’ve seen that it has some effect on the outcome of games in the Sheffield derby.
But, it is also modified to a large extent by league position, home advantage and other factors, like who that last-six form has been achieved against, for example.
I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess form exerts a similar effect across all professional football.
I haven’t been able to run the same numbers on other derby games and other fixtures in general, and I’m not sure it exists in form that’s easily digestible for data analysis. I had to collate results, league position etc and calculate form from publicly-available data, but there was no practical way of working out who each team had played in any of their preceding six-game periods to see what their form amounted to in detail.
If data for English football existed in a way that allowed those kinds of questions to be asked relatively easily it would open the way for a lot of interesting data analysis.
But never mind all that. What will happen next Monday?
I’d call next Monday’s match (4 March 2019) as a Blades away win. That’d be “Level and Blades” and away from home in the terminology of this study of the historical numbers, and an outcome that has happened six times out of 115 so far.
I’ll come back here and add the result afterwards, no matter how my prediction fares.
For those that are interested, when we look at league and cup meetings the figures are as follows:
- SUFC and SWFC have been the home team 64 times each. (Owls once as ‘home’ team at Wembley).
- Wins and draws: SUFC 45, SWFC 42, draws 41.
- Home wins 56, draws 41, away wins 31.
- Goals scored: SUFC 175, SWFC 168.
* A result of 1-1 has been the outcome in 18% of matches, 1-0 has been the result 14.5% of times, and 2-0 on 8.5% of occasions. That’s about 41% altogether.
To compare, in the Premier League between 2001-02 and 201-11 the corresponding percentages were 11.6%, 10.9% and 8.7%, making a total of about 31%.
That means the Sheffield derby has resulted in a 1-1 draw, 1-0 or 2-0 home win more often than has been the case in nearly 10 years of Premier League matches.