Rock, paper, scissors: Which Sheffield United will play at Preston?

(Written for Preston North End site, From the Finney)

I’m not certain what to expect from Sheffield United at Preston on Saturday.

A lot of that is down to the fact that I don’t know what to expect from Preston.

North End are one of the most improved, if not the most improved team in the Championship this season.

You can see that in this chart, which shows league position since January.

1. LeaguePos3Apr

The Blades have made a name for themselves – and achieved great results – on the back of a distinctive style of play under Chris Wilder and assistant Alan Knill.

Most well-known perhaps is that we have played with so-called overlapping centre backs. That means that any of the two right and left CBs can end up bombing forward to the opponent’s final third. Most often that sees them helping out with build-up play high along the flanks and sometimes making crosses (or even getting on the end of them!).

But, that part of Sheffield United’s game is usually an addition to the core style of Wilder and Knill’s Blades. That style is built around a lot of possession in the final third, starting on the flanks, with overloads created to unbalance the opposition before picking out a route to near the six-yard box.

This style has a definite preference for getting in close before making attempts at goal. United are among the most efficient in terms of shots-to-goals ratio in the division and among the lowest for shots from outside the penalty box.

You can see in this this chart that United are – averaged over the season – a team that spends a lot of time in the opponent’s final third and pass the ball a lot when they’re there.

2. TimeOpp3rd3Apr

That’s the style of play the Blades have become known for this season.

So, why am I not certain they’ll play that way at Deepdale?

Well, anyone who has watched Sheffield United in televised games recently may have seen very little that type of play.

That’s because there has been a run of games recently that haven’t allowed that trade-mark style to come to the fore.

Since beating Reading 4-0 at Bramall Lane in mid-February:

  • United have ground out a 0-1 away win at WBA,
  • taken part in a cagey and tense 0-0 Steel City derby,
  • defeated a 10-man ultra-defensive Rotherham 2-0,
  • taken victory from an ultra-defensive setup when down to 10 men against Brentford (2-0) and,
  • absorbed intense pressure, played on the counter, roughed up and beat Leeds United at Elland Road (0-1).

In other words, for quite a few games now the Blades have not played in the way we’ve become known for this season. Instead, Sheffield United have developed something of a plan B and an ability to sit back and play a longer, quicker, more direct game to take the chances that arise.

You can see from this chart that the number of passes made within 20m of the opponent’s goal line (aka Deep Completions) has declined since February for the Blades.

3. DeepCperGame3Apr

The more direct way of playing has lately often seen Kieran Dowell selected in midfield over Mark Duffy (who may well still be injured anyway for this Saturday). Duffy typifies the play-high-and-pass-a-lot Blades. Dowell is pacier – a 22-year-old Everton loanee – and suits a more direct style of play from deeper positions.

So, which Blades will we see at Deepdale?

If I had to bet I’d put money on the latter. Preston North End are the most dangerous and in-form club we now have to play on our run-in.

Playing away always tends to mean playing against a team urged forward by the home crowd, so I expect us to have to spend some time absorbing pressure and taking our chances when they arise.

But, I have no access to what Wilder and Knill are thinking.

And I often think how opposing managers approach a football match is a bit like a game of rock-paper-scissors. If one sets up one way and the other succeeds in stifling that, then it’s time to try something else.

The Blades are coming off a defeat to another in-form side (Bristol City, 2-3) in a match that was characterised by effective pressing by the Robins and full of tactical shifts and gambles (won by Lee Johnson).

Preston show up in similar areas in terms of pressing intensity and quantity and quality of shots as Bristol City.

So, on the face of it, I expect our forthcoming fixture to be similar as our last, but hopefully not in outcome.

But you never know. This is football. And we can’t say for certain what tactical setups our managers will pull out from behind their backs.

Antony Adshead tweets as @S2Stats



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