A classic story arc and the run-in: How the Blades made it to the Premier League

With Sheffield United promoted to the Premier League, we can safely reflect on how this was achieved. But also how with four games to go it felt like it had slipped from our grasp.

It’s true, just as the story arc beloved of so much on-screen drama likes to pitch us into a trough of despair before the final act, with four games to go something of a crisis had descended on Blades fans.

A drama-filled last 10 minutes against Millwall the week before Easter dumped United out of the automatic promotion spots, and looking like we needed to win all remaining games.

Question marks loomed over whether “our” way of playing was something we could still do. Was it spent, “sussed out” by opponents?

It turned out it wasn’t. Our heroes bounced back with on-the-spin wins that saw promotion clinched with a game to go.

But, what led to that pivotal point in our season?

Let’s recap how the season panned out from a numbers point of view and tactically.

Overlapping centre-backs

Sheffield United have become known for use of so-called overlapping centre backs.

That means any of the right and left CBs can end up in the opponent’s final third. 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 our game has usually been an addition to the core style of Wilder and Knill’s Blades. That’s been built around lots of possession in the final third, starting on the flanks, with overloads created to unbalance the opposition before picking out a route to or near the six-yard box.

That seemed to be the only way we played until around Christmas. It had served us well. We were in the top six, but the streets of south-west Sheffield rang with cries of “We need to be more clinical”.

Back then, the Blades rode high in terms of expected goals – a score given according to the quantity and quality of chances created – but lagged behind when it came to actual goals.

On Christmas day United stood sixth. But, a similar air of gloom had descended to that which reigned after the draw with Millwall, after another 1-1 draw against a lowly team; Ipswich in that case.

Champions’ form

But what a transformation Santa brought us!

Up to 25 December average points-per-game (ppg) had been just over 1.65, with average goals-per-game at 1.57.

That improved massively. From the end of December to Easter our ppg rose to 2.15, which was champion’s form.

1xGvsG1

But, some numbers started to dip just before Easter. This came alongside some unusual and difficult games, and some changes in our style of play.

We’ll get to those numbers below. First let’s look at the games and performances in question.

New year, new United?

Since beating Reading 4-0 at Bramall Lane in mid-February there was a run of games that didn’t allow our trademark style to come to the fore. They included:

  • Grinding out a 0-1 win at WBA,
  • A cagey and tense 0-0 Steel City derby,
  • Defeating a 10-man ultra-defensive Rotherham 2-0,
  • Taking victory from an ultra-defensive setup when down to 10 men against Brentford (2-0),
  • Absorbing intense pressure, playing on the counter and beating Leeds United at Elland Road (0-1),
  • Slipping to defeat (2-3) at home to a Bristol City side that out-pressed and out-played us,
  • Bouncing back with a 1-0 win at Preston, before,
  • Two 1-1 draws in a week to Birmingham and Millwall.

Tactically, two things emerged from that.

One was what started to look like a plan B, and an ability to sit back and play a longer, quicker, more direct game.

The more direct way of playing often saw the pacier, more direct Kieran Dowell selected in midfield over Mark Duffy, who typified the play-high-and-pass-a-lot Blades of 2018-19.

The other thing was an increased solidity in defence, typified by the performances at Leeds and against Brentford.

1xGAvsA

We gave up only five goals in those nine games up to Easter. And when we measure goals allowed vs expected goals against for that period, the chart looks good – generally letting in fewer than the numbers said we should.

There were concerns at the other end of the pitch, however.

1PPG_GPG_etc

Last-10-game form up to Easter was still decent at 2.1ppg. Chop that down to the last eight and it became 1.88, which still wasn’t bad but spread over the season equated to more like third place in the league.

Meanwhile, goal-per-game figures declined since Christmas from 1.73 to 1.25 for the last eight games to Easter.

Despite being higher in the table, xG per game from Christmas to Easter was lower (1.42) than it was for the first part of the season (1.65), and over the last 10 (1.42), last eight (1.4), and last six (1.38) up to the Forest game that figure declined further.

And, in the 10 games up to Easter we only had better xG than our opponent on three occasions.

The big question, on the verge of the final act, was whether this decline in offensive capability was a reflection of the run of games and opponents faced. Or, was it that opponents worked out the Sheffield United way of playing?

A combination of these seemed likely, with fatigue thrown in sometimes too. But, it did seem at times that we struggled to impose our play-high-and-pass-a-lot style of play on opponents.

Even sides like Rotherham, Millwall and Birmingham found that clogging the supply lines to where we like to play effectively stifled our plan A. Our opponents clearly know how to stop us playing as we like to play. The question was whether they could. Would we do it our way or would there be a need for new tactical twists?

Did we do it our way?

We did.

The Blades came good at the right time.

United steamed home with 2.75ppg for the last four, with three wins and a draw. Meanwhile, a disastrous Easter weekend ushered in a Leeds collapse that saw them gain one point in four matches, for a startlingly bad 0.25ppg.

Successive United wins and clean sheets – less convincingly against Forest then in rampant form against Hull and Ipswich – saw second place secured with xG per game of 1.43 and xGA of 0.7 per game.

What emerged in the run-in was that some opponents clearly knew how to stop us playing as we like to play. The question was whether they could.

For the most part the answer was no, but it must be said that we had developed a new-found tactical flexibility as the season progressed.

The big questions now are which parts of that tactical toolbox will we see come to the fore in a much tougher Premier League and who will be the players to do it?

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