For Blades fans the memories of that golden few weeks from Easter to the end of the 2018-2019 season will bring smiles for a long time; the stuttering collapse at home to Millwall, then coming back to power home for the final few games, and Leeds falling apart.
The big question now is what does “the promised land” hold in store?
The only real option is to look at data for newly-promoted teams in the Premier League to see how they have fared.
It would be nice to be able to say, teams that play a certain way stand XX% of achieving a top half finish, but the data doesn’t allow that.
Also, teams change, managers, change, clubs buy well and sometimes don’t, and then there’s the relative strength of the opposition they find around them as they step up. In short, there are lots of variables.
But, using league table data going back to 2000 and more advanced shot and passing stats from 2014, we can draw some conclusions about the prospects for success of teams going from Championship to PL, and make some suggestions about style of play.
First of all, and looking at the most basic numbers, what is the first season in the PL likely to be like for a newly-promoted team?
The big picture: Survival is 50/50
The stark fact is that the likelihood of a promoted team making it to a second season in the top flight are about 50/50.
Since 2000 there have been 60 promotions from the Championship to the Premier League. Of those 57 promoted teams that have played a PL campaign, 26 have been relegated in their first season. That’s a survival rate of 55%.
And, in terms of absolute numbers we should expect less of everything we’ve been used to seeing – passes, shots, goals and time in the opponent’s final third.
The best ever performance by a team in its first PL season since 2000 saw it gain five fewer wins than the season before (West Ham in 2005-06) – that’s a staggering difference of only 0.03 fewer wins per game.
But for most promoted teams the picture is a lot bleaker, with an average of about 15 less wins than the season before. And of course, there will be more losses too.
No newly-promoted team since 2000 has lost fewer games than the previous season. The average number of extra Ls in the first promoted season is just over 9, but plenty of teams (26) have lost more than that.
Every team promoted to the PL has scored fewer goals (on average 35 less) and nearly all have let more in (you can add 16 to the A column on average).
Shots and passes: Less of those
In terms of shots and deep completions (passes within 25m of the opponent’s goal line) promoted teams chalk up less of all of them as they come up against well-established opposition.
In terms of shots, we’re talking hundreds less over the season. Promoted teams since 2014 saw numbers of shots decline between 341 (Hull 16-17, relegated) and 117 (QPR 14-15, also relegated) in their first PL season.
The number of passes a team makes around the opposition box (deep completions) invariably suffers too, and that’s of special interest to Blades fans with it being a major part of the Wilder-Knill approach.
For promoted teams since 2014 deep completions fell by between 377 (Fulham 18-19, relegated) and 127 (Burnley 16-17, finished 16th).
Quality matters: Shots and xG
OK, so we get it. Playing in the Premier League inevitably means fewer chances, fewer goals, conceding more, etc.
But a look at expected goals (xG) and expected goals against (xGA) for promoted teams gives some clues about what successful (ie, not relegated) teams need to do to survive.
xG is a measure of the quality and quantity of shots created. Every promoted team since 2016 has (in per-game terms) seen a decline in xG while their xGA has increased. Neither of which should be a surprise as they face better opposition in the PL.
The key is, however, to make sure they carry as much success in creating chances over to their first season in the Prem from their promotion success as they can.
There is a clear correlation between xG and Premier League survival for the years we have data for (see chart: xG per game). If your xG declines less than the average that’s clearly a good thing, as the colour of the dots on the chart shows clearly.
PL survivors keep defending well
Meanwhile, you have to ensure your defence remains as solid as possible as you move from Championship to PL.
Maintaining decent xGA in your first Premier League campaign is as important as getting and scoring from quality chances.
The chart (xGA per game) tells that story, with those teams least able to get close to keeping Championship defensive form the most likely to go down. (Middlesbrough’s goal-scoring performance in 2016-17 was awful, in case you’re wondering.)
Villa have most to do defensively
What’s perhaps most interesting for those watching the promoted teams in the PL in the coming season is that Aston Villa have the biggest job on their hands in terms of defending.
Villa go into the Prem with the worst xGA (64.51 or 1.40 per game) of any team promoted from the Championship over the last four seasons, which means they don’t have much headroom to allow for the pretty much inevitable decline in defensive outcomes.
By rights, their xGA per game should get worse in the first season back in the PL –everybody’s does – but they can’t allow that to happen. Since 2015 seven promoted teams have racked up xGA worse than 1.40 in the Premier League and four of those have been relegated.
Of the three promoted in 2019, the Blades take the best defensive record into the PL. Looking at the chart (Promoted teams: xG vs xGA), the key thing is the distance between the two lines. For United that gap is, pleasingly, the widest, while Villa seem to have relied on always being able to score more than they let in.
Will we do it ‘our way’?
When it comes to style of play, there seems to be a connection between PL survival and a team’s ability to keep playing the way they did the season before.
The chart (% of time in final third) shows average time spent in opponents’ final thirds and the amount they passed the ball while there, in promotion-winning seasons and then the PL.
All promoted teams saw a decline in both measures, but it was those that slipped downwards and to the right in the chart the most – ie, those spending less time in the final third or pass it as much in that part of the pitch – that were often relegated.
What does it all mean for United?
The distinctive Wilder-Knill approach that United have come to be known for was developed by their own admission as a way of winkling out visiting League One opponents from deep-lying defensive positions at Bramall Lane.
It is characterised by playing high up the pitch, with lots of ball circulation around the edges of the area, overloads on the flanks and centre backs that have licence to add to the mix in the final third. All of which then aims to feed balls into high xG locations in front of goal.
That approach continued into the Championship, although it is arguable we saw less of it in the second half of the season. Instead – and what took us to second spot –was a new-found tactical flexibility which saw us sit in and grind out victory or play longer and more directly when required.
We should expect that to continue into next season. The distinctive United way will still be there, but expect it to be part of a mix that sees more caution and defensive solidity available when needed.
At the same time, expect United to try to get the ball to those most dangerous areas a short distance in front of goal. Those high xG chances are key to survival.
As we’ve seen, every team that gets promoted will achieve less in offensive terms and concede more to opponents.
A clever management team will devise a tactical toolbox that can best take advantage of that. And we know that in Wilder and Knill we’ve got one of those.