Blades in the Prem: A decent start backed up by the numbers

With four games gone and a W, two Ds and an L so far, the Blades start to the Premier League season has not been a shabby one.

Sure, it’s early days and four games is a very small sample, but so far the numbers are looking good.

And, there’s every reason to believe Chris Wilder has brought the style of play that won promotion from the Championship into the PL, which we can take a look at by looking at some of the data so far.

vsChelsea

  1. We’re doing it our way. Passmap and average player positions in the second half at Chelsea.

First, let’s look at some of the underlying performance numbers. These provide comforting reading so far.

By the time of going to press, Blades had scored 5 and conceded 5 and got 5 points out of a possible 12.

But when we look at the amount and quality of chances created (expected goals or xG) and the amount and quality of chances allowed (expected goals against or xGA), Sheffield United are well-placed.

After three games, United ranked 10th with xG of 4.04, which isn’t bad. But in terms of xGA we had only clocked up 2.41, which ranked us 3rd meanest in giving away chances behind Manchester United and Everton.

xG3P

  1. Expected goals after three games.

Those numbers took a bit of a hit at Chelsea, but we can count them as ‘top 6’ opposition so it’s to be expected (and we did get a result!)

When it comes to sheer numbers of shots, we ranked fairly low, with 31 (fifth lowest) before Chelsea.

Should we be hugely concerned? Not right now. Wilder and Knill have always coached the team to get into good positions before shooting.

Combine that with the fact that chances are a little bit harder to come by in the PL compared to the Championship and the low number makes sense.

It is possible to put a positive spin on that as well, though, as it means we have a very high xG per shot, ranked second after three games.

But, numbers of shots could be one to watch – as well as where our shots are coming from – as the season progresses.

Meanwhile, the good news when it comes to shots is that we are (were until the Chelsea game) among the tightest in the division in terms of allowing them. As with xGA, when it comes to shots against, with three games gone we had allowed the third least behind Man U and Everton.

Playing the Sheff United way?

Does any of this have any connection to our style of play?

You could argue it does.

The Wilder and Knill way of playing is based around carrying the ball high up the pitch to the opposition, working it around, seeking overloads and making passes/crosses into dangerous, high xG positions in front of goal. Oh, and if a centre back can help out, that makes it a ‘signature’ Blades overlapping CB move.

Playing high up the pitch a lot means you are less likely to concede the sheer amount of chances you would if you played a low block, with two banks of four set up to absorb pressure.

That is probably where our low shots against and xGA numbers come from.

Can we back that up with numbers? Yes, and quite spectacularly.

Up until the Chelsea game, Blades topped the table in terms of deep completions. That is, passes made within 20m of the opponent’s goal line. To give you an idea of the kind of company we were keeping there, Liverpool and Tottenham were second and third.

deepC3P

  1. Deep completions per game (after three games). This counts number of passes within 20m of the opponent’s goal line.

The Blades’ tendency to take things to the opposition is also evident when we look at the number of touches taken in the opponent’s final third. Once again, Sheffield United topped the table, with Liverpool and Spurs following on.

We can also calculate how high up the pitch we’ve been playing. That’s done by averaging all the positions in which players touch the ball during the game. Before the Chelsea game, Blades were second only to Liverpool in terms of their average line, higher even than Manchester City in third place.

avgLine3P

  1. Average line per game. An average of all player touches during games.

So, so far, things are looking good and it looks like we’re playing ‘our way’.

The big question is, though, how will things change against ‘top 6’ opposition?

One way might be to look at how directly we play. When pinned back by high-pressing and athletic teams, it stands to reason we are likely to play out from that much more directly.

Fortunately, we can measure the proportion of direct play, by taking the total pass distance and finding out how much of that took the team towards the opponent’s goal.

With three games gone Blades were mid-table, ranking 8th most direct in the Prem. The least direct teams are the ones you’d expect – able to dominate possession all the way up the pitch and keep it there – and are basically a roll-call of the top 6 usual suspects.

Our directness didn’t differ much between games either (before the Chelsea game), with ratings of 53% (away at Bournemouth), 52% (Palace) and 50% (Leicester).

The first test against a top 6 contender didn’t see much change, with a 51% directness rating.

So, we’re only 4 games in and are turning out a lot better than some of the pundits have predicted.

The key thing is too, that our underlying numbers look good. That bodes well for the season. We’ll check back in to see how these things play out.

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