With seven games gone, the media narrative on the Blades season – when pundits have actually done any research – has been all about overlapping centre-backs.
That’s fair enough, and although it’s definitely a thing we do, it’s not all we do. And in fact, just like the latter part of last season, in this first season back in the Premier League we have seen quite some tactical variation from Sheffield United.
In this article – which comes after having played a good spread of PL teams – we can start to see the Blades’ strengths and weaknesses, and ponder about whether a new tactical direction is needed or likely.
Solid at the back
Sheffield United haven’t lost by more than one goal since conceding three to Middlesbrough in August 2018. OK, so most of those games were in the Championship, but this season we’ve already played the champions of Europe and Chelsea and managed to not lose that run.
After four games we were third best in terms of xGA (expected goals against), which measures the quantity and quality of shots faced. Since then we’ve slipped to 8th, but are keeping some decent company.
We are also 8th in terms of shots faced (87), with several teams having given up more than 100 (Newcastle, Spurs, Bournemouth, Villa and Arsenal).
Is it just about the back three/five? Not at all. As noted last time, the reason we face relatively few shots is that we have tended to play higher up the pitch than many. More on that later though.
Doing just enough in front of goal
While we’ve allowed relatively few chances and been steely at the back, things in front of goal haven’t quite matched up.
Sheffield United’s expected goals (8.52) ranks 11th in my model and is just below a PL average of 9.5. Also, the Blades’ actual goals scored lags behind xG with seven hitting the back of the net.
xG and goals scored are also mirrored in raw shot numbers. We are third lowest in terms of total shots and the worst in the PL in terms of shots on target.
We will have a look at possible reasons for that below, but for now we can rest a little easy in the knowledge our good defensive numbers are helping.
In terms of goal difference and expected goal difference (xG – xGA) we are just about in the middle of the pack, with several teams performing worse than us.
Not getting to the danger zone?
There are a couple of stats that show how far we get up the pitch and how much we pass it when we get there.
The disparity between the two might give a clue about just how penetrative the Blades’ attacking play is, or why it isn’t.
Firstly, deep completions measures the amount of passes a team makes in the last 20m of the pitch.
In this Sheffield United top the table, even after playing Liverpool. Not bad, eh?
So, why isn’t that being converted into chances?
Here we can look at another stat – touches in the opponent’s penalty area – and a whole different picture emerges.
Manchester City top that table with just over 42 touches in the box per game. Sheffield United languish fourth from bottom with 17.5, surrounded by the avowedly counter-attacking like Burnley and the poorly performing (Newcastle).
The only conclusion to be drawn is that there’s a lack of penetration from wide areas. We are great at getting the ball high up the pitch and retaining it there. We are a lot less good at turning that possession into chances.
Here’s a great example, against a fairly woeful Crystal Palace team that was determined to sit in at Bramall Lane.
This shows passes in the last 20m of the pitch and it’s obvious how many more of those there are outside the box compared to inside.
If we count all touches by Blades players in the last 20m in that game they total 110. If we narrow that to within the width of the penalty area that drops to 22.
It’s understandable, of course. Competent defensive setups are good at creating obstacles to goal. What’s more, they know how we like to play and set up accordingly, perhaps letting us play in those wide areas to some extent and then deal with any balls in, or attempt to cut off supply in those wide areas.
Against other teams that volume of possession hasn’t happened. In some cases that’s because we have played much less high up the pitch, whether through choice or otherwise.
The games against Everton, and most notably Liverpool, are good examples of this. Build-up from wide areas in the last 20m was sparse and more direct delivery was evident.
Between two attacking approaches?
Towards the end of last season in the Championship there was always a more direct option, with balls moved forward more rapidly when we were pressed back. It was an alternative to our play-high-pass-lots/get-it-in-the-6-yard-box approach that was sometimes needed.
And it looks like this season that is the way we have to play some games. We’ve certainly tried to play the Wilder way where we can, but where we haven’t we’ve resorted to longer balls, more quickly fed to the front.
We can plot deep completions, touches in the box, directness and the average line held by United players in a game. From that you can see that in games where we can’t – or maybe don’t want to – keep the ball in higher areas for any length of time we have been more direct.
(Directness is measured as distance travelled forward by the ball as a proportion of total distance travelled in all passes.)
The logic of the Premier League?
It’s only been a short season so far, but it’s quite easy to conclude there are a lot of what can loosely be described as counter-attacking teams in the PL, that the division is split between those that can make progress via shorter passes and keeping the ball and those that resort to more direct approaches (maybe via counter-pressing also).
Sheffield United have come into the top flight having been something of the former. It was an approach developed in League One to counter teams that came to sit in at the Lane. The overlapping centre backs that we’re becoming known for are a motif for that kind of play. Generally – but not always – you need to be keeping the ball for long enough in high, wide areas for Jack or Bash to arrive.
It was an approach that also characterised our time in the Championship, but perhaps less so, as opposition quality increased.
Now in the PL we see less of it but it’s still there, with Jack O’Connell even getting high up the pitch on one or two occasions against Liverpool.
But, the reality is that when regularly facing such quality opposition – whether of the counter-attacking persuasion or pass-you-to-death variety – the way the Blades attack seems set to evolve.
In some games, where we can play high, we just can’t get the ball from those wide areas to goal-scoring locations often enough. In others we know chances will be infrequent and have to come from direct play.
Perhaps we’ll see a hybrid emerge, with more direct attacks that result from pressing in the middle third, which is arguably what we did very successfully against Chelsea and Liverpool.
It’d be a new approach for Wilder and Knill, but perhaps one more suited to our new surroundings.