Something is happening to Sheffield United’s way of playing.
The Blades are doing all things they’ve become known for over recent seasons, such as playing high in the opponent’s half, with the occasional appearance of marauding centre backs.
They’re also still doing all the things that lots of people didn’t necessarily notice too, like playing quite directly at times and being very resilient in defence.
What’s changed isn’t the components of Sheffield United’s style of play, but the mix of those parts.
As Chris Wilder and Alan Knill’s team have notched up their first dozen games in the Premier League the things we can measure seem to show that a learning experience, an adjustment, has taken place.
What we have – at 12 games in – is a team that is not able to reap the rewards of battering the opposition with lots of intricate passing play high up the pitch.
Instead, the emphasis is shifting to playing more in the middle of the park, being more direct from there, taking fewer preparatory passes in high areas and being more efficient with touches in the opponent’s box.
As things stand, that evolution has led to Blades being 5th in the table (after the Spurs game), with 17 points from four wins, five draws and three defeats.
Before we look at the deeper numbers around those, let’s cast our minds back to last season. Although United had begun to evolve the tactical toolbox we’re now seeing by the second half of the Championship promotion season, this was a team still known for pinning opponents back and passing lots, high and on the flanks, before penetrating to the danger areas.
The first chart shows touches in the opponent’s box mapped against deep completions (passes in the final 20m of the pitch) for the 2018-19 Championship season.
Sheffield United’s ability to successfully play in that way against teams in that division is evident, with a large number of touches in the box and deep completions, with a bias towards the former (hence being above the average line).
The relatively low number of shots (indicated by the colour of the blob) is a result of discipline and efficiency in front of goal. The Blades of League One and the Championship seemed to have been coached to get the ball to the most dangerous high xG areas before loosing off a shot, ie the six-yard box. You could almost say it was a strategy built around a very effective striker for whom pace isn’t the highest number on his Match Attax card.
Now, compare that chart to the Blades measured on the same terms 12 games into this Premier League season. Compared to last season United are an outlier, with a well above average number of deep completions and a well below average number of touches in the opponent’s box.
If you think that looks bad, it’s actually a slight improvement on early November. Since then, the effects of what seems to be a shift in emphasis in the way we play has allowed United to shuffle left a bit.
Here’s what seems to be happening.
The Blades are evolving towards playing more directly from the middle of the pitch, with more rapid attacks and build-ups from those areas.
Here are some numbers that illustrate this.
Firstly, let’s look at directness and average line. Directness is increasing.
After four games United were 8th in the PL in terms of directness, which is measured by dividing the distance travelled by passes towards the opponent’s goal by the total distance the ball moves.
Sheffield United are now third in that table, on 56%. The range goes from about 37% of pass distance being forward (Manchester City) to 61% (Newcastle).
At the same time, average line is decreasing. This is measured by averaging the position of all players’ touches during matches. Sure, it doesn’t account for off-the-ball positioning and relative amounts of possession, but as a proxy it gives an idea of how high a team has played.
Now let’s go back to deep completions and touches in the opponent’s box. We’ve contrasted last season and this season so far.
But let’s dig down and look at what’s happened this season in more detail.
It looks a lot like playing less high and making more rapid attacks from the middle of the park has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in the number of touches in the box, in absolute numbers and relative to deep completions.
Consequently, while per game average line and directness have diverged in the chart, deep completions and touches in box have converged, as seen here.
Why would there be a relationship between the two? If you spend more time in the middle of the pitch (average line declining) and rely more on rapid breaks or quick build-ups from there (directness increasing) then the volume of passes in the final third will decline while the number of touches in the box increases relatively.
The above chart is cumulative. That is, it adds up all these actions and averages them over games played, so it shows a trend. If we look at actual games played and the numbers of deep completions and touches in box we can see that the last six games have differed significantly from the first six.
In the first six games deep completions were way in excess of touches in the opponent’s box. On average United made nine more deep completions than they had touches in the box before the Liverpool game.
It’s all very well to have possession and to have it high up the pitch, but if it’s not effective, what’s the point?
That could well have been the conversation the Blades’ coaching staff had early on, because in the last six games that has changed.
In four of those six matches, touches in the box exceeded deep completions. That is directness illustrated. And even in games where there were more passes in the final 20m than touches in the box, it was by a small margin. In fact, the Blades averaged one more of the latter than the former per game in that period.
Further evidence comes when we look at final third entries and final third touches.
Between the first six and last six games final third entries averaged about the same, at roughly 50 per game. Meanwhile, however, final third touches declined from an average of 176 up to the Everton game to 158 since Liverpool at home.
All of which makes it look like several things have taken place.
The first few games were a learning experience. United tried to play the way they had played in the lower divisions and came up against very good and well-organised defences that were very happy to let us play around with it on the flanks all day long and then bat away anything that came in the box.
The Leicester game epitomised that, with United losing despite having the highest number of final third touches in the season so far.
If we had the chance to ask CW/AK their thoughts on that part of the season it’d be reasonable to ask, did they decide playing from deeper, with more rapid breaks and builds, was likely to be more fruitful than patient build-ups from high on the wings?
It’d also be reasonable to ask, when did that realisation hit home? It felt during the Liverpool game that United were very happy to try to keep play in the middle of the pitch and break from there, and it was a game we were unlucky to lose. Also, the week before at Everton the Blades had been pinned back for most of the game but won with two goals on the break.
Since then, Wilder has spoken about the importance of counters in the PL.
Not that United are becoming a purely counter-attacking team.
The performance at Spurs in the first 15 minutes, for example, and in the period leading up to the goal showed United are very capable of playing on the front foot high up the pitch, and from the off.
But, it looks like forward progress from the middle third is happening much more rapidly. It is also combined with the ability to press high and counter at times, to sit deep and sustain pressure at others, and all with rapid transitions between offensive and defensive dispositions in all parts of the pitch.
And at the level of things that are less easy to quantify, it also looks like United have shaken off the air of caution that marked the early parts of some matches in the new season (in the first half at Chelsea, for example).
It certainly looks like United are finding their feet in the PL in what’s shaping up to be a memorable season already.
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