Blades lack balls. . . to the final third

What’s happened to Sheffield United this season?

Is it possible to pin it down to one or very few key stats?

Maybe. In this case I’d say it’s getting the ball into the final third and keeping it there. Or the lack of it. And it looks like three key players – two injured, one not – are at the core of the issue.

If we look at the numbers of balls into the final third delivered by Blades players since the beginning of last season, a few big contributors stand out.

They are:

  • Oli Norwood, who led the pack with nearly 11 balls per game into the final third in the first half of last season.
  • Jack O’Connell, who sent about 7.5 per game into the opponent’s defensive third.
  • Enda Stevens at just over 6 per game
  • John Fleck with 5 per game, and
  • Chris Basham.

The obvious thing is that three of the main producers of balls into the final third have hardly played this season, either by injury or lack of selection.

And I would argue we have sorely missed that particular contribution from Norwood, O’Connell and Fleck.

Other players have gone some way to try and make contributions in this sense – hats off to the often maligned John Lundstram, as well as Sander Berge and Ben Osborn, and even John Egan – but these players can’t replace the quarter-backing skills of Norwood and O’Connell or the penetration of John Fleck.

Why balls into the final third?

To get why I’ve settled on that metric as important, we have to look at some of the other key measures across the two halves of last season and this one.

xG/xGA shows poor outcomes

First off are the more obvious ones, namely expected goals per game (down), expected goals against per game (up). These correspond loosely with shots for and against. They tell us more about outcomes at each end of the pitch and not really about what causes them.

Possession down but system still there

When we look at absolute amounts of possession per game over the three periods there’s another clear decline in the amount of ball we’ve had.

When we’ve had the ball we’ve been about as successful as ever in passing it, and we’ve had touches in pretty much the parts of the pitch we always have done since promotion. IE, pretty high up the pitch. In fact we play second highest up the pitch in the Premier League based on an average of where we take touches of the ball. The problem is that we are getting far less of them than we used to.

Possession down, but penetrating possession down even more

When we look at the decline in touches of the ball and passing it has dropped by about 10% since the beginning of last season. That’s the same for touches in the final third and in the opponent’s box.

But balls into the final third are down more than that – by about 20%. So, when you look at the players who deliver those the most – Norwood and O’Connell in particular, it starts to look like a major reason for Blades’ poor performances.

Is Oli Norwood the answer?

If it was me I’d get Norwood back into the starting line-up immediately, and keep him there, probably with Osborn and Berge also in midfield. It seems to me his quarterbacking skills are just too important.

Having said that, we lack Jack’s penetration into the final 20m. And there is also the missing Fleck. It might be that CW/AK need to work on an alternative line of approach up the left. But they eat, sleep and breathe this kind of thing so I’m sure they’ll have been working on it for a while. It takes time to coach a system that works.

What haven’t I talked about here?

The big one is the effect of the lack of fans in stadia. The numbers show United performed worse since the first lockdown. But coaches are taught to “control the controllables” and this is not one of them. There are plenty of things that are, potentially, as mentioned above, so CW/AK will be working on those.

Another thing is pressing, or defensive pressure in general. I’d like to run some numbers on this because United are currently second least pressing-est team in the PL (behind the tactically quite different Newcastle) and I am pretty sure that wasn’t the case last season.

Going by eye it looks like we’re pressing less, and less effectively, but I need to check that out.

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