After what feels like an eternity, football is back! We start our ‘mini season’ against Sheffield United at an empty St James’ Park on Sunday @ 2pm. Chris Wilder’s Blades are the surprise package of the season and currently occupy 6th place on 44 points after a fantastic first season back in the top-flight. Wilder took over the reins at Brammall Lane in May 2016 when they had just finished 11th in League One - fast forward four years and his team are still in contention for a Champions League place with only nine games left to play. What a turnaround it’s been.
Sheffield re-started their season with a 0-0 draw against Aston Villa on Wednesday evening. The Blades have certainly played better this season, although they were missing two of their best players through injury with John Fleck and Jack O’Connell both ruled out. To be fair, they were also robbed of a clear goal when the Villa Goalkeeper Ørjan Nyland carried the ball across his own line. Due to a technical glitch, Hawkeye didn’t pick it up and VAR was not consulted, costing Chris Wilder and his team a win. In this post-match interview the Sheffield United manager also said he felt his team struggled without the fans to cheer them on.
Their success this season has largely been built upon a solid defense with Wilder having fielded the same defensive line up in almost every league game this season. It’s this continuity and defensive unity which has become the bedrock of the team’s impressive results. They’ve conceded the 2nd lowest amount of goals with only Liverpool ahead of them and goalkeeper Dean Henderson chalked up his 11th clean sheet of the season against Villa. The Manchester United loanee has surely put himself in contention to earn a senior England cap sooner, rather than later.
Wilder prefers to play with three centre-backs in a 3-5-2 formation and he sets them up to defend from the front, deploying a high press when the opposition have the ball in their own third. This is highlighted by the fact the Sheffield United forwards have the highest pressing stats in the squad, with Ollie McBurnie and David McGoldrick in particular working hard to close defenders down and win the ball back in dangerous areas.
When the opposition moves the ball into the middle of the pitch Sheffield will look to usher them out wide and force turnovers. Winning the ball in these areas allows the red and whites to counter quickly down the flanks through their wing-backs (Stevens and Baldock) who both average over one interception per game. The left back Stevens also creates over two shot creating actions per match – third in the squad behind Billy Sharp (FW) and John Fleck (CM) – so we need to be mindful of this and look after the ball in the wide areas, especially when we’re committing men forward.
When defending their own third of the pitch every Sheffield United player will look to get behind the ball, shifting the formation into a compact 5-3-2. This is designed to frustrate the opposition and force them into taking long shots. The analysis shows the Blades are top of the table when it comes to the amount of passes opposition teams are forced to make before they can take a shot - this demonstrates how difficult they are to break down. Teams may be tempted to get around this by going direct and sending long balls towards their penalty area, however, they also possess a lot of height and are an aerially dominant team with, only Burnley winning more headers per game this season.
Sheffield’s reliance on a strong defense is evident in the fact they’ve only scored 30 goals this season which puts them 15th in the table. Their joint scorers, with 5 goals each, are Scottish midfielder John Fleck, who’s enjoyed an excellent campaign so far, and Lys Mousset who was a £9.99m club record signing (at the time) from Bournemouth last summer. The Frenchman has also clocked up four assists meaning he is one of their danger men, however, there’s no guarantee that he will start. The Blades have several options up-front with Mousset, Ollie McBurnie, David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp all having played a significant number of minutes this season.
With only 19% of their attacks coming through the middle Sheffield’s go-to attacking pattern is to move the ball down the flanks. Their aim is to create a numerical advantage in the wide areas and isolate the opposition full backs. To do this, Wilder has deployed a rather unique tactic by instructing his centre-backs to overlap the full-backs during attacking phases. Opposition teams are then forced to choose between tracking this run, and sacrificing a winger, or risk being outnumbered in dangerous areas on the edge of their 18-yard-box.
Either Jack O’Connell (left) or Chris Basham (right) will overlap joining their full-back and one of the more advanced CMs (Fleck or Lundstrum) to create an overload. This makes space to deliver dangerous balls into the box on a regular basis with the Blades having played the fourth highest amount of crosses this season. They may have only scored three headers, however, they vary the height of their crosses well and are quick to pounce on any loose balls in the penalty area.
Tifo Football have done a great video on this tactic which you can find here.
Head to head
It was Newcastle that ran out surprise winners when the teams met last December on a cold Thursday night in Sheffield. An early header from Allan Saint-Maximin and a controversial VAR breaking goal from Jonjo Shelvey secured a 0-2 win for Steve Bruce’s men and a welcome 3 points. Like most of our wins this season it wasn’t easy and the expected goals model suggests Sheffield United should have scored at least two goals from the chances they created. Unfortunately for them, and not for the only time this season, Martin Dubravka was on fine form making seven saves out of seven attempts.
That night we were second best in every statistic apart from goals scored and that’s remained the case for the duration of the season. The Blades have significantly outperformed us in defensive areas and they are in the top three for xGA which means they give away a low amount of chances per game, making it difficult for teams to score - Newcastle on the other hand are 17th for xGA.
To use a cliché, “there’s no easy games in the Premier League” and that’s certainly the case with this one. The great unknown is how the enforced break from football and the never-ending takeover saga has impacted the squad, as well as how they react to playing with no crowd. Sheffield United already have 90 minutes of competitive football under their belts in this new crowd-less world, and this may be an important factor in deciding the result of this game.
It was good to hear Bruce indicate that he’ll be sticking to the same system he used against Southampton with four at the back and two upfront. This should mean Miggy will play the number 10 role and provide support to Joelinton, utilizing his pace and energy to cause a headache for the Sheffield defenders. The main selection dilemma for Steve Bruce will be who to play down the right-hand-side. I think Manquillo is our best right-back option and personally I would go with Lazaro on the wing for reasons discussed here, although Matt Ritchie has never let us down and he started there in the last game.
Anything but a defeat in our opening fixture of Project Restart will be a decent result and bring us within touching distance of the 40 points mark, but it won’t be easy.