Sheffield United finished the 19/20 Premier League season with 57 points giving them an average of 1.4 points per game – the sixth best points total by a newly promoted team.
Similar to Wolves – who finished on 57 points as a promoted team – the season before, Sheffield United and Chris Wilder arrived in the top flight with a reputation as a well disciplined team with a clear tactical plan and very quickly set about taking the Premier League by storm. Season 20/21 is only 8 games old so grand proclamations are unnecessary at this stage, but there are some key observations which may explain the difficulties Sheffield United are experiencing in season two.
The most obvious and cliched reason usually given is that Sheffield United have simply been ‘found out’ at this level. They were a surprise package last season with no obvious stars and a large portion of players who had been with the club in League One. I think this is a lazy argument personally and would argue that it’s almost close to impossible for a team to spend a whole season in the Premier League and no opposition team would bother to analyse or scout them until season two.
Marcelo Bielsa famously revealed that he and his Leeds staff watch every game their opponents played in the season before to help build an overall profile of the team’s tactical approach. Whilst this may be excessive for mere mortals, it shows the level of detailed preparation that goes into opposition analysis.
Could teams be treating Sheffield United differently instead? Perhaps opposing teams are seeing them more as their equal – or better – and thus changing the way they play to combat Sheffield United’s strengths and take advantage of any weaknesses.
Style of play
As mentioned above, Sheffield United are very much a team with a clear tactical philosophy embedded by Chris Wilder and his coaching staff over 4 seasons. They are a team who are greater than the sum of their individual parts, each player and area of the team know exactly what is required of them in both offensive and defensive phases and they more than often than not carry these instructions out to a very high level.
Out of possession, Sheffield United play in a mid block within a compact 5-3-2 shape. Their strikers will cut off the opposition’s passing lanes into the middle of the pitch and force them wide. From there, the central midfielders will shuffle laterally to the flanks and provide support to the wingbacks ensuring they have a flexible approach to pressing and with a clear focus on having a numerical superiority in crucial areas of the pitch.
As with all three man defences, there is space to be found in the wider channels for opposition teams. Sheffield United acknowledge this and at times can leave their wider centre backs one on one with wingers in the channels and defend aggressively. With a midfield focused primarily on maintaining their shape, this ensures a solid base which is hard for teams to break through.
With such a focus on their approach out of possession, this does mean they aren’t the most creative in the final third. Lys Mousset and Oli McBurnie finished joint top scorers in the league with the grand total of six goals apiece last season. Sheffield United finished their campaign with a goal difference of 0, with 39 goals scored – and conceded – in their 38 league games giving an average of 1.02 goals scored per game.
In possession, Sheffield United like to utilise their now famous ‘overlapping centre backs’ to create overloads in the half spaces and combined with wingbacks George Baldock (4) and Enda Stevens (3) who chipped in with a combined seven assists last season.
This season, Sheffield United have scored just two open play goals (and two penalties) in their eight games so far but have conceded 14 already, which is a big regression on both sides.
The loss of Lys Mousset to a troublesome foot injury has undoubtedly impacted their creativity in the final third given he averaged a goal or assist every three games last season. New signing Rhian Brewster has been thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim whilst being ably and unably assisted by David McGoldrick, a 34 year old Billy Sharp and a misfiring Oli McBurnie.
Dean Henderson electing to spend a season on the Manchester United bench has also damaged Sheffield United as his replacement – Aaron Ramsdale – is nowhere near as impressive. Henderson is a much better shot stopper – consistently saving a far higher percentage of shots than Ramdale has and is more adept at handling cross balls. The quality of shots being faced is not hugely different either, with 0.12 xG per shot against this actually a slight improvement on last seasons figure of 0.13xG per shot against.
Last season they faced an average of 10.5 shots per game but so far this season that stands at almost 15 so whilst the quality per shot remains low, the overall volume has increased as has the most important number, goals conceded.
Loss of key players continues to be a theme in other areas of the pitch as Jack O’Connell’s injury shows. This has had a compound effect with Sheffield Utd not only losing one of their centre backs, but also requiring Enda Stevens to move into the back line at times thus impacting his aforementioned offensive skills.
As you can see from the visual provided by the excellent footballslices.com, Enda Stevens impact was hugely impressive last season ranking close to the 90th percentile in key metrics such as expected assists and successful dribbles per 90 when ranked against all Top-5 league full backs. This season, with some time spent in the centre back positions his attacking output has understandably dipped.
John Fleck – a driving force of the team for the last few seasons – is another key player who isn’t available from last season’s team. Fleck along with Olly Norwood were the two constants in central midfield. In the first half of the season John Lundstram rounded out the midfield three, with Sander Berge replacing him following his winter transfer move.
Lundstram has found himself back in the team this season due to Fleck’s absence through injury and as you can see below, doesn’t offer the same level of offensive threat or creativity that Fleck does which has undoubtedly stunted their attacking intent.
Transition & Pressing
Last season, Sheffield United only conceded nine goals in total from an oppositions counter attacks. This season they have conceded six already and would therefore be on track to concede close to thirty by May.
They are also showing noticeable declines in pressing compared to last season. PPDA analyses how many passes a team allowed their opposition before forcing them into a defensive action. Teams playing Sheffield United last year were allowed seven passes before a tackle or interception was made. That figure has risen to nine in the current season.
A key feature of their play was overloading the half spaces with the aim of creating space in the wide areas for the full backs to get on the ball and create opportunities. Players like Fleck & Stevens had a crucial role in creating these overloads and their off ball running and strength in transition is sorely missed.
Crystal Palace sit eighth in the league so far with 12 points, 12 goals scored and 12 goals conceded. A far cry from Sheffield United’s 20th position, a solitary point gained in a draw with Fulham, just four goals scored and 14 conceded.
Or is it? Both teams expected goals figures are exactly the same with nine xG and 14xGA. Put simply, Crystal Palace are much more efficient in front of goal than Sheffield United in the current season.
As mentioned above, Lys Mousset has been injured all season and has been sorely missed not only for his finishing skills but his creativity in and around the box. None of the other strikers can do what he does and when you have a team so focused on being compact and well organised, you need players like Mousset to knit the defence and attack together. His successful dribbles, xA and touches in box are all in and around the top 90th percentile of all players currently playing in the top 5 leagues as forwards. Not many teams wouldn’t miss Mousset based on his skillset and output last season.
Of the four goals scored, only two have came from open play which is something that needs to improve. On average, their expected goals per game (1.2) is 0.5 higher per game than the number of goals (0.7) they manage to score, so they are creating a decent number of chances but quality of finishing could be an issue.
From 62 shots so far this season, they have only attempted 6 which rank higher than 0.4xG and have a chance conversion rate of just 15% so far, the second worst in the league. Last season, they finished with a conversion rate of 24% which was the 14th best in the division.
In the games against Wolves and Leeds in particular, Sheffield United can count themselves a little unlucky to have lost as on the balance of chances created they should have gotten more from both games. In the Leeds game, in particular they should have scored at least once from a lovely move culminating in a Lundstram shot that was well saved by Meslier.
So in summary, Sheffield United are enduring a very tough start to season two in the Premier League which has been compounded by the loss of arguably four of their best and most consistent performers. When a team has such a defined philosophy and a small squad these losses can be felt keenly, particularly if their replacements either aren’t at the required standard or are not a similar type of player but are being asked to do the same role.
Whilst all of the above is true, the simple fact is that Sheffield United have also had a very difficult start to the season already playing Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa away from home and facing Man City, Fulham, Leeds and Wolves at Bramall Lane. Their next eight games look a lot kinder and will give us more insight into how the rest of this season will go.