Sheffield United: What to expect with the help of Ted Knutson

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By Jason McKenna

Recently we published our podcast with Ted Knutson from Statsbomb on the 3 promoted sides. This is the second of our 3 articles building upon the chats we had about the new Premier League outfits. We have included lots of data and facts to embellish the fascinating and highly useful insights Ted gave us in his interview. This articles focus is on Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United. Click the link if you want to listen to the podcast. 

Sheffield United have returned to the Premier League after an absence of 12 years. As recently as 2015/16 the team were 11th in League One and the Premier League looked a distant hope. But in 3 seasons Chris Wilder has turned the club into a formidable outfit. The manager did not play it safe though, he used a mix of clever transfers and deploying new tactics to help the Blades into the top flight. The 3-5-2 system that he has played will bring much excitement in the 2019/20 season as teams will have to adapt to a very unique tactical style which could also see centre backs picking up goals and assists from open play as well as set pieces. 

Sheffield United have come into the Premier League on the back of impressive defensive performances. The strength of the side was its ability to nullify opponents attacks in the Championship. That is not to say though that their attack was lacking. Wilder’s side scored the 4th most goals in the Championship last season, thus it can be seen that the team is somewhat of a well rounded unit. As mentioned the team set up in a 3-5-2 system which was developed to counter teams sitting deap against Sheffield. Wilder’s team is not highly pressing, the PPDA of 10.16 was 13th in the Championship, but the team defends in numbers and to a good standard. The team impressed in the 2018/19 season as they amassed 21 clean sheets, nearly half their shots conceded were outside the box and the ball was only in their 3rd of the pitch 26% of the time in matches. Also one must consider the fact that Wilder has an exemplary record through his time at the Blades, he has only lost 39 games out of 143 since joining the side 3 years ago. The formation he has deployed is so good as it is malleable to the strengths of the opponent and can stop those playing out wide or through the middle; the set-up of Sheffield United can combat both. When Wilders team faces an opponent who attacks out wide the wing back on that side will push forward, sometimes as far as the half way line, to pressure the opponent and to intercept, tackle or cause errors. In these situations the formation looks more like a 4-4-2 as the wing back is pushed so far up, but also the centre back on the vacated side pushes out wide to become a full back and the wing back on the opposite side tracks back and also takes up a full back role. Those playing through the middle will be overloaded with the number of players and will be forced to play it out wide. What is also telling of the importance Wilder places on defence is the fact that McGoldrick will come back and support this midfield overload if he is needed leaving Sharp up top by himself.

Ted Knutson explained that the fact that Sheffield United had so many defenders in the squad shows the priority for the team is stopping goals. This too makes statistical sense as the team who has scored the least goals has not always been relegated, but the side that has conceded the most has always gone down. This is also an idea that Ted likes saying that Sheffiled “seem to have a pretty solid plan to eek out enough points, but with Premier League stuff it is a big step”. He believes of all the teams promoted into the Premier League Sheffield United are the most likely to get a few clean sheets. The team have the defensive organisation to shut teams out, but he does warn about teams who cannot offer an attack against opponents in the Premier League. With Sheffield United “you do expect a couple more clean sheets from this team, they play much better defence, they have fewer holes and their centre back crew is quite good. It’s just everything else you have questions about”. But just because defence is priority Ted told us that the team will not play on the back foot. He believes that Wilder will not make his defence play more reserved now, opening up some possibility for attacking returns from their overlapping centre backs. Ted said “this wrinkle in their system is what gives them an advantage. Egan and O’connell are both capable goalscorers… I think between those two you can expect goals, but they will be gifts. It’s not like you are going to be playing a championship version of this with Aidan Flint 2 years ago where you are getting a double digit goal scorer from centre back”.

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Going forward the team likes to use the whole width of the pitch. Wing backs and centre backs join in the attack to overload opponents. When moving up the pitch the centre backs will run down the wing creating more passing options for the midfielders. The opposite sided centre back will move from the wing into the box to provide an aerial threat whereas the wing backs will float into the centre of the pitch and stay on the edge of the box to capitalise on cut backs from the play from the wing or to minimise the team counter attacking from a clearance. Due to this fascinating attacking style Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham were instructed to push forward and support or overlap United’s wing-backs. Interestingly the cheaply priced O’Connell had 57 crosses last season, 13 successful crosses and created 14 key passes. On top of this he had 26 shots in the box. To ensure defensive solidity when these players vacated their positions one of the central midfielders, John Fleck or Oliver Norwood, would move into central defence and partner John Egan. Ted also wanted to highlight that Sheffield United’s unsung heroes are in the midfield; even with his defensive work Norwood is consistently one of the best midfielders in the league. Last season Fleck and Norwood also had their spoils of the attack amassing 5 goals and 18 assists between them.

However even with this overload attitude and the different players invited to join the attack the worrying statistic is the reliance of Sheffield on Billy Sharp. He scored 29% of goals last season, plus to add even more cause for concern Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick contributed 38 goals of the 78 goals of the team in 2018/19. Currently there are only 3 forwards on the books at the club with Lys Mousset joining the side this summer. But it is unknown if Mousset will be starter from the get go so the age of Sharp and McGoldrick is also a factor to worry about. The 3-5-2 system of Sheffield was physically demanding, but this was in the Championship. The Blades and their ageing squad may be hindered by the limits of their bodies to adjust to the physical intensity of the Premier League. The team had the 3rd oldest starting 11 of any Championship side at 27.9 years and comparatively this would make them joint 6th eldest in the Premier League. Age and the ability to perform in the Premier League is a point echoed by Ted who stated that the team may be fit and physical but ,“ its that its a different level”. Something to factor in as well is the fact that age may have already caught up with Sharp. The striker, who turns 34 this season, scored 24 attacking returns by February but then he had one goal and two assists in the last three months of the season. It must therefore cast some doubt as to whether Sharp can continue his fantastic goal conversion rate of 30.7% with a step up into the Premier League, a potential of finding the higher league more physically demanding and the poor run of form he had in the last 3 months of the 2018/19 Championship season. 

Also the attacking data is not wholly convincing for the team. Sheffield United ranked joint-14th for attempts on goal (579) in the Championship last season and 12th best for shots on target (4.2 per game). But the team seemed to go for quality and not quantity as they tried to create good chances with Sheffield United having the top shots in the penalty area (1.7 per game) and a low number of their shots came from outside the box (3.9 per game). The team may have to have another approach this season though to be able to score enough goals to stay up. The quantity of their quality chances will have to increase, or the dedication to the perfect attempt may have to be offset by pure volume.  Another area that had been discussed was the potential from dead ball situations but their output is not all that great. Wilder’s side ranked 12th for attempts from set plays (172) and sixth for goals from dead-ball situations (18). 

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Potential offensive output  is something that troubled Ted Knutson who said in terms of the attacking output he has “no idea” what to expect. He is worried for the team going forward as “where are the goals coming from in this team? I have no idea… it cannot just be on Norwood and set pieces”. Ted was unsure whether Bill Sharp’s output was down to the quality of chances provided or his quality, but he believes that he is “certainly capable… his expected goals were also about half a goal a game”. So the same warning that comes with Pukki is also applied to Sharp; to expect output to drop by about 70% of his Championship numbers.  But a positive from Sheffield United’s past and the transfer policy of Wilder has led Ted to believe that the community should watch where they are spending, “I think they have got a few moves they are going to make before the window closes”. So there is some hope that reinforcements could improve the quality and the depth of the squad.

What can therefore be drawn from the discussion with Ted and the stats is that there is a high risk for ownership of Sheffield United assets. The converted overlapping centre backs may pick up some returns but the clean sheets on which all defenders should be based around are not assured, but are more likely than with all the other promoted sides. The attacking output may be hindered by age and the physical demands of the Premier League. For Fantasy Premier League managers a reassurance is that Wilder is consistent with his team choices once he knows his best Premier League XI though. A recommendation is to see who is starting and to see if Sheffield United adapt well to the league. The prices of the players are cheap, but not the cheapest and so it seems for the safest strategy it would be wise to hold off to see who may emerge as a good pick from the side, if any come to the front at all.

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