After an absolutely fantastic first campaign back in the Premier League last season, Sheffield United find themselves rooted to the bottom of the Premier League with just 2 points from their opening 17 games. Many were quick to cite ‘Second Season Syndrome’ as a reason for the Blades’ poor start, however, no one predicted them to start quite as catastrophically as they have. Wilder won plaudits from just about everywhere last year with fans and pundits alike praising his perfect blend of tactical intelligence and man management skills, yet Sheffield United are on course to have one of the worst Premier League seasons of all time – so we had a go at working out what’s gone wrong so far.
With the most astonishing part of Sheffield United’s downfall being the stark contrast between how impressive they were last year and how dreadful they’ve been this year, the sensible thing to do would be to look at what’s changed between now and then. Since the Blades are only 17 games into the season, it would be unfair to compare the stats to their full 38 game season last time out, therefore, we’ve gone for per 90 metrics. Firstly, the most noticeable shortcoming has been the lack of goals, having only managed to stick the ball in the back of the net 8 times this season. Compared to last season, they’re scoring at a much lower rate, 0.47 per game compared to 1.03.
At the broadest level, a team’s goalscoring ability can be broken down into two aspects: how many chances they create and how many of those chances they convert. Scoring at less than half the rate of last season, you’d think it would be safe to assume that the Blades were either creating less chances or being less ruthless at putting them away. Strangely, the initial stats don’t particularly tell either of those stories, at least not to the extent that would explain such a dramatic change in fortunes between seasons.
The Steel City side are creating 6.82 chances per 90 mins this season, compared to 7.11 last time out. A slight decrease, but nothing that would ring alarm bells by any means. As well as this, they’re having 0.5 less shots on average per game with 6.29 attempts this season compared to 6.79 last. Again, a slight fall, but certainly not something that would be indicative of a team that could find themselves setting records this year – and not the sort of records you want to be associated with.
So the team are generally creating less chances and having less shots, that’s the first part of goalscoring considered, now for the second. This is where you might find yourself slightly confused as Sheffield United actually have both a higher conversion rate (0.44% vs 0.4%) and a higher shot accuracy percentage (44.9% vs 44.2%). These differences are hardly anything to write home about, but on the face of it, the Blades aren’t technically any less lethal than last season.
To work out how this could be, I decided to look at a different metric, the increasingly popular xG. This indicated that from the chances they’ve created this season, Sheffield United should have scored 15.8 goals, yet they find themselves with a tally of only 8. This isn’t a fantastic xG total, however, it is enough to rank higher than 3 other sides in the league. Therefore, it would indicate that finishing their chances is the bigger problem than creating them. Looking at the squad individually, you can see that Oli McBurnie and John Lundstram are particularly culpable for this, underperforming their xG by 1.7 and 1.6 respectively. If Sheffield United fans are looking for some hope, then you could argue that it’s a positive sign as they’re creating the chances at a high enough volume, they just need to stick some of them away. The only worry would be that as each week goes by, they find themselves further adrift of safety and confidence begins to drain more and more, resulting in worse performances.
Last season United gained a reputation of being an extremely hard working and well drilled side that were difficult to play against. This season has been completely the opposite and the club just don’t seem to be up to the same standards in this regard. It was particularly noticeable in their home fixture against West Ham where they found themselves consistently out-battled, something that would have seemed impossible this time last year. The stats back this up too with them being considerably less successful in aerial duels (47.7% vs 51.6%) and ground duels (46.5% vs 50.3%).
In some relegation threatened sides, you might come to expect this as they begin to lose faith in their manager and as the old saying goes, he “loses the dressing room”, however, this is definitely not something you would associate with Chris Wilder and his side. The lifelong Blades fan has received full backing from the fans, board and players alike throughout the whole season, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, Sheffield United are just not competing well enough and this is something that they really need to turn around.
As was mentioned in the article opening, Wilder gained much praise for his tactics last season. His 3 centre backs supported by wing backs on each side, worked a treat and many singled out his underlapping centre back tactic as a particular highlight. However, so far this time out, it has struggled much more. Enda Stevens has been out for much of the season through injury and the whole defensive unit has been much less effective as a result of this.
Perhaps in pursuit of a solution to his team’s form, Wilder hasn’t quite recreated his system as closely this year, with the team using wide areas as a source of chance creation much less than last season. The Blades are attempting on average 4 crosses per game less than last year as well as 13 fewer long passes. Maybe teams have begun to figure Sheffield United out and are beginning to limit their ability to play the way that brought them so much success previously. Interestingly, they’re losing possession on average 12 times less per game whilst attempting nearly 20 less passes per game too, both of these point to the fact that the emphasis on their style from last season seems to have petered out considerably.
In a league where most clubs boast an embarrassment of riches, most managers might try to switch up their style in this scenario, bringing in a raft of quality replacements for their underperforming stars, however, Wilder was unable to do so this summer. His signings were fairly underwhelming to say the least and have largely disappointed. The club weren’t able to attract players of the same ilk as some of the other mid table teams they’re competing against and as a result of this have a squad that might look more like a Championship one than a Premier League one on paper.
Sheffield United were by no means considered to be a team that rained goals, however, when you combine this bluntness going forward with a lack of ability to compete well enough all round the pitch, it should come as no surprise that they find themselves struggling so much more than last year. The table makes for ugly reading but a few smart signings in January followed by some more clinical finishing could point the Blades in the right direction with a couple of positive results. If they can build together a solid run of form then they will hope to see confidence restored to the players, allowing them to live up to their performances of old. In summary, the outlook in the Steel City is very glum, but the lights haven’t completely gone out just yet.
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