Sheffield United have defied expectations this season. The Blades are flying high despite being written off by large sections of the media pre-season. Host of the Blades Pod, Ben Meakin, lifts the lid on the secrets behind their success.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Sheffield United have drastically exceeded expectations so far this season. We were the popular pick (and many bookies’ favourites) to finish bottom of the league, yet we’ve picked up 22 points from the first 16 games and sit in 8th place.
I wasn’t alone among Blades’ fans in thinking that we’d stay up this season – but I didn’t expect this start. At the time of writing, we’re unbeaten in our first eight away games, making us the first newly-promoted team to do so since Blackburn in 1992/93.
How has this happened? There’s plenty of reasons, but here are the three big ones.
A settled team playing in a settled system
Continuity has been a big part of United’s successful start to this season – as it has been right through Chris Wilder’s tenure of manager. We play with a lot of unusual positional rotation throughout the team – forwards dropping into midfield, centre-backs bursting beyond the strikers – which requires a lot of tactical discipline as well as physical effort.
Over the years we’ve seen plenty of new signings take a while to adjust to this system, which is why our team sheet has frequently been made up of ten or more players from last season’s Championship side.
At the same time, we spent money to strengthen our attack, even if only one of them, Lys Mousset, has forced his way into our first team. Players like Callum Robinson and Oli McBurnie haven’t reached Mousset’s levels yet, but they’ve still chipped in with vital goals and allowed us to rotate and keep key players fresh.
Out of the three promoted clubs, we’ve found a good balance between adding depth while keeping the majority of our team together and, so far, it’s paid off.
Attacking with greater speed
Wilder and his assistant, Alan Knill, deserve great credit for this start to the season. We were a possession-heavy team in the Championship but they correctly judged that we’d have less of the ball this season (we’re averaging about 50 passes less per game than last season) and so adapted accordingly.
Out went the number 10, who was key to much of our good play in the Championship, and we switched instead to a more versatile midfield three. Two of them – John Fleck and John Lundstram – are high-intensity midfielders, adept at both pressing and carrying the ball.
At the same time, wingbacks George Baldock and Enda Stevens play so far up the pitch that we tend to have a lot of bodies in the middle third to help win the ball back.
This has led to us playing much faster than before, winning the ball high and getting at teams before they have a chance to get back into shape. At times, our opponents have found this difficult to live with.
Spurs seemed stunned at the audacity of our wingbacks and centre-backs, flying into their penalty area during attacks, and Burnley were simply blitzed as we overloaded them time and again en route to a 3-0 first-half lead.
We rarely, if ever, played this way last season. Chris Wilder does get plenty of attention from the wider footballing world – he was the LMA’s Manager of the Year for last season, after all – but the way he and his team have been able to adapt as we’ve risen through the divisions in the last four years has been remarkable, and a joy to watch.
Keeping teams to zeroes and ones
Finally, the case for the defence. The main reason I thought we’d survive going into the season is we had the joint-best defensive record in the Championship last season, and we kept that core together by bringing back Dean Henderson on loan from Manchester United.
We conceded 16 goals less than Norwich, and 20 less than Aston Villa, while still being the 4th-highest scorers in the division. I expected this would give us a good base to build off, and so it’s proved.
We were riding a little bit of luck during the first 10 games or so in that we probably should’ve conceded more goals – but even so, all advanced stats point to United having a mid-table Premier League defence, which is excellent for a newly-promoted side.
Keeping that ‘goals conceded’ column down – only Liverpool and Leicester have conceded fewer – has been vital. On a game-by-game basis, we’ve only conceded two or more goals on four occasions this season.
Keeping teams to zeroes and ones means we’re always in with a chance of getting a point or three, and offsets the fact we just don’t have the attacking power of the other teams we’re currently rubbing shoulders with in the league table.
Follow Ben on Twitter @bnmkn