Profiling Sheffield United’s unprecedented rise to European contention
Sheffield United have been this season’s surprise package in the Premier League and look on course to finish comfortably in the top half of the table – or even qualify for European competition.
Manager Chris Wilder has admitted to using a data-driven approach in acquiring signings being a main focus, and the clubs partnership with SciSports has been highlighted recently in the English media.
But with the foundations of the squad having never played in the Premier League before – just who are those prominent starters who make the team tick?
HENDERSON KEEPING IN LINE
Strength in rear-guard action is vital for any team to be successful, and with goalkeeper Dean Henderson, Sheffield United are certainly in good hands.
The charismatic Manchester United loanee has certainly impressed, following a few loan spells across the English Football League in the last few years where he has flourished.
His progression has seen him rise through four divisions in four years, and as he cements himself as a Premier League regular his stock has risen massively – boasting a SciSkill Rating of 115.6 and a Potential SciSkill of 130.1, further outlining the promise for further development.
The 23-year old has played in all but one of United’s 28 Premier League outings this campaign, having sat out a 3-3 draw against parent club Manchester United.
Henderson has only conceded 22 goals in 27 appearances, as well as earning 10 clean sheets in the process; an exemplary record only bettered by Liverpool’s Alisson (12) and Burnley’s Nick Pope (11).
Chirs Wilder’s men are renowned for their defensive strengths rather than attacking power, and Henderson is an aid averaging 2.5 saves a match.
Another trait of Henderson’s playing style as a Line Keeper, which reflects his great shot stopping ability and recovering quickly.
This trait also suggests that he isn’t on the ball as much as other goalkeepers, and he doesn’t insist on passing the ball round the back – averaging 5.4 passes into the final 3rd per 90 minutes.
STEEL AT THE BACK
There is a unique nature to this United team, none more so than the continued consistency of the defensive ranks and formation.
Wilder sets out his team in a 3-5-2 formation, with scope for the wing backs to sit deep, and such a system allows a combative central defence to dominate in both an offensive and defensive sense.
All three played over 40 games in 2018/19 at a lower level, and Jack O’Connell, John Egan, and Chris Basham have all made the step up in a relatively unchanged team.
The unrivalled nature of the formation is that it allows the centre backs to spread and create width, and to bring the team up the pitch in the process – especially O’Connell who acts as a left sided centre back.
The 26-year old provides an intriguingly excellent contribution offensively, as himself and teammate Basham bode the highest contribution in terms of crosses from any centre backs in the league.
Paramount to this is the team’s style of play, with unselfish runs and sprints from others allowing the pair to attack when possible.
Wing backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens can fill in, allowing others to complete marrowding runs out of the defence and to provide an outlet.
The two also provide many more forward passes – and long passes – due to their roles, compared to a central Egan.
United’s central midfield pairing proved formidable in helping United to a 2nd place finish and automatic promotion in 2018/19 and have both been ever present again this season.
The midfield three has encompassed Norwood as the base, with John Fleck and John Lundstram either side – with the latter proving the most attacking minded of the three.
Though it is Norwood who is the fluidity in the teams transition up the field, and the Northern Irishman has gained many plaudits in his Premier League bow.
In comparison to defensive minded midfielders in the Premier League, the Contribution Ratings metric suggests Norwood’s crossing is by far the best of any defensive midfielder in the league – a stat which proves that with willing players around him he has freedom to roam the field with confidence.
However, his positioning has proved to be a strength and this allows the likes of Lundstram to join attacks.
January’s Transfer Deadline Day also saw the midfield ranks boosted with an exciting signing for the future – young Norwegian starlet Sander Berge making the move from Belgian side Genk to Bramall Lane.
Since his arrival he has been phased into the team and has made four appearances – three of which starts – which in turn has left John Lundstram to look on from the subs bench.
Lundstram is of Norwegian descendancy himself and proved to be a commendable starter throughout the season – having only started five Championship games in the previous campaign.
The 22-year old Berge provides promise not only for his attacking value – which saw him produce by far the best attacking contributions of any central midfielder in the Belgian League before his departure – but also his ability to intercept and break up play deems him leaves him a near perfect fit for Sheffield United’s affluent style of football.
A NEW LYS OF LIFE FOR MOUSSET
For a promoted side, the summer saw little change in terms of first team personnel at the Yorkshire club and in turn made them most people’s favourites for relegation.
This assessment could not be any further from the truth and despite not being household names, the signings who have come through the doors have all made a worthwhile difference.
A combined 27 million pounds was spent on forwards Oliver McBurnie and Lys Mousset – A pair had a relatively little Premier League experience between them.
And Mousset had failed to make much impact in the league with AFC Bournemouth.
The Frenchman has proved his worth, as in a relatively defensive minded set-up Mousset has offered the best quality in terms of an attacking outlet.
In 25 appearances, the striker has five goals and four assists to his name – a much better return than rivals for his position.
His offensive impact is resoundingly higher than his counterparts up front, and his passing especially stands out as his most influential trait.
Despite only 30 goals this season in the league – with the pair contributing nine of them – United’s selection of strikers means they can play in various ways.
Even though Mousset is more attack minded, McBurnie’s stats show a contrasting nature.
United work hard from the front and playing with two traditional strikers allows them to hunt the ball down quickly and cause the opposition defence problems.
Although the 23-year old does not possess the same attacking stats as his counterpart Mousset, he offers the best defensive stats of any Premier League forward alongside teammate David McGoldrick.
McBurnie’s contribution in terms of interceptions is certainly impressive compared to those in his position, reflecting the workman-like nature of himself and the team.
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