Analysing United's defeat to Derby

I’m not quite sure when losing a football game became such an issue but Saturday evening showed clearly how that tide has changed. The Blades went down 2-1 to Frank Lampard’s Derby County™ on Saturday evening and the ensuing outcry has been somewhat of a surprise to me personally, as quite frankly I didn’t feel we were half as bad as some of the comments have been. On the flip side I was as frustrated as anyone with the second half performance after such a promising comeback in the first 45 minutes and while I’m not overreacting or predicting sheer doom and gloom there were some traits to that second half performance that went some way to explaining why we did lose a game we looked quite in control of.

Game Events and Facts

Take the emotion out of the equation for a second and look at the facts below (I’ve split them out by half as the difference in performance was quite apparent to anyone who saw the game.


Clear to see that we dominated the 1st half and got pretty dominated in the 2nd half, although lots of Derby’s efforts in the 2nd half came from low % chances. The Blades only managed 1 attempt at goal in the 2nd half.  The stats alone tell a story.

The whole point of trying to analyse United for the fans is to explain why this downturn in performance actually happened. This is exactly why I have included some of the more “obscure statistics” above. Average Formation height is quite self-explanatory. It looks to give an indication of how high a team was playing. Sheffield United have a high average defensive line in most games we play. We play in the opposition half and this reflects in the data. Now the average shown above doesn’t look too bad I guess, we had dropped our defensive line 5m by average.

However, between the minutes of 61-75 our average defensive height was just 46m from our own goal. That’s a 12m drop in height and shows how far we were pushed back by Derby who peaked at a height of 58m in this timeframe just before the winning goal.

Linked to this is how much our pressing actions fell away in the 2nd half. In the 1st half Derby only managed approximately 10 passes before we engaged with a tackle, interception or physical duel. In the 2nd half that average shot up to 15 passes before any defensive action. That allied with the significant drop in defensive height is beginning to form a picture. We were pushed back, allowed ourselves to drop off and did not engage Derby anywhere near as much.

How did we get pushed back so much?

Without going all Gary Neville on a touchscreen, there were a couple of key elements to why Derby pushed us back in the 2nd half. Firstly, Forsyth and Bogle, the Derby fullbacks, played much higher up the pitch. Their wide men Lawrence and Waghorn also moved higher up the pitch and came inside to form a more central 3. This occupied all 3 United CBs, leaving no one spare.

To combat this the Blades wing-backs, integral to our attacking play, had to come back further to help out on the defensive side of the game. Derby also played Harry Wilson and Mason Mount high up the pitch from centre midfield pushing back John Fleck and making Mark Duffy more redundant as the game wore on. Those 2 Derby Midfielders also helped to press United on the ball in our defensive 3rd which had the effect of us struggling to play out from the back, something we are quite famed for.

The snapshot below shows the difference in Derby’s full back positioning in attack. Mason Mount in the centre of screen has just switched the play to the left and Forsyth the left back is hugging the touching line high in the Blades half. Freeman is considering the threat of Tom Lawrence (highlighted in green) and the Derby left back.


Next, here’s an example of how Derby pushed their wide men - along with Marriott - directly on to the Blades 3 CB’s, leaving no one spare to sweep up loose balls or to mark oncoming runners from Derby’s advancing Midfield area. This also had the effect of engaging our wing backs, normally very offensive players, in a more defensive manner.


The next screenshot below is in the 72nd minute, just before Derby’s 2nd goal.  Look at the space being afforded to the left-back Forsyth. Derby had some excellent passing sequences and rotation to create and exploit this space prior to the final ball but this goes to show the dilemma facing Kieron Freeman. He is being asked clearly to tuck in by his CBs (ideally in this scenario Bash should be pushing Freeman out wide more as he is actually free, however most of this segment of the game Derby had 3 players directly on our CBs as shown above).  


Finally, the winning goal screenshot below. At this point, Duffy has been subbed and Coutts is on. The Blades have lost attacking threat and out balls from the back and are basically penned in as can be seen by not only the deep midfield shape but also fact Leon Clarke and David McGoldrick are both in the picture too.

In the picture we see Jack Marriott, Tom Lawrence and just out of shot Florian Jozefzoon who are all occupying our CBs. Yet again Kieron Freeman has been tucked in. This has allowed Forsyth opportunity and time to step forwards into acres of space as Freeman was so heavily tucked in keeping our defensive gaps tight. He is now being asked to go and press the left back. Bearing in mind Freeman was tiring at this point having gone through this exact same phase of play countless times.

As we know he did not get close enough and invited the cross. Marriott had cleverly positioned himself between Egan and JOC, as all good strikers do, and therefore when the cross was perfectly in his path neither were anywhere near close enough to make a challenge. On Saturday evening I was screaming at Freeman and Stevens for not “closing down” enough on crosses. They didn’t close down quick enough for sure, BUT DO NOT underestimate how much work they were doing shifting from a back 5 to then pressing out wide. It was simply poor positional play from the whole defence in organising this but Freeman should indeed have got out there quicker.

So, It looks like were poor and made some basic errors?

Yes and no. We certainly did make some basic individual errors. Regardless of how much I or anyone breaks down the game, the cross for the 2nd goal shouldn’t have been allowed to happen and any CBs of quality (and we certainly have 2 of those) SHOULD be defending that cross into the box to 1 striker. However, as Wilder said himself post game, we should have been leading at half time.

Now, that isn’t to say we had lots of missed clear cut chances, SUFC simply don’t operate like that. As all Blades know we don’t take many efforts at goal, but when we do invariably the final ball is to someone unmarked in the penalty area, as per our equaliser. Now in this game there were countless examples of situations where the Blades did everything right EXCEPT the final ball. I’ve included some screenshots below of opportunities where we crossed the ball and over hit the cross or didn’t hit it to the right area.

Example 1

Enda Stevens, who was actually quite excellent overall especially offensively, has beat his man and is in perfect crossing position. Look at the options he has, David McGoldrick is clearly in for a slide across the 6 yard box. Billy Sharp is a pullback option and Kieron Freeman is absolutely in at the back post.


Stevens ends up trying to find Mark Duffy (no, I’m not too sure why either?) and the attack is cleared away.

Example 2

I’m NOT picking on Enda at all. Those who know me and my content will know I am co-chair of the #EndaDefenda club. However, example 2 is a real killer to look back on even now. Stevens’ plays a wonderful 1-2 with Fleck, he’s brilliantly in down the left, in perfect position to simply whip this one across the 6 yard box where Billy is clearly in open space and onside.  Instead, the ball is drilled high and over everyone including McGoldrick at the back post. This is clear example of a situation that in any other game this season Stevens’ service has been excellent and no doubt leads to a high % chance.


Example 3

Time to pick on the opposite wing back now although everyone was guilty of the final ball issue. Freeman is played in down the right after some patient build up play. Bash, as the Blades do despite what Paul Parker may think, has wandered into the penalty box and is completely open. Freeman’s cross isn’t actually awful, he fizzes one across the 6 yard box but it’s far too hard for Bash who clearly should be the intended target given the close attention being paid to the strikers.


All in all a very good 45 minutes against a potential top 6-8 side and pretty poor 45 mins after. Nothing to get worried about, our final ball has been very good in our 12 games this season previous and I have no doubt will continue to be good moving forwards. Any one of those crosses hits their intended target/area and we go in at half time winning the game and perhaps a different story.

Of course there are reservations that we couldn’t quite hold out for at least a point in a game where we under the cosh, and that is something I will hold with United for a while as I still don’t think we are quite “there” in that game situation especially against “bigger” sides. However, please do not allow general over reaction to affect fact and most of Blades’ out there knowledgeable opinion. One game has not made us a poor team nor does 1 result require sweeping changes. Analyse, refine improve. I have no doubt that this side under the best manager in the league will do just that.

Jay Socik3 Comments