Top of the league: quarter-season conclusions
Sheffield United, top of the league. Did not expect to be saying that at this stage, never mind after losing our first two games. Yet here we are: 12 games played, 8 wins, 1 draw and 3 defeats. You don’t get a prize for being top in October but damn, doesn’t that table look good.
Here’s some quarter-season conclusions off the back of three wins in a week culminating in beating Hull this weekend. Let’s start by trying to work out exactly how we’ve found ourselves in this position.
1. Similarities to last season
A huge thing for me: it’s not like we’ve come into this season with some new gameplan or style that has taken the league by storm. Last season we drew a lot of (deserved) praise for our ability and willingness to get our wide centre-backs involved in the attack, and teams came to adapt to it (there were plenty of other factors that contributed to our drop-off in form, but this was definitely one). The fear was that we’d been “found out”; indeed, that we’d be in for a real struggle this season based on our form in the last few months of 2017/18.
And it’s not because we’re playing differently to last season, we’re just playing better. We still play high up the field, working the ball in and around the box and looking to create high-quality chances rather than shooting on sight. Our wingbacks are still as likely to be seen in the opposition area as our own. Basham and O’Connell still drive forward with the ball. We still play the ball into feet, in and around teams, with Duffy pulling defenders out of position.
But we’re doing all these things at a higher level than we saw in the second half of last season – arguably better than in the first half of that season, in fact. The ball moves faster. Our defence has some new pieces that make it more solid. We’re a threat from freekicks and corners, and getting goals from all areas of the team.
We’ve got better at managing tight games. We’ve already had more come-from-behind wins than we did in the whole of 2017/18. And it’s all been done (so far) without the key cog of last season’s success, although he did make his first-team return this week.
2. Topping the table is no fluke
Another thing that’s very satisfying: we’re at the top of the league on merit. By any measure you care to use, we’ve been one of the best teams in the league through twelve games. No-one has won more games. Only four teams have conceded fewer goals, and only two have scored more. We’ve scored the third-highest number of goals from open play.
We allow the third-lowest shots against us per game. We have the most touches inside the opposition penalty area. We take the third-highest number of shots inside the six-yard box, and the second-highest number inside the penalty area. And we’re good at it, too: we have the joint-second highest number of goals from inside the six-yard box. We create and score tap-ins:
Advanced metrics also make for extremely satisfying reading. Infogol’s latest Expected Table (based on chances created and conceded in each team’s game – Expected Goals) has us as the second-best team, behind only Brentford. Jay runs a similar model: his table after 10 games had us third.
Genuinely, we are up at the top of the league because we deserve to be there. This is great not just from a “satisfaction” point of view, but it also shows that we’re not over-performing and getting points that we don’t “deserve”. Which, in turn, suggests that this kind of form could be sustainable for a long period…
3. But what about Leeds etc
Alright, a legitimate caveat: of the other teams in the top six, we’ve only played Middlesbrough so far. By definition, our games with WBA, Leeds etc will be hard matches and will probably bring down some of the metrics I’ve listed above.
That said, twelve games is a solid sample from which to draw conclusions: it’s roughly a quarter of the season, and means we’ve played half of the other teams. And our fixture list hasn’t been a total cakewalk either: returning to Infogol’s Expected Table, we’ve played the team in 4th (Birmingham), 5th (Boro), 7th (Norwich), 9th (Bristol City) and 12th (Blackburn).
Also, those wins over teams at the bottom? Those points still count at the end of the season. In 2017/18 we lost at least one game to the teams who finished 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 21st and 22nd. This season so far, we’re brushing aside those teams.
4. Everyone looks an upgrade
There were plenty of questions raised about our transfer activity this summer, particularly by those who hoped we’d be able to land a first-choice striker. As it stands, many of our signings so far look like they’ll be added to the same list of Wilder masterstrokes as Fleck, O’Connell and Duffy, and not the relative disappointments of Leonard, Holmes and Wilson.
Our acquisitions have generally be excellent, with John Egan exemplifying that: a consistent 7 or 8 out of 10 every single week, and two particularly strong performances in our wins over Blackburn and Hull this week. We spent relatively big money for a proven Championship centre-half, and that’s exactly what he looks like.
David McGoldrick has been a class act and has a pair of assists to go with his five goals. Dean Henderson’s hilariously-enthusiastic goal celebrations shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s been near-flawless on the occasions when our defence isn’t able to protect him: like Egan, he was superb against Hull with one particularly big save to keep the clean sheet.
We’ve seen less of Marvin Johnson, Ben Woodburn and Conor Washington so far (and less still of Kean Bryan and Martin Crainie), but all were low-risk signings and I have no doubt we’ll need all three as the season goes on.
I’m not forgetting anyone, am I?
Oh, yeah, that Norwood guy. He’s been… okay… I guess…
Summary: an incredible amount of passing, at extreme accuracy, and high creativity. As anyone who’s watched United in the last few months will know, this is not a case of a guy sat on the halfway line completing short passes to open teammates.
We’ve also taken 22 points from a possible 27 since he joined. It’s hard to imagine a player better built for the way we play. He’s the Coutts Replacement we’ve been looking for ever since the man himself suffered that injury, and – whisper it quietly – he may even be better…
5. Coutts returns
It’s hard not to be a bit sentimental seeing Paul Coutts back playing football at Bramall Lane. Remarkably, the opponents for Coutts’ last appearance at the Lane? Hull City.
It’s been a long road back from that terrible injury, and to an extent it’s great that our midfield has been so good this season that we’ve been able to reintroduce him gradually. He made his first appearance as a sub in the win over Blackburn, and didn’t look like he was holding back.
Against Hull he came on in the 66th minute to another huge ovation, and contributed to some brilliant olé-keepball in injury time as we danced away from tackles and held onto possession.
He “only” completed 17 out of 18 passes though, including one that led directly to Hull’s best chance, but I’ll allow it at this stage of his recovery. He almost never gives the ball away…
6. Away form makes for a brilliant week
I will freely admit that at no stage did I imagine we’d take six points from Millwall and Blackburn away, never mind making it a full nine in a week.
Millwall might be lower-midtable, but at home they’re still a tough test: only us and Swansea have won there so far, with Boro, Leeds, Derby and Villa all dropping points. Furthermore, we went behind in this game (somehow, given how on top we were) and still came back to turn it around.
Then Blackburn: you’ll surely know by now that they boasted an impressive 25-game unbeaten home record, and had taken to life in the Championship like a Dack to water (sorry. That’s staying in). Again, some top teams had dropped points there: Villa, Forest, Brentford. And we turned up, played the way we play, and marched off with a comfortable victory and plenty of plaudits from the opposition.
A big part of our drop-off last season was our away form, where we averaged 1.2 points per game compared to 1.8 at home. So far this year we’ve won four of our eight away games (2 points per game), which is already half of our total away wins from last season.
Our home form has rolled on into this season (2.1 ppg). That’s probably going to come down (although Wolves, Cardiff, Villa and Fulham all averaged more than that last season, so it’s not absurdly high), but even if it does, an uptick in away form should offset those points.
7. Change of shape vs Blackburn
I wrote after the Preston game about how I was concerned that we’d changed shape to change the flow of the game, and it hadn’t worked (at all). Blackburn was a different situation and a very encouraging one.
At half-time, Rovers switched formation to match ours - something Tony Mowbray later revealed he’d been considering from the start. And it definitely worked for Rovers, as they enjoyed their best spell of the game for 20 minutes, completing double the amount of passes as United and taking three shots inside the box.
It carried memories of the Bristol City defeat, where a strong first-half slipped away from us - but this time our changes had a positive effect. Basham moved higher up the pitch with the rest of the defence reorganising into a back four. McGoldrick began dropping deeper and almost played like a wide midfielder on occasions. And United wrested back control of the game and clinched a deserved win.
8. International break vs rotation
A hot topic this week was whether Wilder would make changes to our strongest team – the one that won at Millwall – given that we’d be playing three games in a week. I’m sure you remember that we made five changes for the Birmingham game (although one was Fleck returning for Lundstram), and it coincided with probably our worst 90 minutes of the season.
As it happens, Wilder named an unchanged team for all three games – and wasn’t exactly saving legs by making early subs. Duffy completed 90 minutes against Millwall, then followed it up with 74 at Blackburn and still started against Hull. McGoldrick and Sharp all played a large chunk of both games, and our two wingbacks – who probably put in as much work as anyone – played all but 15 minutes out of a possible 540 combined.
As much as I want to see our best players on the pitch all the time, this still felt like a gamble. What will be stronger: our best eleven playing at, say, 80% sharpness, or a slightly-weakened eleven who can go 100%? Of course, Wilder will know the actual fitness of these players far better than me. But while I didn’t particularly want to see rotation, I would have understood it in the interests of freshness in the short and long-term.
We definitely looked a little turgid, or leggy, as the game wore on yesterday, with most of our good chances arriving in the first half. But ultimately this was a gamble that paid off: three wins and now a two-week break for those players who aren’t on international duty.
9. Enjoy it, Blades
I don’t mean this in the way Wednesday fans would likely mean it, but: enjoy this while it lasts, Blades. If you think about the amount of crap we’ve endured in the last ten years, the last 30 months or so under Wilder and Knill have been out-of-this-world good.
Our football is fantastic. We have a Blade as captain and top-scorer, as well as manager. We have big crowds watching us win most of our home games. We score lots of goals. We’re top of the damn league despite being found out, not spending any money, and being too reliant on a midfielder who’s been injured for almost a year. The only way it can get better is if it keeps going.
As I say, you don’t win anything in October. But it is better to be looking down from the summit than trying to claw back ground, and what a brilliant view it is from up here.
See you at Derby.