PREVIEW: QPR v Blades
Even the most optimistic of Blades fans would acknowledge that this has been a far from ideal start to the season, with real concerns as to what we’ve seen so far on the pitch.
Are two losses to Swansea and Middlesbrough catastrophic? Of course not. However, by the same token do we have some issues that need fixing very quickly in our performances from those first 2 games? Absolutely. Set pieces, chance creation from open play, defensive leaks, tactical set up and team selection are all issues heading into this weekend’s game at Loftus Road.
Creativity and Duffy
I have seen many different suggestions of what the starting 11 should be come Saturday at 3pm. Without doubt, the overriding feeling is: Mark Duffy has to play.
Last season with Duffy starting, the Blades' win percentage was 50%. In games where Duffy wasn’t involved at all that dropped to 30%. Naturally there’s a lot more to these numbers than simply “play Duffy and we win”, but even at 32 and seemingly incapable of lasting 90 mins, he’s unquestionably one of our best players. Our creator-in-chief from last season had a short cameo on Tuesday evening and in 25 minutes of football created more big chances, played more key passes and created the highest quality of chances out of the whole United squad that night.
Ben has discussed the effect game state had on our statistics from that game – namely that Boro would have taken their foot off the pedal at 3-0 - but it should not be ignored the impact Duffy had. We simply look a more creative and threatening team with him on the pitch, picking up pockets of space in the half spaces between an opposition defence and midfield.
Midfield – 2 or 3… and who replaces Evans?
There’s been debate for months now about the best configuration of our 3-man midfield, or even if we should move away from a 3 at all. As fans, we have no idea if Duffy simply was not fit enough to start the previous 2 games, and with Ben Woodburn only recently coming into the club it almost made sense to play players who knew the tactics, style of play and the demands of a Chris Wilder system.
However, even advocates for the system and players used cannot deny that it simply has not worked in these two games. The “flat” 3 has forced John Fleck out wide left (although Fleck had some of his best games last season drifting left to support Stevens, I have the heat maps and his average positioning for his key passes to back this up!) and both John Lundstram and Lee Evans have not really defined their roles.
All has now changed due to the surprise sale of Evans to Wigan, on a “loan to buy” deal which will become the most over used phrase in the next couple of weeks. For what it’s worth I think Evans was a decent player. He was neat and tidy, technically good with nice passing range. His limitations always appeared in tight areas where he is not the quickest with feet or thought. In terms of his overall creativity, he did contribute two wonderful goals against Boro last season and help plug the Paul Coutts-shaped hole from January 2018 onwards. That said, I don’t feel his sale is a significant loss.
With that in mind I expect us to go two in the middle at QPR. My pick for those two would be Fleck and Ryan Leonard. I think Lundstram has been okay to start the season – at least, not as bad as some would have you believe - but I feel now could be the time to give Leonard his opportunity. Leonard at Southend brought physicality, fantastic ball recovery numbers and excellent tackling stats backed up with some good passing numbers. We have not seen the best of him yet – in fact, we’ve barely seen anything at all, apart from a few appearances at RCB - and now could be his chance.
2 or 1 up top?
Another interesting argument is how should Wilder approach our forward line. With only 3 options available in McGoldrick, Clarke and Sharp, none of whom are fast enough to pull the opposition defensive line around, I feel there’s a case for playing both Duffy and Woodburn off a main striker, who I suggest should be Sharp given he hasn’t started a game so far.
In just 63 minutes played so far Woodburn has contributed 3 key passes (joint 2nd highest in squad) and has attempted more dribbles than anyone (admittedly a 1 in 4 success rate isn’t good but in his case it’s the creativity he is trying to express). His movement, freshness and ability to create for himself mean he can occupy opposition attention, giving Duffy the small spaces he requires to be influential.
With Sharp: despite Leon’s excellent season last year, Billy still had the higher Expected Goals per 90 (Sharp 0.58 compared to Leon 0.48) and I think this sums up why I would give our captain the chance on Saturday. xG per 90 is essentially a way of expressing that he gets in the right places at the right times, and right now we need exactly that.
Quick note defensively: I don’t envisage or call for any changes. We need to allow the defence to settle and gel. We need stop the individual errors and system errors I pointed out in my Boro piece earlier in the week, and be a resolute unit again, giving us the foundations to build a performance and a result.
QPR lined up in a 4-2-3-1 against Preston in their 1-0 loss. Since Steve McClaren was appointed earlier in the summer he has tried to implement a passing style, with lots of ball retention and playing out through the defence in a controlled manner. That said, against Preston they only managed 40% possession and seemed to be happy to sit back and try and counter.
In terms of threat, QPR possess pace on the wings. Both Eberechi Eze and Bright Osayi-Samuel are fast, tricky wingers who carry a great threat in 1v1 situations and in transition.
Key Danger Men
Luke Freeman - the main threat will come from a player whom is widely known to be wanted at Bramall Lane. Over the years Blades fans have become all-too aware of Freeman’s abilities: his passing and dribbling are of the highest standard in this league and the number and quality of chances he creates are astonishing, particularly for a side who finished in lower-midtable last year.
Matt Smith – the formidable frame of Smith will clearly provide an aerial threat against a defence that has struggled against crosses so far. Smith’s height will also be a help when defending set-pieces, but from open play we may get some joy from crosses ourselves. QPR allowed Preston 27 crosses in their first game (highest in the league) and if allowed the same and if our delivery quality increases we could find ourselves with plenty of opportunity to create out wide, isolating full backs or wingers with our overloads.
Up the Blades predictions
Each week Ben and I will be competing to get the correct result and if possible score line. 1 point for getting the result right and 3 points for a correct score line. After a slow start the current standings have Jay on 1 point (predicting a 1-0 loss for the Blades away to Boro) and Ben on 1 point (also predicting a Boro win but this time 2-1). The QPR predictions are as follows:
Ben’s prediction: “1-1. No shame in losing to Swansea and Boro but the performances haven't been up to scratch so far. We got it together in the second half v Boro but hard to read too much into that given that they could just sit off us (although in theory that would make it harder to create against them, yet we did). Duffy will surely start, fitness permitting, and I think we'll get our first point of the season. Defending so far is extremely worrying so it's hard for me to believe we'll keep a clean sheet until I see some evidence that we've got it together.”
Jay’s prediction: “Torn on this one. QPR has never been easy for us Blades and despite a pretty poor team on paper they possess pace which I think hurts us a lot. That said one thing this team have always done under Wilder is react. If Duffy starts, perhaps even with Woodburn, and we freshen up the midfield shape to define their roles more clearly I think we could win this one. We should have plenty of the ball so how we use it is very important. It’s what we do without the ball that concerns me most but having shipped 5 in 2 games I am expecting the defence to step up and be solid. Blades 1-0 win is my best bet, come on you red and white wizards!”