Conclusions from QPR 1-2 Blades
First one in the bag and that winning feeling returns for the Blades at the third time of asking. Here are 11 conclusions from a much more positive weekend and a much better tasting pint at the end of it all…
1) The Key Events
In terms of performance, the Blades were not fantastic in a free flowing sense, but did demonstrate some much needed steel. The game itself as an encounter was quite entertaining. QPR certainly started the more threatening of the two sides with the dangerous Eberechi Eze clearly standing out from the opposition as their main threat.
The Blades were on the back foot for large periods of the first half and in the 29th minute Eze lashed home a strike from the edge of the area after a spell of pressure from the home side. Dean Henderson would go on to make a string of decent saves to keep out the ever-involved Eze, and he certainly stood out as one of the more impressive Blades performers.
After conceding United actually struggled to get a foothold in the game and the equaliser came against the run of play. Some quite brilliant combination play from the returning Mark Duffy and Kieron Freeman found Billy Sharp 1 yard out, and the Blades were back in the game. In the second half United did improve and in the 65th minute, substitute David McGoldrick was adjudged to have been fouled competing for a cross from Enda Stevens on the left wing. It was a controversial decision for some (Steve McClaren), but the resulting penalty was converted by McGoldrick for his first league goal in a Blades shirt.
The last 25 minutes was tight but the Blades showed some intelligent game management to limit the home side’s chances to only 1 shot from inside the box. Some solid defensive displays, topped by the returning and highly impressive Richard Stearman, saw out an excellent away victory and our first points of the season.
2) Team Selection – Wilder got it right!
I'm being tongue-in-cheek there of course - I'm sure Wilder would love to play Duffy every single game of the season.
Nonetheless, a theme of the first 3 games of the season has been the match day team selection. In the first 2 games, Wilder had opted for a 3-5-2 with the 3 CMs being much of a muchness in the middle: none showing a defined role or making huge strides to dominate a game. Either end of the pitch had also been brought into question with some basic defensive errors and some poor finishing creeping into recent performances.
On Saturday, the manager opted for the more recognisable 3-4-1-2. As expected this meant the return of Mark Duffy in the no 10 role (although more on his positioning later), and also returning for their 1st starts of the season were Richard Stearman, Kieron Freeman and Billy Sharp. The return of Stearman pushed Chris Basham alongside Fleck in a midfield 2 (again more on these 2 changes later). Often for fans result dictates if the manager does something right or wrong, on this site we aim to dig a little deeper than that but in this instance I feel Wilder got exactly what he wanted: a strong, battling performance built on solid foundations and work rate. All 4 of the changes contributed impressively.
3) Stats behind the Match
Despite the game being a generally tight affair, the Blades actually dominated some key statistics in the match and on balance of “quality” of chances created were perhaps deserved winners despite Dean Henderson having to make more saves than Matt Ingram.
Despite being outshot overall the Blades (as discussed many times before) steadied themselves into a strategy of creating high quality chances with a much higher chance of success. This led to the away side creating 2 “big chances” (by Opta definition) and having a much higher overall expected goals. Think of the equaliser and how Sharp literally couldn’t miss: that is what we mean by a high quality chance.
The other one to note here is the final category: Passes Allowed per Defensive Action or PPDA. PPDA is one way of measuring how much pressure a team applies to the opposition when they have the ball. In this game United were very much on the front foot, looking to be involved in challenging and competing for the ball as much as possible, with much of that down to moving Chris Basham into the middle of the park.
The other “key stat” here is that despite not completing as many passes as the home side, United did complete more passes inside the opposition final 3rd. Despite not dominating the ball in a style we have all become accustomed to, it appeared to me that we were aiming to be more efficient: not playing as many passes in the middle part of the pitch and instead moving the ball into the final 3rd quicker (although it did still stagnate here a bit too much for my and many fans liking!)
4) Basham the ball-winner
One significant change to the line-up and style was Chris Basham into a CM role alongside Fleck. The idea was easy to see: Bash would allow Fleck to be freer from defensive duties, and also add some additional strength, height and steel to the middle of the park. Simply put, it worked.
I am not a big advocate of Basham in this position - as many Blades fans do, I adore Bash and the qualities he brings to our club (to the extent that in a game last season he completed more successful dribbles from right centreback than Lionel Messi did for Barcelona at forward!). However, I do not think Basham has the quality on the ball to play this role more than a few games a season. That said his performance here was exactly what was needed. A breakdown of Chris Basham’s key involvements below shows how important he was the overall result:
As you can see Basham accounted for a lot of our “ball-winning” ability in the game. His opposition-half ball recovery numbers were fantastic (map of his recoveries below - United kicking left-to-right). His performance greatly contributed to our ability to close down QPR and limit many of their shots to areas where generally the chance of conceding was much smaller.
5) Freeman – Quality not Quantity
Earlier in the summer I wrote a piece comparing our 2 excellent RWBs and the headache Chris Wilder had in selecting either as a starter. Due to an injury to Baldock in the week leading up to the game in West London, Freeman was given the opportunity here, and he took it well.
Freeman showed his attacking output in quality moments in this game. There weren't many of them, but when it mattered most he had the intelligence to run into the space and play the perfect ball across for Sharp. Freeman only produced 2 crosses all game with the 1 cross accurate for Sharp, but it was the highest value expected assist pass (xA) in the whole game from either side. This shows not only his ability to pick out a final ball, but also his attacking intent to run and attack the space inside the opposition full back. It was a goal made in League One: Duffy to Freeman to Sharp.
The graphic below shows our attack flank bias and the expected goals created from that location (NOTE: the penalty counts from the “central” segment, so accounts for the majority of that xG). We actually had right hand dominance in our attack for the first time in a long time despite Stevens and Fleck on the left still being our most prevalent passing combination and having the most touches in the team.
6) Game management
Ben was so enamoured with our game management that he had to write this section.
Millwall (H). Barnsley (A). Cardiff (H). Brentford (A). All games in the latter part of 2017/18 in which United were ahead going into the last 25 minutes of the game. Total points from those four games? Three. Points therefore thrown away from a winning position? Nine. Position that United would have finished in the league table with those extra nine points? Fifth.
This is a simplistic version of events – reality, never mind football, doesn’t work that way – but my overall point is that our game management last season was horrible. Game management is a fancy description for the dark side of the game – taking time with throw-ins and free kicks, keeping men back, staying down if you get a whack.
Against QPR yesterday we took the lead on 65 minutes, kept playing for a bit, and then went into our shell. McGoldrick took a genuine knock and ended up being subbed off (dead leg), but Clarke also spent some time on the floor (again, a genuine knock on the head). We kept men back and didn’t overcommit. We took our time. And we saw the game out and held onto our three points with barely a tremor. This is how you win football games when you haven’t even played all that well.
Five minutes of added time were justifiably played. From the moment the board went up, the ball didn’t enter our half until 94:50 was on the clock. QPR didn’t complete a single pass outside their own penalty area in those five minutes.
United dominated the territory so much – winning throw-ins, free kicks, corners – that QPR completed just three passes in five minutes, all going backwards. This was a masterclass in seeing out the game, and a stark contrast to some of our naivety towards the end of last season.
7) A proper Blades Performance
As Wilder put it after the game; that was a "proper Sheffield United performance". I don't always subscribe to a “pashun” above everything narrative, but there is an undeniable aspect of our work rate being a big factor in winning this game.
That said, even though it's easy to say that we "out battled" the opposition (which I thought was the case), it actually isn’t true. In terms of total duels in the game there were 254 duels in which QPR won a (very small) majority (128). Josh Scowen was excellent for the opposition and won the majority of those in the midfield area.
The way United won this game was the pressure we applied to the ball. As mentioned above the Blades pressed the ball much harder and more often than QPR did. Added to this, for opponent-half ball recoveries united “out won” QPR 47-21. Compared to previous performances we played much higher up the pitch. This was a tactic employed early in Wilder’s reign and in our successful start to last season, and when employed in this manner, with the added game management and deeper defensive and midfield lines when winning the game, it can be highly effective.
8) Did we stumble on our future back 3?
The decision to play Basham as a CM also meant that the Blades had a new back 3 starting the game: Egan, Stearman, O'Connell. Stearman in particular was outstanding, demonstrating a strong individual performance but also noticeably organising Jack and Egan exceptionally well, allowing them to concentrate on their individual games.
O’Connell was back to being particularly dominant, winning a total of 11/15 duels (73%) while also being much better with his distribution with 19/20 forward passes successful (95%). The back 3 actually stayed as a back 3, with no real forays forwards. That said, as with the whole team the back 3 appeared to play higher up the pitch. Although this could well have contributed to allowing QPR, especially Eze, space to attack it also contributed to our pressing numbers as explained previous.
Once the Blades had taken the lead we dropped deep into a contained 5-3-2 formation, narrowing spaces and limiting QPR to 6 efforts at goal all with exceptionally low expected goals ratings. In essence, we defended expertly, defending the width of the posts and being organised in our shape. A vast improvement on previous weeks.
9) Eze catches the eye
Ben was also so enamoured with Eze's performance that he had to write this segment.
That was, uh, some performance from Eberechi Eze. The 20 year old attacker spent last season on loan with Wycombe Wanderers but looked like a potential star on this evidence.
Playing largely in an inside-left position – precisely where Mark Duffy is usually so effective - Eze took six shots and created two other chances for his teammates. And it wasn’t like he was having chances carved out for him by teammates – most of them were from long range and all but one was on target. Check out his shot map:
He also completed 88% of his passes, including 11/14 in the final third and penalty area. This was a brilliant showing and the exact kind of player we’ve struggled against in recent years: one with pace and trickery who typically plays in the space between our wingbacks and wide centre backs – an easy comparison is Ryan Sessegnon’s showing against us for Fulham at the Lane last season.
It does beg the question though: if Eze is so good, I’m sure QPR won’t mind us taking Luke Freeman off their hands?
10) How do we improve our left side?
A big theme for the first 3 games of the season has been the lack of fluency and output from our normally very strong left hand side, in particular the form of Enda Stevens and more worryingly John Fleck. Despite those 2 players having the highest number of touches of the ball (and therefore involvements), the only creative note from the left was the cross from Stevens to McGoldrick which eventually led to the penalty.
The pass map below shows average positioning of each player in the game, and their number of touches on the ball (bigger the dot more touches of the ball, the stronger the colour intensity the more passes were played.)
With the re-introduction of Duffy to the 11, what we see is a huge network of passing on the left hand side. Duffy tends to create best when in the left half space; Enda plays as a left midfielder and Fleck naturally drifts over to the left side to create the overload. Fleck to Enda and vice versa were actually our most prominent passing sequence with 11 passes between the 2 (highest in the game). Notice also how Leon plays deep and with more left hand side bias, again trying to create combination play with the others.
This could be seen in two lights: 1) we are trying to do too much on the left hand side or 2) that level of play on the left side drew the QPR defensive shape over, and that in turn created space for Freeman to exploit, specifically on the goal. I feel as though with Duffy and the addition of a more pacey striker we could play more centrally but still work the openings on the left hand side, and I trust Fleck and our left hand side to be more productive as the season progresses.
In all an excellent away win. We showed elements of our game which had not been seen this season and against a backdrop of building pressure produced a solid team performance that showed this squad have fight ability. Just in case we didn't already know. Well done lads!