Preview: Blades v Norwich City

It feels like ages since our last league match at the Lane, and after a disappointing start at Swansea, I’m itching to get back and hopefully see a performance (and result) more in keeping with what we witnessed last week at QPR. The Blades welcome a Norwich side that won here last season in, shall we say, frustrating circumstances – although many of the key protagonists from that particular heist have now moved on to other clubs.

Incidentally – seeing as we exacted some revenge at Carrow Road last season, and I waxed lyrical about our own game management last week – I’m willing to park the accusations of excessive time-wasting / injury-feigning etc for this week. Just don’t do it again, Norwich.

The opposition – Norwich City

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With every team having played at least two games, there are 11 still looking for that first league win of the season, of which Norwich are one. Even so, their games have been high on drama: a 2-2 draw at Birmingham saw goals in the 83rd, 89th and 94th minute, and then last week they were on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline at home to WBA.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their high-scoring start, their attacking numbers are very impressive through two games: they lead the league in both shots per game (18.5) and possession (61%). They have also created the second highest number of Expected Goals from open play (3.98), showing that those five goals are no fluke. They also missed a penalty against WBA.

On a very, very small sample size, this is a strong attacking team that like to shoot whenever they get the opportunity. Or even when they don’t get the opportunity – check out all the blocked shots from long range (grey arrows) from the WBA match.

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On the flip side… they’re also allowing the 6th-highest amount of shots-per-game (14.5) and the 7th-worst Expected Goals Against, having conceded six in two games. 0-0 looks unlikely.

Key Danger Men

Onel Hernandez – the winger has been Norwich’s main source of creativity so far, notching two goals and two assists already. His underlying numbers are also strong, with the second-highest Expected Assist numbers in the Championship having directly created 8 chances for teammates.

He’s a fast and direct wide player, and caused havoc against West Brom, predominantly driving down the left channel – hopefully we’ve learned from the Jefferson Montero treatment a few weeks ago.

Jordan Rhodes – I imagine plenty of United fans will groan at the thought of Rhodes playing against us this weekend: “well, he’s bound to score against us, isn’t he?” I mean… it’s not unlikely, he is a striker after all… though if he does, I’m not sure it’ll be because we were mean to him when he got subbed off at the Lane back in January.

The on-loan striker actually has the third-highest Expected Goals in the Championship so far, which doesn’t include his atrocious penalty miss last weekend. This shows that he puts himself in good positions to score, and could be a real threat if Hernandez and others can link up with him consistently. For what it’s worth I’ve always thought Rhodes was a good player at this level, and his finishing ability shouldn’t be in doubt – I think he’d have scored a hatful for us last season, for example – it just wasn’t happening for him at Wednesday for various reasons.

Expected Line-up – Norwich City

Predicted line-up for Norwich.

Predicted line-up for Norwich.

Norwich have lined up in a flexible 4-3-3 so far, with Tettey sitting deeper and allowing them to shift into more of a 4-1-4-1 when required. Hernandez and Teemu Pukki have often been their most advanced players, deployed wide of Rhodes and looking to get forward whenever possible. Both Hernandez and Pukki have tended to drift inside to get closer to Rhodes, which against Birmingham in particular allowed the excellent Ben Marshall to get forward from right-back.

Tim Krul replaces Angus Gunn in goal (I’m kind of relieved we don’t have to endure Gunn again) and is an excellent keeper. Grant Hanley and Timm Klose are a settled centre-back pairing and will be hoping that United won’t be able to create so many chances against them as they’ve given up so far this season.

Expected Line-up – The Blades

Predicted line-up for the Blades.

Predicted line-up for the Blades.

There are fitness question marks over Mark Duffy and two unnamed players, who were all reported to have a virus immediately after the Hull game. Assuming that there’s no further ill effects, I expect United to line up in a similar fashion to the QPR win, with one notable exception: the league debut of Oliver Norwood.

Norwood was hugely impressive midweek against Hull, with his progressive passing catching the eye, including a key first-time pass into Fleck to help create the equalising goal. I expect him to start over Chris Basham in central midfield, who deputised superbly in that spot at Loftus Road.

Defensively, as Jay wrote after QPR, we may have stumbled upon our best back three with Egan and O’Connell playing outside of Stearman. One thing we saw from that game was how the three stayed deep as much as possible, rather than having our wide CBs joining the attack. I expect (and hope, really) that that will be the case this weekend too, given the threat Norwich pose from those wide-forward areas with Hernandez particularly.

There is a small possibility that Wilder will consider how much more impressive we looked against Hull once we switched to a 4-3-1-2 with Fleck, Basham and Norwood as the three, and Duffy ahead of them. Certainly one to keep an eye on.

Match Predictions

Time for our bold, usually inaccurate predictions for how this game will go. As always, 1 point for getting the correct result, and 3 for the correct scoreline – Jay currently holds a 2-1 lead after predicting that we would get our first win last weekend.

Ben’s prediction: “I’m encouraged by what I saw at QPR, even if it was a moderate improvement rather than a complete turnaround from those first couple of games. With the signing of Norwood and Stearman back in defence, I think this will be our first home win of the season. I’ll go 3-1 to the Blades on the basis that there’ll likely be plenty of action at either end.

Jay’s prediction: “Really torn on this one. I want to believe that we will get some momentum after last week and kick on now. However, I'm not sure the defence and defensive shape is settled yet despite a good performance at QPR and looking at all performance stats Norwich look very dangerous especially Onel Hernandez. As cliché as it sounds, it’s all about the first goal. If Norwich get it then they have the pace and skill to kill us on the counter as we over-commit. Heart ruling head here I think and I'm going to go with a 2-1 win and Egan to score from an outrageous Norwood corner!”

Thanks for reading, and look out for our conclusions on the game early next week. UTB!

Data analysed by @Blades_analytic. This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform. (www.stratagem.co), (https://app.stratabet.com), (https://stratatips.co)

Ben MeakinComment