Conclusions from Blades 2-1 Norwich
Sheffield United claim a 2-1 win over Norwich City thanks to a late winner, and suddenly everyone's feeling a lot better about themselves. Here's my conclusions from a dramatic game at Bramall Lane.
1) That winning feeling
Is there a better feeling for United fans than seeing Billy Sharp nodding in the winner in front of the Kop? It’s hard to think of one, although I did also enjoy realising that the floppy-haired bloke in the orange shirt who’d joined the celebrations was not a pitch invader but was in fact Dean Henderson. Or an injury time winner against a team that frustrated us so much last season by taking gamesmanship to new levels. Or seeing Wilder charging up and down the touchline like we’d just clinched promotion. Or the speed with which Jordan Rhodes departed at full time.
Mostly, it was a welcome sensation to see United win at Bramall Lane again. Obviously we haven’t played many games here for the last few months, but our last win at the Lane was April 10th. Our last home win from a 3pm Saturday kick-off, incidentally, was November 4, 2017...
2) The Key Events
United started this one brightly, with Fleck shooting just wide before debutant Norwood had an effort deflected away after a clever layoff from Freeman. Norwood found Egan’s head from the ensuing corner, and the centre-back lofted the ball over the keeper and three inches over the line – thank you, goal-line technology.
Norwich had offered very little during the first 30 minutes but equalised with their first meaningful attack: O’Connell lost an aerial duel on halfway and United struggled to reshape. Basham moved across to cover Onel Hernandez, but got turned easily and the cross was tapped in by Jordan Rhodes, who unsurprisingly milked the celebrations in front of the Kop.
Clarke had a golden chance to put the Blades back ahead but keeper Krul saved from close range, and there were some huge chances for both sides to come in the second half. O’Connell forced another good save from Krul, and both Leonard and Egan went close with powerful headers. Norwich benefited from an absurd non-offside decision to end up with a 3-on-1 situation, with Henderson somehow keeping out Leitner’s effort. The Canaries would also hit the post from a corner and then flick the rebound over the bar.
United kept threatening with several crosses hacked clear, but it looked like the game was heading for a draw until Basham picked up the ball in midfield, floated a ball to McGoldrick at the far post, and the striker laid it off for Sharp – of course – to knock in from a few yards.
3) The stats behind the game
This felt an even game watching live, and the stats basically bear that out:
The one area United really edged was the territory %, which reflects how we both started and ended the game on the front foot. In terms of chance creation though, it was pretty even stuff – even if one of Norwich’s big chances (reminder: this is Opta’s definition of a chance that a player should “reasonably be expected to score from”) was clearly offside, more on which later.
4) Sharp makes his mark
This game was classic Sharp: one shot in 90 minutes, and it was from about three yards and ended up in the back of the net. That’s not to diminish the rest of his performance, but just to say that he remains a brilliantly efficient finisher. Simply, he scores goals – lots of them.
There was a weird, possibly tongue-in-cheek criticism of Sharp that floated around a few years ago, that he only scores tap-ins and penalties. Penalties are one thing, but scoring tap-ins is a genuine skill: you have to get in the right places at the right time, and be set for whatever chance comes your way.
The example I always think back to is Clayton Donaldson hitting the post from a few yards at home to Cardiff last season: he had a split-second to react to the cross, couldn’t sort his feet out, and the chance went by. Sharp scores tap-ins so often because he gets in the right spots and is almost always ready for the ball.
5) Set-pieces suddenly look a threat
This was a superb debut from Oliver Norwood, which I won’t dig into too much because I know Jay has something on the way. As good as he looked from open play, it was from set-pieces that he made arguably the biggest impact.
It’s no secret that we were pretty woeful from corners and freekicks last season, finishing 20th in the league in set-piece goals despite having more corners than any team bar Brentford. Against Norwich, and with Norwood delivering, we genuinely looked like scoring from pretty much every one.
There was a clipped corner to the edge of the area from which Fleck shot wide. Then a driven corner to the far post that Egan scored from. A curling freekick that O’Connell flicked goalwards to force a very good save. A whipped corner to the near post that Leonard flicked over, and a deeper one that O’Connell nodded wide. Five chances created from set-pieces alone, all from the boot of Oliver Norwood.
We had 9 corners on Saturday, 5 of which found a Blade and 4 of which directly resulted in chances. Either Norwich are terrible at defending set-pieces, or we’ve got ourselves a real asset that could make a difference in the kind of tight games that we often struggled to steal last season.
6) Egan impresses
Egan got his first goal for the Blades, and almost scored another when his powerful second-half header fizzed wide. But this was also a near-flawless defensive performance from our new centre-back, and exactly what we were hoping to see when we paid £4m to sign him from Brentford.
I was a little surprised to see Egan starting as the middle of our three centre-backs, given how well Stearman had performed there at QPR, but Egan played the “stopper” role superbly. He won 7/9 aerial duels – more than any other player on the pitch – and was tidy in possession too, completing at a 79.6% rate which included 25/34 forward passes.
Plus, on this evidence, “goalscorer Egan, assist Norwood” looks like something we might see a few more times this season.
7) The value of versatility
Wilder tried plenty in this one to keep the initiative in the game. We started in our usual 3-5-2, with Woodburn playing behind Sharp and Clarke, but when Woodburn was replaced by Ryan Leonard at half-time we shifted to a flatter midfield three. Later on, Wilder replaced the tiring Freeman with McGoldrick, moving Leonard to a wider-right position and having McGoldrick play off the strikers.
I can’t honestly say that I felt like this worked – alright, we scored a winner, but aside from that we only created one other chance from open play in the final 20 minutes – but the point I want to make here is the value of versatility, specifically when it comes to Leonard and Chris Basham.
Neither of these two are world-beaters – although Basham was excellent last season – but having them in our squad means that we can adapt our formation on the fly. Basham can, and has, played CB, RWB and CM in the last 12 months with us. Leonard has done likewise, with the bonus of being able to play in a more attacking role if required.
This was arguably Leonard’s best performance since he joined us. In 45 minutes he had three shots – two inside the box – completed 24 passes at an 86% rate, won 2 out of 2 tackles and had 7 ball recoveries.
Basham’s performance was a little more mixed – he was loose with his passing (60% completion, only 12/27 forward passes), completed 0/2 take-ons and 1/3 aerial duels. He was beaten very easily by Hernandez for Norwich’s goal. But he also had a team-high 9 ball recoveries and… well let’s just take a moment to appreciate the beautifully-flighted ball to McGoldrick that set up the winning goal.
8) Uh… linesman?
One of the weirder moments of this game came in the second half, when O’Connell slid into a tackle on halfway, the ball ricocheted off a Norwich player, and suddenly Leitner was through on goal. Sitting on the Kop doesn’t exactly give the best view of tight offside decisions, but I was nonetheless amazed that the linesman’s flag didn’t go up here. Leitner, with two Norwich players unmarked to his left, decided to shoot and Henderson made an excellent save.
I honestly have no idea what happened here. Imagine losing a game to a goal like this.
I've since seen that Wilder told Radio Sheffield afterwards that the fourth official had told him that the goal would not have been allowed, as any confusion as to who played the ball forward would have been cleared up by the officiating team. Call me a cynic, but I'm just glad Henderson saved it.
9) Way too early summary of where we are
I know, I know – we’ve only played four games, most teams have only played three, the table means nothing etc etc. But hey, let’s have a quick appraisal of our current situation anyway.
The Blades sit 9th, having lost to two teams above us (Boro 1st, Swansea 7th) and beaten two teams below us (QPR 24th, Norwich 20th). As early as these early days are, this is pretty much exactly what I expected in terms of points on the board and league position.
I came into the season predicting us to finish in the 7th-10th range, purely on the strength of our squad relative to some of the big spenders in the division (and there seem to be more of them than usual). I can’t say I’ve seen much to convince me otherwise: we’re still a striker short, competition at LWB would be useful (although Stevens had his best game of the season here), and the defence still hasn’t convinced.
But if we end up finishing 7th-10th – ie, winning more games than we lose – adding players of the talent of Norwood, and having a few more fantastic moments like we did at around 4:50pm Saturday, then I’m going to be a pretty happy punter. A painful start to the season now looks like a decent one, thanks to one decisive moment from that fat lad from Sheffield.
Update: this article originally stated that United's last home win at 3pm on a Saturday was Boxing Day - this was incorrect. Thanks to Revolution of the S24SU forum for correcting me!