Conclusions from Bolton 0-3 Blades
Simply put: our best performance of the season by a mile. We dominated the game from the first minute and could conceivably have scored 4/5 if not for some outrageous saves by the opposition keeper, including one to deny McGoldrick what would have been a contender for goal of the season.
Here are 9 conclusions we can take away as well as 3 much deserved points from the Clayton Donaldson derby.
1) The stats behind the match
I think the above numbers speak for themselves and paint a clear picture of game dominance, but here’s a couple of things to point to focus on:
- Our xG against was the lowest we have had all season, and one of the lowest in the Championship so far.
- We had more shots inside the opposition box than in any other game this season.
- We continued our high action pressing style, with Bolton allowed only 8 passes before any tackle, interception or Blades challenge occurred. We continue to be one of the best teams in the division at employing this. Styles differ due to personnel, and no one is saying Bolton should be pressing the ball harder, but with our ability to win the ball and attack quickly it’s interesting to see that we try and force the action in the opposition half.
2) United are a stable top half team
I might live to regret this one! I think the past 3 games have shown us that we are a stable top half team. Wins against QPR, Norwich and Bolton may not be that much of a shock considering the opposition on paper but they are games that a solid top 12 Championship side “should” be winning.
Two of those three games were away from home, where we weren’t great last season (8 wins from 23 games). Despite all performance data stating otherwise, Bolton away had the potential to be a real battle. Instead we played them off the park: battled when we needed to, but dominated the game with our style and tempo. The side is becoming more settled, relationships and performances are trending upwards and the first 11 certainly looks good.
3) What’s this clean sheet you speak of?
We kept a clean sheet for the first time in 14 Championship games! We have to go all the way back to Ipswich away in March last season since the last one.
Although conceding even 1 goal wouldn’t have affected the result on Saturday this to me is a huge deal. Last season we only kept 10 clean sheets in total which ranked 19th in the league. We did not concede many goals in total (10th best defence in the league) but the lack of clean sheets did go some way to us finishing only 10th rather than closer to the top 6.
Saturday was a test in terms of physicality, fronting up to the battle of winning aerial duels and 2nd balls. The team as a whole were fantastic in a defensive sense specifically Jack O’Connell and the brilliant Chris Basham, both winning 6 and 4 aerial duels respectively (2 highest in the blades team). The Blades managed to restrict Bolton to only 2 shots on target and an xG of 0.4 (both the lowest an opposition has managed against us in our 5 games to date).
The stats were dictated more by our control of the game and our tactical setup (more on this in next section), therefore the defence and goalkeeper didn’t have much “desperate defending” to do, save an excellent Leon Clarke goal line clearance at 2-0. However, the confidence and the momentum from keeping a clean sheet cannot be underestimated.
4) Wilder set us up perfectly
As per normal, our gaffer once again got it spot on. After the resilient defensive efforts at QPR involving Richard Stearman, many fans thought that Stearman could be used for the obvious aerial bombardment that was going to come. Instead, Wilder and co trusted the back 3 to dominate the aerial battle and preferred to play our “ball playing” defenders to control the game.
We also had an exceptionally high defensive line, trusting that Bolton’s pace from central areas was not going to frighten us and allowing us to push up from our own box so that any aerial balls lost or 2nd balls lost could be picked up in less dangerous areas.
Most interestingly from our shape was how centralised we were. In general we play games with a shape that is very wide compared to others, mainly due to our wing back usage but also to help spread the pitch and try to create space. However, against Bolton we set up very centrally packing the middle of the pitch and outnumbering them - see our average position map on the right.
This is very interesting for the tactical nerds out there like myself. Why? Because we have clearly brought Stevens inside as an extra man in the midfield and forced Freeman up the pitch more in a right wing role. The reason for this is easy to explain with statistics: Bolton’s left hand side (defensively) is one of the worst in the division and therefore we knew there was potential joy to be had in this area, and in fact that’s where our first two goals came from.
5) Bashambauer dominates
Chris Basham was outstanding. I could easily list and break down everything that Basham bought to this game, but I think the first goal showed it all. Bolton won the ball and looked to be breaking out from the back, but as their player half-turns he is met by an aggressive front foot challenge by Bash who smashes into the Bolton player and takes the ball. Bash then plays a 1-2 with Freeman, continuing his run into the opposition penalty box before having the vision to cut the ball back for Duffy to strike first time and score.
I could go on about Basham’s “desire, aggressiveness and drive” (all worthy and normal terms to describe his input in a game) but on this occasion I’d prefer to give Bash more credit and focus on his intelligence and vision. His intelligence of when to press, to continue his run with Bolton now out of a set defensive position and his vision to cut the ball back to Duffy rather than smashing it across the box. This was the Chris Wilder version of Chris Basham we all love.
Here are some key Basham performance statistics that I think merit a man of the match award:
Notice the combination of defensive and offensive dominance? Bash influenced both sides of the game significantly. Even I agree that statistics cannot always tell the story of a performance and in this example it is even more the case. The United man’s desire to join the attack, and his influence and effectiveness, allowed Freeman to stay high up the pitch. Basham was fantastic both at RCB and at CM and his last 2 league performances have been magnificent.
6) The best midfield in town?
Perhaps in this regard I’m more pragmatic than some and think there are numerous qualified midfield partnerships to take this mantle in the Championship this season. However, it cannot be denied that that our midfield two of Fleck and Norwood, with Duffy complementing perfectly in the no 10 role, is potentially one of the best.
Norwood has transformed our style of play so significantly in two games that I already do not want to imagine a Blades side without him. For the second game in a row, he had the most touches (88) and the most completed passes on the pitch (74). He is already the heartbeat of this Blades side and everything good comes through him.
Far from just impacting games with his range of passing and set piece delivery, Norwood’s influence has also allowed John Fleck to perform to the high standards he set in the second half of last season. Fleck is a creative force: he has the ability to dictate a game with his passing, driving dribbling ability and he can arrive on the edge of the box with a sweet left foot to strike the ball. With Norwood’s passing range now getting the ball forward into dangerous areas more often, Fleck once again has licence to produce his key moments but be less involved in deeper areas of play: in essence he is playing where he can produce his best football.
Fleck was more of a goal threat in this game than in the previous 4, producing 3 shots, 1 goal and another that the keeper pushed onto the underside of the bar from Norwood’s corner. Fleck’s total xG for this game was 0.46; the Blades 2nd highest total and Fleck’s highest for a very long time - a hugely positive sign. Norwood again created havoc from corners and his set piece delivery is set to be a key asset to United this season. In short, with Paul Coutts still to return, I’m confident in saying that we have one of the finest midfields in the division.
7) The return of Stevens
Here at uptheblades.com you will find two people who describe themselves as an #EndaDefenda. Last season, save a slight drop off in the last 5 games, Stevens produced some of the best numbers in the division for a left back or left wing back. For a free transfer from Portsmouth he was quite simply one of the value signings of the season.
That said both Ben & I have agreed on BladesPod that Stevens’ performances in the early part of the 18/19 season have been poor. He seemed reluctant to cross the ball or attack his man and would often slow play down or be too far ahead of the ball to drive into any space. Considering he was consistently the player in our 11 with the most touches and involvements it was clear his impact in the game was dwindling but his involvements were not, not a good combination.
Fast forward to Hull in the cup, Norwich last week or Bolton on Saturday and you saw the player of last season. I spoke at length last season of how despite many fans opinion that Stevens had poor delivery, his expected assist numbers suggested otherwise. His underlying numbers suggested that, but for poor finishing from others, Stevens should have had between 8 or 9 assists, which would have placed him as the top assisting defender from open play in the league last season.
On Saturday Enda’s attacking output was very good, with his defensive contribution against Bolton’s most dangerous 1 v 1 player in Ameobi also very good. Here’s Enda’s pass map from StatsZone to highlight his involvement in our attacking build up (blue arrows completed passes, red incomplete, light blue are chances created, yellow is an assist).
Notice the deeper positions from which Stevens is completing his passes? This compared to earlier in the season is a huge difference. Stevens passing from deeper allows him to be playing the ball forwards and either into space or into strikers and midfielders much earlier. He has produced more forward passes to final 3rd in the last game than any of his previous 4. Since Norwood’s arrival and links with Marvin Johnson have circulated, Stevens performance levels have been very good.
8) We Scored 3 and a striker didn’t score
Another huge deal for me. Although our strikers didn’t score all our goals last season they did score 32 of our 62 goals. That’s over 51% of our goals from two people. While this shows brilliance on behalf of Sharp and Clarke, it does reflect poorly on the rest of the team. Yet on Saturday we saw 3 goals and not 1 by a striker.
That isn’t to say United didn’t create for their strikers, we certainly did. Other areas of the team, specifically midfield, adding to the goal tally is imperative if we are to overachieve this season too. Add in our newly developed threat from set pieces and we can have a very threatening team from all areas.
9) Freeman vs Baldock – debate settled?
The man in possession of the right wingback slot has gone a long way to settling this debate. Freeman is our highest expected assist player, already has 1 assist and 1 goal and has been key in balancing our play so that we attack down the right with as much threat as we do down the left hand side. I still think Baldock is a fantastic player, who will only improve and will still play a huge part this season. Freeman though is the number 1 in the RWB slot and his far greater attacking output is proving to be very valuable.
Overall, this was probably the best performance we have produced since Cardiff at home towards the back end of last season. Our 3rd goal in particular has been highlighted by Opta as the goal involving the most passes in the sequence leading up to the finish over the last weekend.
That goal highlighted everything that was brilliant about the performance. Everyone was comfortable on the ball. Everyone passed with purpose, probing for space or to bring others into play. Bigger tests are still to come. Villa at home this Saturday will certainly be one of those but on current form and with the addition of perhaps 1 or 2 to complete the squad I really do feel we have enough to compete with the “bigger” clubs like Villa. Brilliant performance from the Blades and on the march we go!