Conclusions from Blades 1-2 Swansea
Not quite the start we were hoping for, eh? Here's eleven conclusions from our defeat to Swansea City this weekend...
1) Perspective, please
Probably the first place to start is that we’re talking about one game here, and if you think the season is defined by what you do in that first game, I urge you to take a look at Sheffield United’s 2016/17 campaign. Also, most people (ourselves included) project United to finish somewhere in the 7th-10th range this season, which means we’ll be losing plenty more games along the way (we lost 17 last season on our way to 10th place).
Another thing is that perhaps Swansea will be a little better than most people predicted before the season. This is, after all, a club that has spent the previous seven years playing Premier League football, and regardless of their dismal 2017/18 season they still possess several players who would walk into our team – Tom Carroll, Bersant Celina, Jefferson Montero to name just three.
Whichever way you want to look at it, we had a poor game against a decent team and still only lost by a single late goal. Bear in mind that with away games with Middlesbrough and QPR next, there’s a very real possibility we will have 0-1 points after three games – but fortunately the fixture list is 46 matches long. Remember, last year we lost two out of our first three and but for some shocking Brentford finishing we’d have lost the lot - and that didn't turn out too badly.
2) A familiar feeling
Now that that’s out of the way, the manner of this defeat was frustratingly familiar. “Matched a strong-looking side for 65-70 minutes before fading away and conceding late on” could be applied to many of our games in the back half of last season. And throwing away leads late on is a worrying trend that I really hope we can nip in the bud this season, either through better defending or better game management. I don’t feel there was any issues with our fitness levels – we still pressed consistently well through the game – it was more that Swansea’s better players were able to get on the ball and dictate as the game entered those last 20 minutes. But it’s still a frustrating way for the game to flow.
3) The key events
The match itself was… not great, particularly in the first half where very little of note happened. After the break, it was as though the players and fans sensed that this was United’s moment, as the Blades went close twice after winning the ball in Swansea’s half – Lundstram hitting wide from a particularly good opportunity on the break. The goal arrived soon after, a lovely move involving Baldock, Fleck, Lundstram and then eventually Baldock again who slid home from twelve yards.
Sadly that was as good as it got for United, with Swansea bringing on the excellent Jefferson Montero immediately and causing us problems down both flanks. Henderson made a good save from a Jay Fulton header, but the respite was brief as McBurnie equalised shortly after. Baldock then lost the ball to Montero close to the byline and was extremely fortunate to see the subsequent header creep wide. Soon after, Montero crossed again from the left and McKay smashed a volley against the bar, but the winner wasn’t far away as Montero yet again found space, crossed, and the ball was turned in from close range by Dhanda.
4) The stats behind the match
If you hadn’t watched the game and just looked at the stats, you might have assumed United won. United were ahead / level in almost every stat category – here’s some selected ones via StatZone.
Teams that dominate territory, complete more passes and take more shots inside the opposition box tend to be successful. However, in United’s case – and we are familiar with this from last season – these stats also belie one of our weaknesses, namely that our build-up play can be slow and we lack the skill to create chances out of very little.
To that end, one significant stat that is in Swansea’s favour is that they attempted 19 take-ons to our 9, with 10 successful take-ons to our 2. Two completed take-ons in 90 minutes is not the mark of a dynamic attacking side, especially given how comfortable almost all of our players are in possession and the fact that we do tend to dominate the ball (only 51.6% in our favour in this game, however).
Outside of the goal, consider where most of our chances in this game came from: turnovers. We won the ball high up the pitch on several occasions, leading to decent chances for McGoldrick and Lundstram, but couldn’t take advantage. I mention this not to diminish the value of those chances – winning the ball in the opposition territory is a skill and one of the best ways to score! – but that we created very, very little outside of those moments.
5) Baldock making an early impact
The goal itself was one such moment, however. We worked the ball nicely down the left, Lundstram cutting the ball back to George Baldock, who popped up on the left side of the box to finish neatly into the corner.
From the Kop it took me a few moments to work out who’d scored this, which speaks not only to Baldock’s lack of production last season (discussed at length here) but also the fact that we rarely saw him straying from that right touchline. Without reading too much into one game, this an encouraging shift from Baldock, who created a chance from the left side for Clarke (blocked) in addition to the goal. On BladesPod we’ve frequently discussed that Baldock has all the attributes to be a top-class RWB at this level, if only he can up the production: a goal and two chances created is a promising start to his season.
It should also be noted that as he drifted more, this did occasionally leave Basham isolated down the right side of our defence, which was problematic as so much of Swansea’s play came down the flanks where McKay and Montero were so lively.
6) Fleck couldn't get into the game
Back to our lack of creativity. One of United’s stylistic hallmarks under Wilder is that we’ve been generally excellent at getting the ball from defence into the final third, usually through progressive passing across the whole pitch. Yesterday was slightly different, and although we edged the territory stats, it was a grind to get the ball into dangerous areas.
One major disappointment with the game was the performance of John Fleck. I say this not as a criticism of Fleck, who didn’t really do anything wrong per se – just that we weren’t able to get the best out of him. I mentioned in my piece after the Inter friendly about why I was happy with a midfield three of Evans, Lundstram and Fleck: because in that Inter game, Fleck was released to play higher up the pitch and be heavily involved in all our attacks, driving the ball forward, creating and shooting.
Against Swansea… not so much. Here’s Fleck’s pass map from the game (blue arrows are completed passes, red incompleted):
Notice how confined to the left wing he was? And the gaping hole in the 20 yards or so outside of the centre of the penalty box? This was a very restricted performance from the one player in that midfield three who can make things happen. With him playing this kind of game, it’s little wonder that our play felt largely conservative.
So why did this happen? It may be tactical (though I doubt it) – far more likely is that Swansea had done their homework. Check the average positions of the Swansea midfield three (on the right; info via SofaScore) – ultra-compact, and also shading to the right side of the pitch, meaning the side in which Fleck usually sets up. Furthermore, McBurnie (number 9) dropped into this space regularly, meaning that there was precious little room for Fleck to receive, turn, run, pass – all the things that he typically does.
7) The goals showed that there's plenty to work on
I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the goals, because our defending as a team here was not exactly exemplary. For the first, McKay is allowed to advance relatively unchallenged right to the edge of the penalty area. No Blade can get close to the ball as it goes from McBurnie, back to McKay, and then back to McBurnie to score via Henderson’s superb save. In fact, Leon Clarke of all people is the closest United come to making a challenge to stop this move. That’s… not ideal (though fair play for Clarke for tracking back).
The second comes from Montero – who, just to reiterate, is a superb player and far too good for this level – getting isolated against Egan, with both Basham and Baldock up the pitch and taken out of the game after a simple flicked header on halfway. Egan can’t stop the cross, but more worryingly is the space that Swansea have at the back post – the attacker has time to chest the ball down and square it to not one, but two Swansea players who have a relative tap-in.
Again, despite having bodies back, no-one gets close enough to any of these players. There are mitigating circumstances in Montero’s ability and some neat ball-movement, but it’s extremely poor that we couldn’t get a foot or a body in the way. Rewatching Swansea’s other chances tells a very similar story – cross from the flank, defenders sucked to the ball, attackers in space on the far side. Even the chance where McBurnie heads wide, there’s a Swansea player at the back post with ten yards of space. Take a look at all three of these chances that came from left-wing crosses - here's the lead-up to the shot off the crossbar:
Here's the McBurnie header:
Here's the cross that led to the winner (rather than let you play Spot The Ball, it's just above the Sky Bet sign on the right of the goal...):
In all three chances, you can see that our team gets sucked over to the side from which the cross has come from, leaving space at the far post.
Finally, as we’ve seen so many times last season, these goals are classic examples of a little bit of naivety on our part, or a willingness to be more cynical. Just bring the guy down and break up the move! I can see why Egan neglects to do this in the lead-up to the winner, as he was likely worried about being beaten and leaving Montero with a clean run on goal – there’s no help nearby when Montero picks up the ball – but one of our midfield should really be bringing down McKay when he started to run into a dangerous area for the equaliser. Take the yellow card for the tactical foul, and not the risk of the goal.
8) Digging into Lundstram's performance, and this midfield three
I left this game thinking Lundstram had not put in a very impactful performance at a time when, with Fleck restricted, we really needed one. From what I saw on social media, I wasn’t alone in this view. Then I took a closer look at the stats, and saw that this wasn’t exactly the case.
For comparison’s sake, I’ve put Lundstram and Evans side by side using StatZone. There’s a lot of information here, but as I want to focus on our attacking for now, let’s just consider the passing arrows (note: red arrows with a shape at the start are shots off target, grey arrows are shots blocked):
Huh. As it turns out, Lundstram was pretty heavily involved and generally in a progressive way! This shows his range of passing (something I think he does better than almost anyone in our team), with numerous switches of play from the right hand flank, along with him also popping up on the left to get the assist for Baldock’s goal (yellow arrow). He also created another chance from almost the exact position on the opposite side (the light-blue arrow). Two other things to note here: the proportion of his passes that go forward (20 attempted, which is 60% of his total passes in this game), and also how far up the pitch most of his involvement takes place (only four attempted passes inside our half).
We’ve discussed it before on BladesPod, but what you see above for Lundstram is often what you’d see from Fleck – just down the right instead of the left. When Fleck is able to have this level of involvement, the balance between the two means our attacks generally benefit enormously. Lundstram is not yet a consistent performer by any stretch, which I think is part of the frustration – he has a lot of the tools, but it often feels like we get one good moment and then two or three poor ones.
Turning to Evans, you can see that he occupies a different role and does it well. He is supposed to give us a steady presence in the centre, helping us retain possession and move it from flank to flank in a safe fashion – and he does this pretty well, with 52/61 passes completed and 32/33 in the middle third. It’s in the final third where things fall down for Evans, to an extent, and is one of the reasons United struggled against Swansea: in an ideal scenario, Evans spends the entire game sat in the middle third, winning possession (he had 5 ball recoveries, as many as Lundstram and 3 more than Fleck) and allowing our more attacking players to do the damage. Unfortunately, as our other players lack that creative spark – particularly with Fleck marginalised yesterday – Evans ends up having to do more, and that doesn’t seem to be the strongest part of his game, despite those cracking goals at the end of last season.
Consider this both a defence of these players and their abilities, but also a critique of them as a midfield duo. It’s vital that Fleck (or Duffy, or whoever) is able to have a more attacking influence on the game – otherwise we end up with a somewhat turgid build-up and very few chances created. It’s simplistic to say that these three can’t work as a midfield – just that it didn’t work against Swansea.
9) Will Duffy and / or Woodburn start the next games?
That said… it will be interesting to see how we approach these next two games, with both being away from home (and one against a promotion favourite). I thought McGoldrick was fine (see below) but I think it’s likely we’ll need to play a more counter-attacking game in the next two – which could mean Duffy starting so that we maximise our ability to create something on the basis that we might have less of the ball. Similarly, I could see Woodburn starting over McGoldrick just to give us a more direct option.
As it happens, these two away games could be the right time to play Lundstram and Evans together as deeper midfielders, just to try and give us control of the game.
10) Thoughts on the debutants
Some quick thoughts on the new boys. We saw precious little of Ben Woodburn, who came on after the equaliser but wasn’t able to make in impact in those 20 minutes. McGoldrick had a decent debut in my opinion, with some strong link-up play (completed 9/10 passes in the final third, and 2/2 in the opposition box). He created 1 chance and went close with a shot from just outside the box after we’d won possession high up the pitch.
Dean Henderson made some superb saves and was unlucky that one of them fell straight to McBurnie to equalise. When someone scores from a rebound, it’s often the case that the keeper should have done better to push the ball out of danger, but here Henderson made an excellent reaction save and did push the ball away from goal – it’s just that McBurnie happened to be in that wide-right spot. His kicking was surprisingly poor, though, especially after it looked so good in the friendly with Inter.
John Egan was a slight disappointment, particularly in his passing which was a strong area of his last season. He completed just 1 out of 7 long passes, and only 18 out of 30 forward passes. He wasn’t particularly at fault for either of the goals – it’s hard to apportion too much blame for failing to stop Montero for the winner – and was actually quite marginalised by Swansea’s play, which kept the ball away from him. Weirdly, he wasn’t involved in a single aerial duel. But in a game where we had a good chunk of possession and territory, this was an opportunity for him to help us be more progressive at getting the ball into dangerous areas, and it didn’t happen.
You may think it odd to be singling out a weak attacking performance from a central defender, but I’m sure that part of Egan’s role will be attacking as well as defending, getting the ball into the feet of our midfield three and occasionally stretching play with long passes. Hopefully we’ll see more of this aspect of his game in the coming weeks.
11) Once again, perspective please
I’m a glass half-full kind of guy when it comes to United, or at least I am since Wilder took over and it seemed like we had a manager who knew what he was doing for the first time in a long while. So as frustrating as yesterday was – and as annoyed as I’ll be if we lose our next couple of games, which would have been a possibility even if we’d won yesterday – it will take a lot more than a slow start to the season to bring me down. Remember, Wilder is steadily building something here – it will take time, and likely several new signings over the next 2, 3, maybe 4 transfer windows – to get us there.