PREVIEW: Bristol City v Blades
Ah, remember those summer days when international football was meaningful and fun? It feels a long old time ago. Now, where were we? Oh yes! Sheffield United had won four games in a row, shot up into the top six, and gave Aston Villa quite the hiding.
The Blades now travel to Ashton Gate for what looks like a harder game than Jack Grealish & co were able to give us, against a side that also won 4-1 in their previous match. Here’s what to expect on Saturday.
The opposition: Bristol City
Bristol City were one of the surprise packages of the Championship last season, starting strongly in the league and knocking off Manchester United in the Carabao Cup. Although they eventually faded, finishing 11th, it was an encouraging season under manager Lee Johnson after placing 18th and 17th the previous two years.
Our games with City last season were… eventful. Our 3-2 win on the last day did come in a meaningless fixture, but the home game was one of the more frustrating matches in recent memory as United hit the woodwork four times (!), conceded from the Robins’ first shot, and lost to an injury time goal from Aden Flint after Fleck’s red card.
Since then, they’ve lost several key players. Top-scorer Bobby Reid (19 goals) has moved to Cardiff, Flint has already scored against us this season for Boro after scoring in both our games with City last year, and left-back Joe Bryan (who also scored against us) is now with Fulham.
However, their replacements have been excellent. Adam Webster has slotted into central defence after signing from Ipswich, and Andreas Weimann looks like a potential signing-of-the-season candidate already with 5 league goals to show for his £2m fee from Derby.
City sit sixth in the table with 11 points to United’s 12. That is absolutely no fluke. Remember when we played Bolton a few weeks ago when they were third, and it turned out they were rubbish? Bristol City are not that.
Jay has started publishing an Expected League Table on his Twitter feed that takes into account the Expected Goals (xG) from each game and gives “expected points” based on what “should” have happened in each team’s games. Using Jay’s model, Bristol City are one of the top sides in the league, currently ranking 3rd overall:
They have the 6th-highest xG to date, and allow the 9th-lowest xG against them (xGA). That is to say: after six games, they have the 6th-best attack, and the 9th-best defence. That’s a good combination.
For comparison, United are 4th in this table, with the 4th-highest xG and 8th-lowest xGA. All signs point to this being a match between two very good (or, at least, very in-form) teams. If the above paragraph means nothing to you, check out this excellent article by the man himself which breaks down Expected Goals and why they’re a useful measure of performance.
Key Danger Men
It’s an obvious answer, but Andreas Weimann’s five goals make him the standout candidate here. He’s averaging a goal every 106 minutes and is tied with Brentford’s Neil Maupay for the Championship’s top-scorer.
Weimann’s xG so far sits at 3.6 – highest on the team – which suggests that his goal return is a slight overperformance at this early stage, but not by much. He sits 2nd in the league for shots per game and has been the focal point of the Robins’ attack to date. He’s not a pure poacher either: he frequently drops deep to get involved.
Another one to watch is Niclas Eliasson, a versatile attacker who has been used on either flank so far. The Swede appears to be getting a bigger role in 2017/18, and has been City’s main creative force so far. He has a pair of assists, and his Expected Assists (xA) tracks as a team-high 2.3.
Eliasson created 4 chances in City’s most recent match, the 4-1 win over Blackburn – which was no mean feat given that Rovers have the 2nd-ranked defence so far this season in terms of xG. His numbers are padded slightly by the fact he’s on corner-taking duties, but he’s still one United will need to keep a close eye on.
Expected Line-up: Bristol City
City had 11 players on international duty this week at various levels, including first-choice defenders Lloyd Kelly and Tomas Kalas, so there is some potential for rotation. They favour a back four, with Kalas generally sitting deep and Webster being much more involved in terms of starting attacks (Webster averages 58.3 passes per game, second only to midfielder Marlon Pack).
Although nominally a wide midfielder, Eliasson has ended up as one of their most advanced players in recent matches, particularly as Matty Taylor and Weimann have both tended to drop a little deeper on occasions.
I always like our chances when facing a midfield two (Pack and Josh Brownhill in this case), especially the way Norwood-Fleck-Duffy have ticked in the last couple of matches. A key area to this game will be how City attempt to shut that down, or whether they are willing to cede that middle territory in favour of getting at us down the flanks with Eliasson and Marley Watkins.
Expected Line-up: the Blades
Wilder announced that all players are good to go after the international break (apart from Coutts – settle down), including Leon Clarke who picked up an injury against Bolton. All the same, it’s extremely hard to imagine any changes from the Villa demolition.
Stevens picked up a knock in the warm-ups before his full Ireland debut midweek, but went on to start anyway. That would have been my only real guess at a change to our line-up, with Marvin Johnson in line for a debut. As it is, I expect we’ll stick with the same team and have Johnson, Woodburn and Washington as pacey/creative options off the bench if necessary.
With Jay correctly predicting a Blades win last week – not to mention saying that Norwood would score from a direct freekick, a week after predicting an Egan goal from a Norwood corner (how does he do that?) – I’ve slipped to a 6-3 deficit in our predictions table. Time to make amends. As always, 1 point for a correct result, 3 for the correct scoreline.
Ben’s prediction: “On paper this will be one of our toughest games so far, although I said that last time and look what happened. Nonetheless, these look like two evenly matched teams at this stage so I’ll go for our first draw of the season - 1-1.”
Jay’s prediction: “I'm going to go for a 2-2. Both sides have ability to create...a lot...although we aren't creating a high amount of chances from open play but I'm expecting that to improve in this game! Egan and McGoldrick for the Blades!”
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, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.