Conclusions from Boro 3-0 Blades
Perhaps not an unsurprising result, but definitely an uninspiring performance... here's ten talking points from last night's game with Middlesbrough.
1) You’ve been Pulised
This game was lost due to an inability to defend set pieces and crosses generally – and you should keep that in mind when reading the rest of this, as if we’d been better in that one area, the takeaways from this game are probably very different.
As it was, conceding two goals from the first two corners was about as Pulis-y as playing a Pulis team was ever going to be. It went beyond cliche. It was also a reminder of some of the sheer frustration of last season when opponents would get a simple goal from a set-piece against the flow of the game, whereas United had more corners than any team in the league bar Brentford, yet were 20th in the league in set-piece goals with a meagre 9 in total.
“Being Pulised” shouldn’t disguise the fact that so far this season we’ve been atrocious at defending crosses, with Downing’s goal being the fourth of the five goals conceded that have come from balls into the box. As mentioned after that Swansea game, I’m not the kind of person to get too down about just a couple of matches, especially when one of them (Boro) I’d expected to lose regardless of how we’d started the season. But it’s pretty worrying to see how much we’ve struggled defensively from crosses so far: not just the goals themselves but, as I highlighted against Swansea, plenty of other times too.
At times it was hard to work out what was going on out there, and I don’t just mean Sky’s Red Button broadcasting in Standard Definition.
2) The Key Events
To say United started this game badly would be an understatement, and they should have been behind after 50 seconds when Howson got free in the box, but Henderson saved with his feet. A temporary respite, as from Boro’s first corner Fry flicked on and Braithwaite stabbed in from six yards. The second goal was even weaker defending, as a deeper cross was met by Flint’s head. Shotton then put a simple ball to the back post and Downing ran onto it relatively unchallenged to knock into the corner. Even the most optimistic of Blades would have to say that the game was gone at this point.
United did improve in the second half: Clarke headed wide from six yards after good work by Woodburn, who’d been introduced at half-time. Evans volleyed over after running onto a cross, and then had United’s best chance saved. Clarke also had a one-on-one saved, Stevens forced Randolph to push his shot away from goal, and there were other dangerous moments – but ultimately no reward. Boro were more than happy to sit back at this point, attempting just two shots in the final 20 minutes, and that was that.
3) The stats behind the Match
This was a great example of how game states affect the overall statistics. Boro, having found themselves 3-0 up without really having to break a sweat, could essentially sit off for the rest of the game and try and catch us on the break. As it is, if you were shown the following table and asked which team you thought won the game 3-0, I would guess that most people would pick Team B. Stats via StatZone.
Team B is, of course, Sheffield United.
I bring this up to make two points: 1) that we actually did alright in that second half and contributed plenty to the game, and 2) just looking at the raw stats can be misleading. American sports have the concept of “garbage time”, when one side is so far ahead that the game is over as a contest and some players are able to pad their stats by picking up cheap points etc. To an extent that’s what we’re looking at above.
4) Chance for respectability
And yet – we did have some very good chances in the second half. The likelihood of us coming back from 3-0 down was extremely slim, but I imagine we’d all feel much better about ourselves had Clarke scored his one-on-one or header inside the six yard box, or Evans had been able to stick away some of his chances. Evans, by the way, had five attempts in this game, three of which were inside the penalty area and one was what the stats show as a “Big Chance” – Opta’s terminology for a situation where a player should “reasonably be expected to score”.
It’s to Evans’ credit that he’s able to get on the end of these chances – especially as he is usually deployed in a more risk-free role, as I explored after the Swansea game – but also highlights the main weakness in his game. There’s no guarantee that the outcome of these opportunities would have been different, but personally I would much rather it had been Duffy, or Fleck, or Lundstram arriving on these chances. Sadly, football ain’t that simple.
5) Managing Duffy
It’s pretty clear at this point that Wilder is having to pick-and-choose as to when we play Duffy, with him coming off the bench late on in both games so far. It shouldn’t need to be said at this point, but Duffy is by far our most creative player (at least until we see more of Woodburn) and there’s no doubt we’re a more dangerous team when he’s on the pitch.
Unfortunately, as we saw last season, he simply doesn’t have the legs to play at full tilt for 90 minutes, with his (brilliant) performances declining around the 60/70 minute mark, at which point he’s usually replaced. I’d also imagine that three games in the first week of the season would have been too much of an ask – this Boro game being brought forward by a few weeks did us no favours in that regard.
I was actually a little surprised he came on at all in this one, as I figured Wilder would be saving him for QPR on Saturday where I’m sure he’ll start, but perhaps the 20-minute cameo will get him closer to match fitness.
6) Formation changes
For one of the rare times under Wilder, we saw a shift in formation to 4-4-2 with Woodburn out right (replacing Lundstram), Fleck out left and Basham and Evans in the centre, leaving O’Connell and Egan as the two centre-backs.
It actually kind of… worked? It certainly coincided with us having more of the play, being better defensively and creating more chances, particularly when Duffy came on to play in a floating role behind Clarke. But don’t forget that:
Boro were 3-0 up when we made this change
Almost literally anything would have been better than that first half – in fact there’s a fair chance that had we just come out with the exact same team in the exact same formation, we’d have looked better than the first 45.
As I said at the top – don’t read too much into what happened in the second half. That’s not to say 4-4-f’ing-2 isn’t the answer, just that it would be simplistic in the extreme to draw that conclusion purely from this evidence.
7) Pointing fingers
I’ll not go too hard at our defenders (I’ll leave that for Jay instead, who has a piece on the way), and I don’t enjoy criticising our team generally, but if we’re going to be balanced on this site and the podcast then we have to call a spade a spade.
This was a really poor performance from Clarke, possibly his worst in a United shirt. You can forgive his substandard link-up play in this one (56% pass completion, 5/10 in attacking third, 4/13 aerial duels) if he’d offered something as an attacking threat – as it was, he missed two very good chances. He’s a strangely streaky scorer – witness the way he scored goals in bunches last season – so hopefully that’s around the corner, but if we’re talking purely in terms of getting United up the pitch, this performance compared unfavourably to McGoldrick’s.
Enormous caveat: it’s not Clarke’s fault that we conceded three simple goals. He is used for defending set-pieces, but typically to attack crosses at the near post. Watching the goals again, you can see that he drops to defend the goal-line on Henderson’s right side as soon as it becomes apparent that the corner is going to the far side.
Weirdly – and maybe I can blame this on the crappy SD picture – I thought Lundstram had a decent first half and was surprised that he was pulled at half-time instead of Evans. Then I looked at the stats and… ah. Okay then.
That’s a lot of red, and also no shots taken (for comparison, Evans had 2 in the first half). Against Swansea I thought Lundstram was poor, and I was wrong; last night I thought he did quite well, and I was… wrong. His 58% pass completion includes just 9/16 in the attacking third and 5/9 in middle. Worse, short passes were 13/21 and forward passes 5/15. To an extent this is mitigated by pressure from Boro’s midfield, but compare that with Evans’ stats and it’s a big contrast (86% completion, 27/29 middle third, 7/10 attacking third, 11/14 forward passes).
8) Assombalonga highlights what we’re up against
A player like Britt Assombalonga would add plenty to our team, even after a game in which he didn’t score. His speed and the timing of his runs allowed Boro to stretch our defence numerous times in the first half, simply by hitting the ball into the channel behind Enda Stevens. It wasn’t like he ran us ragged, in fact this was probably more like a 7/10 performance – it’s just that his ability allowed Boro to have a constant outlet from any pressure that we were able to exert high up the pitch. He also showed his skill on the ball several times, dribbling away from defenders.
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but it does illustrate what we’re up against in the Championship. Assombalonga cost in the region of £15m, whereas our budget means we’re priced out of a player like Martyn Waghorn for whom Derby have paid half of that fee. It really shows the level of spending (or insane player development) that we need in order to compete at the top of this league. Let’s not forget, this is the first time in a long time that United are spending fairly sizeable amounts of money (record amount on John Egan, and we were prepared to pay £5m for Waghorn), and it’s still not enough to match up to the big boys.
9) Playing the Boro way
Boro’s tactical approach to the majority of this game was, of course, influenced by the fact they were 3-0 up after 25 minutes. Had it been 0-0 or 1-0 at half-time, their attacking ambitions might have panned out completely differently.
Nonetheless, the way they played is exactly the kind of thing I meant when I asked if we could adapt to a different style in my season preview piece: be defensively compact, accept that the opposition will have more possession and territory, and be a threat on the break and from set-pieces. It’s an approach that might have given us a foothold in games against clearly superior opposition last season – Fulham, Wolves, Cardiff (away).
The question is whether we have the players for this kind of style – we’re certainly still lacking pace in attack although this was an encouraging appearance from Woodburn who created the header for Clarke with, dare I say, a Brooks-esque piece of skill.
10) We’re on to QPR
Even though three games in the first week isn’t ideal, particularly as there’s so much to work on, I’m pleased that the QPR game is just a few days away and gives us an opportunity to see if we can right some of these early-season wrongs. I expect Duffy and Woodburn to start, but it’ll be interesting to see if Wilder opts to go with the 4-4-2 of the second half or revert to the formation that has, let’s be right, been at the heart of everything good about the last couple of seasons.
It would be mad to panic at this stage – even if we lose to QPR, which isn’t exactly stretching credibility. It’s very possible that Boro and Swansea will be two playoff teams this season. But at the same time it’s fair to acknowledge that we haven’t started the season well at all, even looking beyond the scorelines, and there’s plenty of things that we need to do better. Fortunately, we’ve been here before under Wilder (bottom of the league after four games in 16/17, Walsall and Fleetwood losses in that same season, rough patches in 17/18) and found ways to turn it round.