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How Sheffield United have successfully adjusted to the Premier League high life

Football stats and philosophy from Kevin Pullein

Oli McBurnie of Sheffield United celebrates after scoring against West Ham United
1 of 1

Sheffield United have been the surprise package of the Premier League. Promoted for this season they are already nearly certain to stay for another.

They got a win and a draw against Arsenal, and a draw against Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham. After 24 games they have 34 points, which put them eighth in the table. Every compliment they receive is richly deserved. But the explanations given for their success are mostly wrong.

Pundits say United’s play is like a breath of fresh air – that they attack from every position in an organised way and try to score goals. This is true. They do try to score goals, but they do not get many. United have done well for a different reason – they do not concede many.

Studying the records from previous seasons of other promoted teams gives me an idea of how Championship form can translate into Premier League form. United’s record in the Championship gave me the impression that in the Premier League they would average 1.1 goals per game for and 1.6 goals per game against. They have averaged 1.0 goals for – roughly what I expected – and 1.0 goals against – much better than I expected. They have improved defensively.

Teams relegated from the Premier League in the past ten seasons averaged 1.0 goals for and 1.8 goals against. So in terms of effectiveness United have a relegation-standard attack but a much better than relegation-standard defence.

My analysis of earlier promoted teams suggests that those who stayed up tended – not exclusively but predominately – to be those who had improved defensively.

Improving defence is easier than improving attack, as almost any player or manager will tell you. And because it is easier it is also cheaper.

United manager Chris Wilder was right to say: “We haven’t been unbelievably backed financially”. In season 2017-18, the last for which all accounts have been published, United’s payroll in the Championship was £19 million and Manchester City’s as winners of the Premier League was £260m – 14 times as big.

The Global Sports Salaries Survey estimates that this season in the Premier League United will have the lowest average first-team wage at £728,000. For Manchester City the estimate is £7m – nearly ten times as much.

Wilder’s team do not play like Tony Pulis’s teams used to – but they do have one similarity.

Pundits used to say it was hard to defend against Pulis’s Stoke, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich. All those high balls coming into the box. Opponents might not have liked them, but they could defend them. Pulis’s teams did not score many goals. Their attack was usually relegation standard. They stayed up because they did not concede many goals.

Consciously or unconsciously, Pulis understood that a team with an average defence are unlikely to be relegated. A team with an average attack are unlikely to be relegated either. But an average attack is more costly for a club to assemble and harder for a coach to fine-tune.

Premier League teams over the past ten seasons averaged 1.4 goals for and 1.4 goals against. No team with fewer than 1.4 goals against went down.

Any team with an average defence will score now and again, even if they have bad attackers given bad tactics. Every team get the ball into the final third now and again, and every time the ball enters the final third there is a possibility that a goal will be scored by accident if not by design. Any team with an average defence should score enough goals somehow to get enough points to stay up.

United have a better than average defence. Premier League teams overall this season have allowed opponents 13 shots per game. United have allowed fewer – 11 per game. This is part of the reason they have conceded so few goals.

For all that they wish to attack the reality is that for 58 per cent of the time during their games they did not have the ball. So they spent longer defending than most teams but faced fewer attempts on goal. They might nonetheless have been lucky to concede quite so few goals, and if so they could concede more regularly during the remaining 14 games.

Wilder has said: “Ours is a really good story, the players and where they have come from.” United’s story is perhaps the most heartening of the Premier League season, but it was not written in the way it has been read.

Tolerance for some but not for everyone

Football club owners treat themselves differently from others.

West Ham fans protested outside the London Stadium last Saturday before a game against Everton. They felt the owners had not kept promises made when the club moved from Upton Park.

Co-owners David Sullivan and David Gold responded with a statement on the club website. They said: “Not everyone will agree with all of our decisions and we have some regrets, including the appointments of some managers, but we feel we have the right one now in David Moyes, and we are confident he will do well for us.”

Of course they felt the same about some other managers. Before they changed their mind and sacked them.

Sullivan and Gold also said: “We accept that mistakes have been made and that some things might have been done differently. But that doesn’t take away the fact that a lot of people at this club are working extremely hard, every single day, to move this club forward in the right direction and we will keep doing that until we reach our targets.”

Owners make mistakes and think they should keep going until they have put them right. I agree. But owners do not think that way when they feel a manager has made mistakes. If they applied the same standard to themselves that they apply to others they would all have sold up years ago.


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Improving defence is easier than improving attack, as almost any player or manager will tell you
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