Second Season Syndrome: What’s going wrong at Sheffield United?


Image courtesy of – PETER POWELL / POOL / AFP

Sheffield United’s first season back in the big time, back in the Premier League, surprised everyone…perhaps even those around the club themselves. Their final finishing place of 9th just doesn’t do their season justice – with this position being severely hindered by their poor form post-lockdown.

When they first got promoted the uselessness of the Premier League pundits was plain to see. Anyone who had seen Sheffield United’s promotion season would be confused by how they play; it’s a style I’ve never seen before and seems to use ‘overlapping centre-backs’ – a rather strange concept. But it works.

They’re positional rotation and fluidity with the ball at their feet was a rarity for a Championship side. It’s testament to their footballing ability that they edged the possession stats against a Marcelo Bielsa team that have now had more possession in all of their Premier League games – including games against Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal.

This makes the assumptions of the Premier League pundits that Sheffield United are a ‘long ball’, ‘physical’, ‘old fashioned’ English team a far cry from the truth. What Chris Wilder has done (as much as it pains me to say it) is miraculous. Taking a club from being a mid-table League 1 team all the way to the Premier League with an extremely limited budget compared to the likes of Aston Villa, West Brom, and Fulham (to name but a few) is an astonishing achievement.

Sheffield United were flying in their first season back in the Premier League last year. The lockdown and postponement of football put everyone in a position the likes of which we have never experienced. Clubs with lower budgets and a lower quality of players often rely on the rallying call of the fans in the stadium. This perhaps led to a disproportioned negative effect on those teams, post-lockdown – and Sheffield United could have fallen foul to this.

It is curious that is has been the end of last season and the start of this season that Sheffield United’s form has tailed off so badly. And that this is whilst they have been unable to have fans in the stadium. We can see from the clubs that are now allowed 2,000 fans in that they offer the players such a needed boost.

From the weekend’s results, we can see the impact of fans. Everton managed to beat Chelsea, Crystal Palace got a draw against Spurs and Fulham got a point against Liverpool. Arsenal were the only team with their fans in the stadium who lost in the Premier League.

For Sheffield United, the fans are needed more than ever. They’ve managed to have the worst start in Premier League history – only getting one point from the first 12 games. In these 12 games they’ve only managed to score five and they’ve conceded 21 times. The least goals, the joint-most conceded, and the fewest points this season says it all.

But are they really that bad? To be honest, no. If we look at the xG stats, they’re the most unlucky and under-performing team in the league.
* xG is a statistical analysis of chances to determine how many goals a team or player is expected to score on concede based on the number of the chances and the difficulty of those chances. *

The Athletic created a table of xG (for and against) to determine how each team is scoring and conceding in comparison to how they ought to be based on how they are playing. After 11 games Sheffield United had an xG of 12, yet they had only scored 5 (this under-performance will be even greater now due to their 3-0 loss at Southampton). For example, in their game against West Brom, they were expected to win 3-1 from the chances both teams had, but they contrived to lose 1-0.

They’re not just underperforming at the attacking end of the pitch, however. After the first 11 games, they had conceded 18 goals from an expected xG of 16.6. This is not a bad underperformance at all, but their apparent struggles so far this season could be down to their massive overperformance defensively last season. With Dean Henderson between the sticks last season, Sheffield United managed to only concede 39 goals from an expected 51. This change from massive defensive overperformance to slight defensive underperformance is likely due to both the goalkeeper change and their injury troubles at the back. Playing the inexperienced Ethan Ampadu or the OAP Phil Jagielka is not going to have as much of the desired effect at the back as Jack O’Connell – who could be out for the rest of the season.  

In this day and age, it’s hard to guarantee any manager time; time is elusive at the top. However, surely Wilder has more than enough credit in the bank to be given time. It’s unlikely that they will continue to lose game after game with no let-up. They will be hoping that fans will soon be able to return, in some capacity, and give them a much-needed lift. Even if they do get relegated (which I suspect they will) who would really be better placed to bring them back up than Chris Wilder?

Dear Sheffield, United fans,

The tide will turn, and the wins will come. Now is the time to berate the footballing Gods for your cursed luck and believe in what has brought you to where you are. Wilder has created a team with a desire to play for the shirt and a game plan which everyone buys into. Come the end of the season, relegation or no relegation, Wilder will have rejuvenated the spirit of the team and the results will be starting to follow the performances. But even if not, I personally won’t lose too much sleep over it.

Kind regards,

One of those ‘Muppets from Leeds’.

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