When Chris Wilder took over the managers reign at Sheffield United on 12 May 2016 there was not one Blades fan who predicted that within 3 years the Blades would be heading to Bournemouth for an opening day of 2019-20 Premier League season. The rise has been utterly remarkable, beyond the wildest dreams of any Blades fan, but to Wilder on Saturday, none of that emotion mattered. Here is a man who is obsessively driven to succeed. More than once in the last 2 years, Wilder has used the phrase that he “wants to drive the club on” and that he doesn’t want to be caught “standing still”. This relentless mentality is what sets him apart, he simply refuses to allow anyone to rest on their laurels. There’s always another target, goal, ambition to work towards. For many fans of a certain generation (like myself) he’s the best manager we have seen at our club, perfectly marrying the values of the fan base, connecting the players and fans closer together than ever before and playing high tempo, dominant football in a tactically innovative way. Saturday was a celebration of 12 years, most of which were spent bringing the club to a new low, ending with the Blades return to the big show. As fans nothing was going to stop the blades faithful enjoying every second. Our only hope being that we were somehow able to not only compete but stick to the attacking principles, now famously known as the ultra attacking overlapping centre backs. Blades fans needn’t have worried.
So to the game. United lined up in a slightly more pragmatic version of the system that got them this far, not including a no 10 but opting for John Lundstram to sit alongside usual culprits John Fleck and Oli Norwood in a 3-5-2 system with a flat 3 in midfield.
The idea behind the pragmatism was simple, Lundstram adds a physicality, drive and work rate that would aid United in shutting down the Bournemouth left hand side, with Ryan Fraser, Josh King usually combining to be the most creative outlet for the Cherries. Within 30 seconds the plan to start Lundstram was almost vindicated as he played a simply stunning pass over the top on the angle to pick out David Mcgoldrick who’s effort was well saved by Ramsdale. The pass was top level, recorded as an OPTA “Big Chance” and showcasing the passing range Lundstram has. Lundstram went on to make 2 big chances of the 4 united created amassing 0.56 expected assists for the game, currently the 6th highest in the league above players such as Christian Eriksson and Mo Salah.
The 1st half pattern set into Bournemouth having lengthy spells of possession but the Blades happy to sit in a mid-low block in a 5-3-2 shape were brilliantly organised and solid defensively, not allowing Bournemouth space to exploit in behind or to break lines. The Blades restricted Bournemouth to 3 shots, only 1 from inside the box, 0 on target and only 0.07 xG. Defensively it was a very accomplished half from the Blades. The only improvements for United were the fact they had retreated perhaps too deep, meaning when they did win possession they had begun playing more direct passes than needed due to the gap between midfield and the forwards, allowing the Cherries to recover and recycle possession building pressure even without chances. United played 47 long passes compared to Bournemouth’s 29 in the first half, the majority of which came from deep within their own half. However, a positive of the 1st half offensively was Callum Robinson. Some excellent touches, link play and 1 particular instance of taking the ball on the half turn and creating a shooting opportunity for himself showed the threat he will possess moving forwards throughout the season.
One of the biggest factors of the 1st half was the lack of opportunity the Blades had to find Oli Norwood in possession with time and space to pick a pass. Norwood is United’s chief play maker, in an almost quarter back role, he sits deeper than the rest of the midfield looking to distribute passes on angles to quickly switch the direction of play and allow United to exploit their positional overload system. Norwood only managed 26 pass attempts in the 1st half, although still fairly high for the Blades, compared to his Bournemouth counterparts (Billing and Lerma) it showed how Norwood had perhaps been on the prephiary of the game.
In the 2nd half the game opened up much more. Firstly, United played higher up the pitch, looking to win the ball back higher and retain possession to build in the final 3rd. This improved their attacking platform but also gave space for the strong, dangerous Bournemouth runners to drive into on transition counter attacks. Bournemouth created 10 shots, 6 from inside the box and 2 OPTA “big chances” all in the 2nd half. This will be a slight concern on reflection for the Blades, as the majority of these efforts came from counter attacks. However, the flip side of this was the Blades increased tempo, intensity and attacking momentum. In the 2nd half the Blades upped their pressing, only allowing 7.7 PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action measured in opponents final 3rd) compared to 10.4 passes in the 1st half. The Blades also had more share of possession, indicative of their approach to go and win the game, something Wilder has always looked to do. Thanks to the great folks at SofaScore we are able to see a graphic called attack momentum. In essence, this is attacking threat by time period of the game (Green is highlighted for Bournemouth, Blue for the Blades). We can see that the home side were on top in the 2nd half when their set piece goal came, albeit through a recycled set piece. It’s not a goal United nor Wilder will be happy to concede, the Blades pride themselves on ensuring they defend and clear their own box, removing the danger for those 2nd ball type
A key to any team who wants success is how they deal with adversity or a setback. This United team respond in the best possible manor to setbacks and Saturday was no different. After the goal the Blades took control of the game, in particular Oli Norwood did. From the 70th minute onwards no player on the pitch made anywhere near the passes the Blades midfielder did, in that time frame he attempted 32 passes. The whole team actually gained even more freedom after the introduction of Luke Freeman (as the no 10), Oli Mcburnie and Billy Sharp. The decision to introduce Freeman in particular allowed Norwood to receive passes and recover possession in more time and space due to an extra advanced midfielder. From this base the Blades were able to build sustained periods of possession, recycling possession in the final 3rd and penning in Bournemouth. This is key to way United build their overloads, the sustained pressure buying time for Wing backs and CBs to move into positions that can exploit the extra man advantage. .
Freeman’s touch involvement map is displayed above, the key here is the positions he was taking up. Freeman looked to mirror the role Mark Duffy played last season, picking up the ball in the right and left half spaces, linking with the wing backs and centre backs to create the positional overloads United crave. The positional freedom discussed can be best displayed by looking at a similar map for Left Wing Back Enda Stevens in the same time period.
Enda was at the forefront of taking the game to the home side in search of the equaliser, picking up spaces that frankly a left wing back shouldn’t be taking up.
The final image below shows both teams passes attempted to and within the final 3rd in that 70th minute to end of game time period.
It’s clear to see the domination in area of pitch the game was played in and possession that the Blades gained after the opening goal. United have never been a high shot volume side, preferring instead to create high quality chances. In this spell they only had 2 attempts both in the same move for the goal, an exceptionally brave, quick and well worked free-kick from Norwood. His intelligent short pass finding Baldock who drove hard and low across the box. Mcburnie fired a shot in that deflected off John Egan. Breathes were held, hands were on heads and then the moment us United fans have seen so many times (but maybe none better than this) happened. The master poacher himself, Billy Sharp bundled home and the away end erupted in delight.
The result was fantastic and more than well deserved. The more important factor was the pride in sticking to the principles that got them this far. The fact both Chris Basham and Jack O Connell still overlapped, still had the ball in and around the penalty box, the fact despite being under pressure the Blades held firm and then kicked on another gear and found another level. There were some solid, very encouraging displays from new acquisitions Robinson, Mcburnie and Freeman. There was the quality of Norwood and Stevens, clearly showing the technical levels to not only compete but be very good at this level. There was the performance of Lundstram, a brilliant shift, creative, hard working and impactful. There was John Egan and O Connell combining for 16 duel wins from 19 or the fact that Chris Basham our right centre back had the highest xG Buildup the game( basically measures the value a player adds in getting the ball into dangerous areas without actually creating a chance or taking shot)
The 90 minutes almost a microsopic view of everything brilliant about this squad, staff and Chris Wilder. A relentless desire to do more, push to another level, to not “stand still”. One thing is for sure after Saturday, Dem Blades are back in the Premier League and we certainly looked like we belonged.
** All Touch and pass maps used from WhoScored.com
Bournemouth 13 – United 8
Shots inside box
Bournemouth 7 – United 3
Expected Goals (xG)
Bournemouth 1.18 – United 1.53
Bournemouth 2 – United 4
Non Shot xG
Bournemouth 1.1 – United 0.8