Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: For all the talk of Chris Wilder's overlapping centre halves, Blades' defensive solidarity shouldn't be overlooked in their Premier League quest

So after an exhilarating few weeks and four games into this season, we’ve all had a chance to draw breath, have a rest and reflect on the merry-go-round madness that is the Premier League.

Tuesday, 10th September 2019, 09:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 10th September 2019, 16:29 pm
Sheffield United's goalkeeper Dean Henderson : Tim Goode/PA Wire.

It’s a seemingly endless rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows, magnified by hundreds of cameras, and constantly reported on day and night, using millions of words across all kind of media outlets all over the globe! I spent an enjoyable hour or so with Kevin Cookson, Sheffield United’s head of media, recently, and it was utterly fascinating to hear just how far and wide the tentacles of the Premier league stretch. It’s non-stop!

Of course with all this attention, it’s been brilliant for us Blades fans to have seen our team have an impressive start and we’ve lapped up all the compliments and positive comments, and also made a few pundits and presenters eat a bit of humble pie along the way.

I’ve been particularly interested to see and read all the analysis and articles about our amazing ‘new’ attacking concept that has taken the league by surprise, it seems, and is the hot-topic amongst learned, experienced football writers and pundits. Yes, our ‘over-lapping centre-back’ secret is out, nearly THREE YEARS after it was invented on our training ground, and had been worked on and perfected to such an extent that TWO YEARS ago this week I wrote a column on it!

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Yes, it’s been a huge part of our success over the past few seasons, but there’s far more to our team than just these big defenders galloping down the wing at every opportunity, and anyway, with the focus on our system, I’ll expect better teams and more astute managers will obviously try to find a way to nullify it. Good luck with that by the way, because it works for us very, VERY well.

So yes, the focus has been somewhat on our defenders of late, which seems strange as after spending nearly £40m on strikers this summer, plus another £8m on two midfielders, you’d expect a bit more interest on the attacking side of our game. It’s also quite an anomaly when you consider that our summer transfer fee spending on our defence was a big fat zero! Of course getting Phil Jagielka on a free and Dean Henderson on loan kind of skews that statistic, but it’s still a big imbalance.

Therefore, it figures that Chris Wilder and his coaching and recruitment team had realised that this summer, our priorities would be spending on the attacking side of our game. After all, “goals win matches” don’t they? Before we all rush to agree with that simple statement, let’s consider the alternatives because it’s not quite that simple.

In fact it could be argued that the reverse is actually true. How about this: “not conceding goals wins matches”? It’s not as stupid as it sounds actually, and before we all get thoroughly confused, I’ll attempt to explain.

Kevin Gage Column

We’ve all heard the football mantra that goes something along the lines of ‘good teams are built from the back’ and we understand the meaning. Most top teams have good defences, obviously, with better defenders and a top-class keeper. But lower down the league table it becomes of paramount importance to have a strong, solid defence that doesn’t concede too many goals.

Again it sounds completely obvious, but it’s been statistically proven by far more clever people than me in various articles that, for newly-promoted sides especially, as a team, it’s better to be good defensively, than be better offensively. Here’s a quote from Omar Chaudhuri, the Head of Football Intelligence at the 21st Club group: “Analysing the history of promoted teams shows that there are some key characteristics that tend to be associated with staying up.

“One of these traits is having a good defensive record; indeed teams that stay up tend to do much better defensively than they do in attack, whereas teams that go back down tend to have better attacking records than defensive records. This bodes well for Sheff Utd compared to Norwich and Villa, in that of the three promoted teams, they had the best defensive record in the Championship”

This is also backed up by the graphs and words shown in the article.

Chris Basham, one of United's overlapping centre-halves: Richard Sellers/PA Wire.

Now bear in mind we had the joint-best defensive record last season (shared with the dour, miserly, Middlesbrough team of the defensively-minded Tony Pulis) and conceded only 41 goals in our 46 games last season, it shows that our collective unit of defensive players were very good indeed.

Of course this season is a different ball game, and so far we’ve let in five, but that simple number doesn’t tell the whole story in my book, as at least three of those were due to individual mistakes, one was a scramble from a free-kick, and one was an absolute 100-1 chance ‘screamer’ from distance!

On the whole, in my eyes at least, we’ve been defensively solid, and we also rank highly in where we win the ball back i.e. we ‘press’ the ball well, and regain possession quite high up the pitch. No team has run us ragged nor cut us to ribbons with their attacking quality, and we’re actually joint sixth best in the ‘shots against’ category – showing that we limit the opposition’s chances very well indeed.

We’ve only allowed 42 shots at our goal, the same as Liverpool, and with the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea only just above us in that particular table. At the bottom end of it, Aston Villa have allowed 77 shots and Norwich are third bottom with 66 shots against them…..what did our friend Omar say again?

We’ve also had one clean sheet in four games, and although our record of 21 last season isn’t going to happen, if we can keep to that ratio over the next 34 games, then eight or so clean sheets will go a long way to making certain we stay up. It’s actually been proven that a clean sheet is worth on average 2.6 to 2.7 points per game, and according to the research, letting in just one goal per game will even get you 1.7 points per game! It’s one of those ‘strange but true’ facts and again I’m trusting people who study these things for this info, but it makes for fascinating reading if you’re interested!

So yes, its early days (and we haven’t played Man City yet!) but after four games, defensively we’re doing OK, and once we start to eliminate the individual errors that have cost us dear (as we surely will) then we’ll have a very sound base on which our £40m strike force, along with Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick, can go on to ‘win’ us games.

All that data above re clean sheets, shots against, etc is based on the assumption that we have an attacking force that is capable of scoring enough goals to translate that defensive strength into wins and occasional draws, as obviously, 38 nil-nil draws might NOT actually keep a team up in the Premier League….though don’t ever tell Pulis as he might one day try it!

Chris Wilder certainly won’t as apparently we have a new amazing attacking concept this season. Forget defensive solidity. That’s SO last season…..We have ‘overlapping’ centre-backs don’t you know? Blah, blah, blah….zzzzzzz…

Kevin Gage owns @ManorHouse_S18. Follow him on Twitter: @gageykev