Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: Superb Blades victory over Arsenal was described as a 'shock' but it wasn't a surprise to me... and here's why!

To the surprise of absolutely no-one connected to Sheffield United Football Club - be they management, players, staff, season ticket holders, occasional fans, and supporters and followers of the team far and wide through the wonders of global live TV - our beloved Blades beat the Gunners 1-0 at Bramall Lane!

Tuesday, 22nd October 2019, 11:53 pm
Kevin Gage Column

The morning after, as I casually scrolled through social media and caught up with some match reports, it was described as an ‘upset’, and a ‘shock’ result in some way, which quite frankly is absurd in my opinion. The only shock to me is that people are shocked by it!

I certainly wasn’t. The people around me weren’t either. Were any of us shocked as we trooped away from the Lane on Monday night with a spring in our step? I doubt it. We sit ninth in the Premier League, proudly and fully deserving to be that high, and arguably deserve to be a bit higher!

It’s dawning on football fans all over the world that this Blades team is actually good. Very good. Actually, we’re extremely good, especially at the things in the Premier League we NEED to be good at to stay in it!

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Because what we witnessed on Monday was another masterclass in containing an opposition team of a (generally) higher technical ability, with (allegedly) more creative talent and (probably) more speed and agility. If the result was a shock to some, the display surely wasn’t, as it’s now becoming the norm.

We hardly give anything away. We work as a team across, up and down the pitch to shut down the spaces, to get blocks on shots and crosses, to ‘double-up’ on attackers in dangerous areas, to time our tackles and to just do everything defensively that is required to get the job done. To sum up, we put on another display that is now trademarked and stamped ‘Sheffield United’ as solid and as strong as the steel that this city is famous for. It was utterly superb.

I had the pleasure of interviewing ex-Blade and legend Chris Morgan before the game and we discussed the brilliance of our defence, plus the merits of the individuals within it, and there would have been no-one in the ground on Monday night better qualified to do so, to be honest.

During his years as our centre back he typified the way our current defenders go about their task; albeit without the marauding runs forward maybe! There’s been a lot of chat in and around the Premier League regarding the way the game is now played from a defensive perspective, and with specific emphasis on the role of the modern centre-half.

A great many professional people seem to be more interested in the passing skills and ball playing qualities of today’s central defenders rather than focus on them being proficient and doing their primary role as defenders! For all the plaudits that the Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell over-laps get, their defensive quality needs to be highlighted too, along with the new Chris Morgan in the shape of the John ‘the rock’ Egan. He organises so superbly from the back, but also leads the unit from the front.

With George Baldock and Enda Stevens getting better and better every game and looking every inch like top-quality Premier league players they now are, we have a fantastic base from which to build our season on.

And building on it we most certainly are. Performances are consistently good, and points are being gradually accumulated. There’s an awful long way to go yet of course, but I think I can speak for most of us fans that we now feel quietly confident that we’re going to be OK. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how having a solid defence was key to our survival and copied below is a key part of it:

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.

Chris Basham played for United in League One. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Again it sounds completely obvious, but it’s been statistically proven by far 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.”

The stats that these days we are bombarded with also make for quite remarkable reading. Joint Premier League first in defensive categories for goals conceded and clean sheets. First for goals conceded in open play. First for Dean Henderson in his save percentages, and fourth best in not allowing shots on our goal.

These numbers are amazing, and for a promoted side they are even more so. Throw in that it’s the same defence that operated in the Championship last season, and it gets even better. Add in the fact that Basham and O’Connell were in our League One winning team – and Stevens played in League Two that season – and it becomes incredible!

Another clean sheet for Dean Henderson against Arsenal. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Here’s another random stat for you: it’s been proven by some clever mathematics people that a clean sheet in today’s modern game equates to gaining 2.7 points over the course of a season. We currently have four of them from our nine games. Last season we had 21. I’ll let you contemplate how many more we’ll get this season and how many points they might gain us. If we continue with our current defensive displays, I think it will be a decent number and a very acceptable points total!

So that’s the case for the defence made. If the jury is still out on our attacking prowess, we’ve now got a Moose on the loose and running wild. So anything could happen and, given this is Sheffield United, it probably will.

And to cap it all, we play West Ham at the weekend!

It just gets better and better, doesn’t it…?

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