Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: Why I'm running out of superlatives to describe what is currently happening at Bramall Lane
When I agreed to write these columns before the season started, I genuinely didn’t think that the only problem I faced would be running out of superlatives to adequately describe what is unfolding at our football club!
Another superb performance has got us another three points, and to bounce back the way we have after the Newcastle game with three wins on the trot tells you everything you need to know about this team’s mentality and the belief that the players have in what they do.
To have 28 points before Christmas, to be still unbeaten away, to be fifth in the league and above Spurs and Man United, and to be hearing new terraces songs about trips into Europe, is frankly unbelievable to be honest. But after every game we play our expectation levels and our total belief in this squad and management are reinforced.
Talking of belief, put it this way… if Chris Wilder told me that Father Christmas was real, I’d be up all night waiting for him on Christmas Eve, mince pie in one hand and a glass of sherry in the other!
Brighton away is always going to be a real test for any side visiting as they are acknowledged to be a very good football side indeed.
The had totally dominated at Crystal Palace a week before and I’d seen them live earlier in the season at Villa Park where, despite having a man sent off after 20 mins they out-played Villa. I confess to thinking during last week that maybe, possibly, potentially, this was when our unbeaten run might come to an end, and my other Blades mates felt the same.
We were wrong of course. We were totally, utterly, completely and deliriously happily wrong as we never looked in any real danger of losing the game, and could have made the score line more emphatic had it not been for a combination of more VAR nonsense and the on-going David McGoldrick goal-scoring saga.
We were also wrong because despite Brighton’s huge 69 per cent possession, we again showed that we are an incredibly difficult team to break down defensively. Once again the standard “we had an off-day” excuse was trotted out, but it’s happening too often, to too many teams, for this to be a genuine claim.
With our next two away games being against two of the best teams in world football, it’ll be fascinating to see if they have an ‘off day’ too!
The defensive facts regarding this SUFC team over the past 18 months are quite staggering when analysed. No team in the top four divisions has kept more clean sheets than us since the start of last season.
Saturday’s was our seventh this season after 21 last season! Sixteen goals conceded this season is only bettered by Leicester with 14 and Liverpool with 11. If you’re still paying attention here’s some more numbers and info to really think about and realise the importance of: We’ve only let the opposition get 60 shots on target (SOT) in our 18 games.
Only Chelsea with 55 and Liverpool (47 from 17 games) can better this. Man City are above us having let 63 SOT and Leicester stand at 61. To put that into perspective, Norwich have conceded 106 SOT, Villa 96, with Southampton and Watford both in the low 90s.
So we are in the same class as the top four teams in the Premier League for our defensive record concerning shots on target against, but here’s an even more remarkable set of numbers to compare those with.
Our 60 SOT conceded have happened with the opposition averaging 57 per cent possession per game, whereas those top four teams achieve those numbers from the opposition having FAR LESS of the ball! Teams playing Man City only average 34 per cent possession, Liverpool 40 per cent, and Chelsea and Leicester’s opposition possession percentage is low 40s.
Conclusion: We actually have the best defence in the league, in terms of how much the opposition have the ball when compared to how few shots on target we concede. Its fact. The numbers don’t lie.
And we achieve those numbers from collective defensive displays involving the WHOLE TEAM doing their jobs out of possession, and buying into the work ethic instilled in them by the manager and all his staff.
These players work their backsides off for this club week in week out and they deserve their rewards. The strikers set the tone from the front, constantly chasing and hassling defenders and also tracking back and tackling when needed.
The midfielders are working up, down and across the pitch, doing the necessary mundane midfield defensive duties with bags of energy, commitment, enthusiasm. The wing-backs are a revelation going forward, but crucially in our system are also excellent defensively, pressing, intercepting, challenging and stopping crosses and deliveries from wide areas.
And then there are the three centre-backs….As I said at the top of this column I’ve run out of superlatives. They are simply MAGNIFICENT defenders. They block shots. They win tackles. They intercept. They win headers. They make clearances.
They put their bodies in the way of everything thrown at them and they lead by example. Forget all the over-lapping for a moment. They are defenders first and foremost and my word, they are quite superb. Oh, and behind them is Dean Henderson… enough said.
So this incredible Premier League journey continues….and with a defence like ours, I firmly believe it’s going to be continuing next season as well. Watford at the Lane and then the trips to the Etihad and Anfield will really test our unbeaten run, but I believe five points is very achievable.
I also believe Didzy will score soon but on that one, I’ll believe it when I see it!
Kevin Gage owns The Manor House hotel/bar/café, High Street, Dronfield. Follow him on twitter: @gageykev