November’s meeting at the City Ground finished all square. Four months later, exactly the same thing happened when the return fixture was staged in South Yorkshire.
Now, as Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest prepare to meet once again in the Championship play-offs, The Star’s James Shield analyses how Paul Heckingbottom’s side measure up compared to their rivals from the Midlands.
The Head to Head
Morgan Gibbs-White thought he had fired United, then managed by Slavisa Jokanovic, to what would have been only their 6th league victory since being relegated last season when he netted with only 12 minutes of normal time remaining at Forest before Christmas. But Lewis Grabban equalised only five minutes later to ensure the contest, which frequently saw tempers boil over, finished 1-1. Billy Sharp and Brennan Johnson claimed the assists.
Jokanovic felt his team, which enjoyed more possession (57/43) and shots on target (3/1) than Forest, should have won. But Steve Cooper, whose men remained behind the visitors in goal difference, pointed out Forest has produced the greater number of goal attempts.
With Heckingbottom now in situ, United took the lead again when Forest travelled to Bramall Lane in March. However, on this occasion Cooper’s side left things even later - Ryan Yates turning home in the 94th minute - to cancel-out Sharp’s finish. Gibbs-White was the provider, with James Garner delivering the corner which spawned Forest’s leveller.
This time Forest shaded the possession percentage (51/49) but United’s shooting accuracy was better again with Cooper’s charges also guilty of missing a penalty.
Eleven yellow cards were issued over the course of the two clashes.
With Sharp, a former Forest loanee, nursing a muscle complaint, Gibbs-White is United’s next leading goalscorer with 11. Two of those have come in his last four appearances, with the midfielder’s effort against Fulham over the weekend laying the foundations for a 4-0 win over Fulham.
Gibbs-White’s attacking partner, Iliman Ndiaye, is also in good form. The Frenchman’s effort against the Londoners was his fourth in five outings.
Johnson, Forest’s most prolific marksman behind the injured Grabban, enters Saturday’s first leg at United having failed to find the back of the net in five.
United and Forest are two of the division’s most in-form outfits over the course of the past eight games. If you stretch that to 10 and 12, then Forest would be the most in-form.
Over the course of the last dozen rounds, Cooper’s squad have won nine times, drawn once and lost twice. That puts them above already promoted AFC Bournemouth, fellow play-off hopefuls Huddersfield Town and United.
Heckingbottom’s men are fourth on that particular form table, winning six and drawing three.
United, who finished fifth in the final table, averaged 1.63 points per game over the course of the campaign. Forest, one place above them in fourth, returned a figure of 1.74. Since the beginning of March, their figures are 1.6 and 2.2 respectively.
United, however, performed better during the final three rounds. They are preparing for this weekend’s clash on the back of three straight wins, over Cardiff City, Queens Park Rangers and of course Marco Silva’s title-winners. Forest, meanwhile, averaged 1.3 from their last three outings. They beat Swansea City, lost to Bournemouth and then drew with Hull City.
The Home Form
Since competition resumed in August, United have been the fifth strongest team in the division on home soil. They also boast the highest average attendance. Forest’s gates, incidentally, are the second highest.
United accumulated 44 points from their 23 matches at Bramall Lane. Forest, who stage the second leg of this double-header next Tuesday, collected 43 and are the eighth best second tier club in front of their own fans.
Although Forest have scored more goals at the City Ground (48/33) than United have netted at Bramall Lane, Cooper’s men also conceded more (22/15) than Heckingbottom’s team. Indeed, since Heckingbottom was appointed in November, United’s defence has been breached only four times at home. As referenced earlier, Yates scored one of those goals with Wes Foderingham keeping 11 out of a possible 14 clean sheets.
The Away Form
Forest travel to United knowing they are the third best team on the road, behind only Fulham and Bournemouth. United are ranked sixth, behind fellow semi-finalists Huddersfield Town and Luton Town. Forest’s away results have actually been much stronger than United’s, as reflected by a goal difference of plus 12 compared to minus five. But Heckingbottom will be boosted by the sight of United coming from behind to beat QPR in their final away fixture of the regular season. Forest, though, have still taken six more points in their travels than United.
United were forced to negotiate their way through a horrendously congested fixture programme between the beginning of February and March, contesting nine games in the space of only 32 days. However, their schedule has been less hectic of late with eight being staged since the start of April.
Forest have played 10 times during the same time-frame. Five of those matches took place either on or after April 23rd. United, meanwhile, took part in three.
United are without a host of influential performers, with Jayden Bogle, Rhian Brewster, Oli McBurnie and David McGoldrick joining Sharp in the treatment room. Forest’s leading goalscorer, Grabban, has not featured since the end of last month because of a hamstring complaint. Keinan Davis, on loan from Aston Villa, is also undergoing treatment for the same issue. Steve Cook has been recovering from a head wound and was recently granted time off to attend to a personal matter.