Sheffield United: The statistics that suggest Blades have a bargain in £4m new boy John Egan

John Egan with Chris Wilder
John Egan with Chris Wilder
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After he became Sheffield United's first permanent signing of the 2018/19 season, the question has now turned to - what does John Egan add to the current Blades squad?

The former Brentford defender has progressed magnificently since he turned out on loan for the Blades once, in a predictable loss against bogey team Walsall.

At that point Egan was owned by Sunderland, highly rated by then manager Martin O'Neill but, despite several League One and Championship clubs showing interest, joined Gillingham on a free transfer in 2014 - and playing in that infamous 4-0 thrashing of Nigel Adkins' United on the first day of the 2014/15 season.

Brentford, having aggressively tracked Egan using their successful statistical model, took him to Griffin Park when his Gills contract expired and he was eventually made club captain, before making a club-record switch to Bramall Lane on Thursday. So, where will he fit in at United?

Playing style

Egan is a very interesting centre-back in terms of his style. Starting out as a solid but limited defender in other capacities, Egan developed into a strong and dominant centre-back in the lower leagues, as is generally dictated by the style of play.

As he gained more confidence, experience and found a home at Gillingham, Egan began to develop both his mental characteristics and his playing out from the back ability while maintaining the essence of a strong centre-back. He can try to effect games by being a dominant centre half, strong positionally but also effective on the ball.

His main limitations lie in a lack of pace which in turn means he perhaps at times plays deeper than necessary or doesn’t try and intercept the ball as often as he could. More than on that when we check his underlying numbers. However, Egan is exactly the type of centre-back the Blades lacked last season, as I have highlighted before.

The numbers and where he will fit?

Clearly my favourite part... what does the numbers show us that Egan will bring and where will he fit? Let’s start with some basic centre-back statistics. Egan’s positioning for Brentford last year shows he tended to be the one defender that played the sweeper role more often than Chris Mepham, meaning Egan engaged the ball less often.

Egan only averaged 0.9 successful tackles per 90 minutes which is 58th of 69 in the league from all centre-halves. That said, our main centre-back Richard Stearman only had 0.8 tackles per 90. This leads me straight to where I think Egan will fit into the Blades system, as the middle of the three defenders.

Last season, towards the end especially, a flaw and weakness in the Blades was our lack of a dominant defender. Too many times we conceded late, avoidable goals where someone to win the ball first time would have stopped that threat. If we look at interceptions per 90, again Egan is ranked very low in the league with 0.8 (67/69 centre backs) however this can again be constrained by tactics of the team in terms of what he was asked to do as a CB.

Stearman comparison had 1.1 interceptions per 90 - so either Stearman reads the game slightly better and is a more aggressive front-foot defender, or Egan would improve this numbers in our system. In terms of overall head it and kick old school centre-back style of defending, this is where Egan comes out well.

Egan achieved 4.3 aerial wins per 90 (22/69 CBs) compared to Stearman’s 3.2 per 90 (49/69 CBs). This is a monumental difference and one that cannot be underestimated as to how critical the signing of Egan could be.

Additionally, Egan achieved 6.7 clearances per 90 (36/69 CBs) compared to Stearman’s 5.2 clearances per 90 (62/69). Admittedly with all statistics numbers can be skewed by variables such as team’s style of play, in this instance namely being the Blades play a high possession style and don’t defend often. However, we are signing Egan from Brentford who arguably play a very similar attack minded and possession dominant style, therefore I feel in this instance a direct comparison can be made.

With both our styles of play being such a feature, so is how our centre-backs progress the ball and another snapshot of why Egan was Wilder’s priority at the back. From the same list of 69 CBs, Egan ranks third highest for accurate long passes with 5.9 per 90. This is a huge feature of Egan’s play from the back, he is able to switch the play with pace and precision with his passing.

Compare that to Stearman who achieved 2.8 per 90 and is not known for his long range passing. Another aspect of passing especially in our build up play is progressing the ball quickly to midfield. At times towards the middle/end of the season our build up play became slow and predictable, our midfielders receiving the ball in areas when defenders were set or were ready to press. Egan averaged 35.9 forward passes per 90 compared to Stearman’s 25.7, again a significant difference and another huge factor no doubt in the reason to pursue Egan.

The Verdict

Considering style of play, options available and weaknesses from last season I believe Egan is a fantastic option to take over from Stearman as the middle of our three centre-backs. Egan does not possess the dribbling ability, nor pace to play the wider roles consistently.

He is however a strong, dominant centre half with fantastic passing ability, especially over a long range which could hugely help the Blades next year to open up stubborn teams who sit deep against us or when there is counter attacking opportunities to play the ball out from the back quickly.

Egan is also coming into prime ages for a CB and at 25 has many top level and his best years ahead of him. He also adds something the Blades seriously lacked last season, a threat from set pieces. Although last year Egan only scored two, his career to date has seen 15 goals in 134 apps... not a bad return at all.

Indeed at Gillingham, thanks to Bradley Dack's deliveries, Egan scored 10 goals in 81 games which is a great centre-back return. We have paid a sizeable fee to Brentford, who are happy to sell after already purchasing Ezri Konsa from Charlton Athletic, but that fee could prove to be worth every penny if Egan provides the additions that cover our weaknesses from last season.