The Sheffield United game that showed how vital Ollie Norwood is to how Blades operate

When confirmation of the team Slavisa Jokanović had picked to face Millwall on Tuesday evening landed about an hour before kick-off, there were some raised eyebrows inside Bramall Lane at the sight of Oliver Norwood on the bench.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 7:03 am

After all, just over 24 hours earlier, Jokanović was asked about the midfielder he previously worked with at Fulham and praised him, insisting: “Ollie is playing well in his position” and adding: “We know his strengths and weaknesses and he’s an important player for us.”

Norwood was left out of the starting XI and those eyebrows were raised higher with the performance of Conor Hourihane, the man who replaced the former Northern Ireland international. The Aston Villa loanee could not get to grips with the game at all, leading to the ignominy of a first-half substitution after just 38 minutes of the game.

United without Norwood became what many observers feared they would – passive, flat and struggling to generate any real tempo. But Norwood’s role and worth to this United side is one of the most contentious issues amongst supporters and if his absence from the start yesterday was not enough to persuade some that he is indeed worth a shirt, perhaps the irrefutable statistics might.

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One of the biggest criticisms of Norwood is that his passes are sidewards and backwards, which rather contradicts the fact that he ranks second in the entire division for the number of progressive passes per 90 minutes (12.08) this season. The only player above him in the Championship is a left-back, Fulham’s Antonee Robinson.

Norwood is also second in the division amongst midfielders in terms of completed passes, and only Preston’s Ryan Ledson and Matt Grimes of Swansea have made more successful passes into the final third.

Incidentally, United (61.5 per cent) have the second highest average possession in the entire league – beaten only by Swansea, who keep the ball for fun without generating too much for their supporters.

Norwood plays an intrinsic role in that, taking the ball off United’s centre-halves and getting his side up the pitch. In his absence in recent games, either John Fleck has been asked to perform a similar role or midfield has often been bypassed entirely.

Sheffield United's Oliver Norwood challenges Millwall's Mason Bennett: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

A midfielder making the most passes, in a team second in the division for possession, is going to lose the ball on occasion purely by the law of averages. But the value of a player brave enough to get on it and try to make things happen was never better illustrated than on Tuesday evening, when United struggled to get any real control of the game early on without one.

Hourihane’s audition to replace him failed badly against Millwall and Norwood could, and should, return for Sunday’s derby against Barnsley, as the Blades look to bounce back from Tuesday’s disappointment and return to winning ways.