Depending on where you shop, Sheffield United had the longest odds to avoid relegation of any Premier League side entering the season.
Two games in, they’re proving why they can stay up.
Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace brought the Blades up to sixth in the league table, but more importantly it showcased details that might keep them above the drop.
The goal arrived shortly after halftime when John Lundstram cleaned up a deflection by Palace keeper Vicente Guaita. Sheffield United deployed a unique tactical wrinkle in the build-up to produce the chance:
Playing a back three with three center backs, Sheffield United actually overlaps the outside backs and allows them to get forward on a routine basis.
Jack O’Connell (No. 5) was the defender who did that in this instance, and by continuing his run after passing off to Enda Stevens (No. 3), the inside left midfielder in the Blades’ 3-5-2 formation, O’Connell had Palace scratching their heads over how to deal with it.
Even though O’Connell never received the ball again, the confusion allowed Luke Freeman (No. 8) to get free and play the ball that led to Guaita’s parry. This type of overload is not something English opponents are used to seeing, as detailed by NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe during the pregame:
Doesn’t this brand of freewheeling leave Sheffield United vulnerable, you ask?
Not usually, at least, and it didn’t on Sunday’s goal. Manager Chris Wilder’s setup gives his players agency, and with that freedom comes the knowledge that if they don’t cover for each other, other sides will punish them.
On the goal, striker David McGoldrick drifted back and left, hitting the ball down the sideline that sprung O’Connell. He stayed deep, however, and the Blades already had two defenders stacked centrally as further cover:
Sheffield United had the joint-best defensive record in the second tier last season with Middlesbrough, conceding just 41 times in 46 games. For reference, Leeds United gave up the second-least goals with 50.
Wilder has been forced to get creative due to the club’s limited budget, and he’s produced results. He won League One, the third tier of English soccer, in his first season in charge of Sheffield United, and it took him just two seasons to get them promoted to the Premier League, which they did last season by finishing second in the Championship.
And you might be saying, what has he really done so far? Palace and Bournemouth, whom the Blades drew 1-1 last weekend, aren’t elite Premier League sides.
That’s exactly the point, though. These are the matches where Sheffield United will have to find results to stay up. The past five teams to finish 17th in the Premier League have averaged 18.6 points through the first half of the season. The Blades are already a fifth of the way to that marker, and again, it constitutes the minimum for safety.
Sheffield United should have its eyes on finishing higher, perhaps becoming a regular midtable side like Palace. Teams will adjust, and adversity will surely hit. But we can already see the path for the Blades to withstand it.
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