As the 2018/19 season comes to an end, Sheffield United’s final Sky Bet Championship fixture of a hugely successful campaign sees them visit Stoke City, as the Blades look to end on a high after their promotion to the Premier League was confirmed last weekend owing to Leeds United’s controversial 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa.
In contrast, their opponents for this match have endured a particularly drab and boring year. They are in 16th position – and could drop to 17th should results go against them – and have had little to cheer in their first season back in the second tier. They have recorded a whopping 21 draws – including nine nil-nils – and have been effectively playing for pride for the last four weeks or so. Manager Nathan Jones will be hoping they can go at least out with a bang.
Jones has introduced a 5-3-2 (or some variation of) for their previous three outings, and this has seen an increase in performance from the immediate matches before this tactical switch (as discussed later), and so in the face of one of the best teams in the division he will surely stick with this formation. One or two youngsters have been blooded recently as they seek to give experience with little to play for, and so they could again be utilised here, either from the start or off the bench.
Sheffield United’s boss Chris Wilder made no secret of his desire to try and win the Championship outright following their 2-0 home success over Ipswich Town last Saturday, and as his men are currently three points adrift of leaders Norwich City there is little chance of a much-changed Blades line-up as they look for a final three points. Their trademark free-flowing 3-5-2 will remain in place, as they seek to hunt down the Canaries in the race for the top spot.
City switch yields offensive improvement – but defensive problems remain
Since switching to the 5-3-2, the Potters have seen an increase in xG scored in comparison to their final two outings in the 4-4-1-1 formation. They recorded 1.54 in the match away at Middlesbrough, 1.04 at home to Norwich City and 1.22 when visiting Millwall; this is contrasted with 0.77 when hosting Rotherham United and 0.43 in the clash at Swansea City.
When facing leaders Norwich, Jones’ men dwarfed their season-long average shots on target per shots taken percentage (31.7%) with eight shots on target from 16 taken. 42.31% of their positional attacks culminated in shots on goal, suggesting that when faced with a confident, ball-dominating opponent – as the Yellows saw 66% of the ball here, and on average hold it for 58% of the match – they may well be suited to facing attacking teams such as this, and therefore the Blades also – as opposed to those who possess inferior offensive quality and thus have a tendency to be more cautious in attack.
However, Stoke have seen xG against them fall under one only once in their last six outings – with xGs of 1.72, 1.38, 0.76, 1.12, 3.41 and 1.21 respectively – and this, therefore, is a key reason why they have collected only one win during this period. Facing a side in Sheffield United, who have an xG of 1.52 goals for and a 37% conversion of shots on target from shots taken, the Potters cannot afford to be this lax here if they wish to take anything out of this game.
City’s back three are still a problem
Unlike their Yorkshire opponents, the central defensive trio of Stoke are not all at comfortable in varied areas of the pitch. All are ‘traditional’ defenders, and excel in physical battles as opposed to with the ball on the floor, and so the right- and left-sided members of the three – likely to be Danny Batth and Ashley Williams respectively – will be reluctant to go out wide and engage any prospective attacker, preferring instead to remain in the penalty area and utilise their strong aerial capabilities.
If, in transition, wing-backs Moritz Bauer and James McLean are caught out and ahead of the ball, then the tricky Mark Duffy has the potential to cause real problems if facing up any of the aforementioned triumvirates. Duffy frequently drifts into the half-space on both sides, as we can see in the below image, finding pockets between the defenders and midfielders to receive the ball, turn and run at the opposing backline. With their relatively poor one-versus-one defending abilities, the City defence must do everything they can to prevent Duffy running at them – as there will only be one winner.
Furthermore, with the on-rushing Sheffield United wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens, two players who have perfected the role to a tee (as seen below) and therefore recognise when to take advantage of poor opposition positioning, the Potters could be severely outnumbered in defence if they fail to carry out their roles well. Here, Baldock’s run in behind the Ipswich Town left-back, having spotted an opportunity for David McGoldrick to play the ball in behind, was an exquisite piece of play
As McLean is a winger by trade he could well be guilty of a lack of concentration and thus be exposed. The below image shows City under siege in their last outing at Millwall, and McLean is not within the picture. Sheffield United will be ruthless in their exposing of this poor defensive solidity, and so Stoke must ensure they remain watertight at all times. Should McLean lapse at any point, the excellent Baldock or Duffy will be sure to capitalise.
The Blades have blown teams away with their unique style of play over the past year, and they will be looking to exit the Football League in style. They have proven too much for most sides this season, and with Stoke’s modest record at both ends of the pitch this too should be another game in which the well-oiled Yorkshiremen claim the points. The only thing that may stop them is a possible hangover (quite literally in some cases) from confirmed promotion last weekend.
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