Searching the Championship to fix Sheffield United’s attack – data analysis
It’s official. After their defeat to the hands of the Manchester United, Sheffield United have endured the worst start to a season in English top-flight history, with just one point from their first thirteen fixtures. This is a stark contrast from their surprise European charge last season, which fell away after the Premier League restart.
They are suffering at both ends of the pitch. At one end, injuries and suspensions to John Egan and Jack O’Connell have not helped. Plus, the downgrade from Dean Henderson to Aaron Ramsdale is noticeable, to say the least. At the other, simply put, they do not create enough quality chances, nor do they finish said chances, and in this analysis, we will aim to solve that by using data insights.
This data analysis will use statistics to find both creative and clinical attackers from within the Championship who could help United’s fight for survival. Our dataset consists of players who have primarily played as a: left-winger, right-winger, central attacking-midfielder, or centre-forward, with at least 450 minutes played in the league. At the end of our analysis, we will highlight two standout attacking midfielders/wingers and two strikers.
All data is correct as of 18/12/20.
Attacking midfielders/wingers: dribbling prowess
Let’s begin by looking at the support behind the centre-forwards, and how strong they are in one-on-one scenarios with the ball at their feet. Through this, not only can a player progress the ball up the pitch, but it can also destabilise opposition defences, which is useful when your attack lacks threat.
Leading the way for dribbles per 90 is Ovie Ejaria of Reading with 9.01. He completes these attempts at a 50.79% success rate, which results in 4.58 successful dribbles per 90. He operates largely as a left-winger in Reading’s 4-2-3-1, becoming one of the standout wide men in the league this season in the process.
Chris Willock, at QPR on loan from Arsenal, ranked highly in both metrics. While he attempts 8.68 dribbles per 90, he completes a respectable 61.67% of them, making for 5.35 successful dribbles per 90 as per Wyscout data. He also operates as a left-winger for QPR, but most of his appearances have come off the bench so far.
Another direct and dynamic QPR player, Bright Osayi-Samuel, has also displayed his strength in one-on-one scenarios this term. He completes 47.22% of his 8.61 dribbles per 90 (4.07 successful dribbles per 90), with a lot of these efforts resulting in him using his electric pace to burst past his man out wide.
Attacking midfielders/wingers: creative spark
Next up, let’s continue to take a look at attacking midfielders/wingers, and how creative they are in each game. Truly, United have struggled with chance creation ever since their promotion to the topflight, but they made the most of their chances last season. Now, who are the Championship’s leading creators?
Englishman Jed Wallace leads the way for xA per 90, sitting at 0.3. Unfortunately for the Millwall winger, his teammates are letting him down on the finishing front, he is currently producing just 0.1 assists per 90 this term. The 26-year-old has now been performing at a high level for Millwall over a number of seasons, some would say he is ready for the step up.
Michael Olise has been the standout youngster in the Championship so far this season, and the statistics back this statement up. He is generating 0.29 xA per 90, and thankfully he does have teammates who can finish off his chances, as seen in his stellar 0.4 assists per 90 coming from a #10 role.
David Brooks is a player who can mark himself as slightly fortunate to have as many assists to his name as he does. From his entirely respectable 0.18 xA per 90, he is producing 0.46 actual assists per 90, which is a remarkably high figure from the Welshman.
Centre-forwards: aerial ability
We will begin our centre-forward analysis by taking a look at the aerial ability of the strikers currently plying their trade in the Championship. At United, they have Oliver McBurnie, who wins a league-high (of players with at least five starts) 9.7 aerial duels per 90, but he only has one goal to his name in 777 minutes of football. Let’s see who they could bring in to compete with McBurnie for a starting spot.
31-year-old Matt Smith of Millwall has the highest aerial duels per 90, contesting for 29.1 per 90. For a striker, he wins a very high amount of these duels, sitting at a 53.02% win rate, meaning he wins 15.43 aerial duels, which is truly a ridiculous sum.
Another veteran, Adebayo Akinfenwa, has also been used as a target man at his club, Wycombe Wanderers. Coming up from League One, he has contested for 27.44 aerial duels per 90 at a 43.1% success rate (11.83 successful aerial duels per 90), providing a proper focal point which the team can build their attacks around.
Out of the three highlighted strikers, Kieffer Moore has arguably had the most successful season of the bunch. He has led the line in exemplar fashion, winning 11.28 aerial duels per 90 (19.09 attempted aerial duels at a 59.1% success rate). At 28 years old, he is, what many people would refer to as, a peak age in his career.
Centre-forwards: clinical touch
This season especially, United have struggled to finish their dinner. They have generated 14.81 xG as a side, but they have only scored eight actual goals, which can be seen as a substantial underperformance. They need a clinical striker with a proven track record (perhaps not even that at this stage). Let’s see what the Championship has on offer.
Blackburn Rovers ace Adam Armstrong is currently leading the way for xG with 0.72 per 90. As a youngster at Newcastle United, he was very highly rated, and he is finally stepping up to the mantle, scoring at a rate of 0.82 per 90, overperforming his xG by a decent margin. At 23 years old, is he ready for the step up to the EPL?
In the other metric, Marcus Forss of Brentford is leading the way for actual goals at 1 per 90. The Finnish forward barely qualifies for our minute’s threshold, and this should be taken into consideration, but at just 21 years old, he is still generating a well-above-average 0.55 xG per 90.
Another Brentford attacker, new recruit Ivan Toney is the leading scorer in the Championship thus far, as he is scoring at a rate of 0.83 per 90 from an xG per 90 value of 0.62. Another Newcastle United youth prospect, it took Toney several lower-league loan spells to find his shooting boots, but now the 24-year-old cannot stop scoring at a very high rate.
Now, for this shortlist, we should be realistic with our targets. Are Sheffield United going to be able to buy, Ivan Toney, Emiliano Buendía, or Michael Olise? Probably not. These players are linked with clubs of a much higher stature (look at Olise’s links to Liverpool as an example). Still, the club can be ambitious with their targets, and these players shortlisted are certainly attainable, for a price.
It is worth noting as well that Chris Wilder’s 3-5-2 does not feature a traditional winger role in it, however, we have seen Oliver Burke, typically recognised as a winger, operate within that role, so we are keeping this in mind as well. Who knows, Wilder could alter his system. He could. Here are two attacking midfielders/wingers and two strikers United should keep tabs on in January.
Jed Wallace, Millwall, 26-years-old, market value: £6.5m
Jed Wallace has been a consistent performer at Millwall for a number of seasons. Under either Neil Harris or Gary Rowett, the 26-year-old has not been playing in an expansive free-flowing system, which in some ways makes it harder for the winger to shine, but he has not let that hinder his performances. While he has only recorded two actual assists, the xA metric rates his chance creation as high as six assists so far this season, which is a fairly colossal underperformance. In fact, he has the highest xA value in the division.
Wallace is not a flashy winger, but he does have quick feet and likes to use body feints to create separation between him and his marker. In Millwall’s 3-4-3 (or a variant of) system, he spends most of his time in a very wide zone, as a right-winger, where his primary objective is to get into space and cross the ball into the box for one of his attacking teammates off of his stronger right foot. He will typically send in floated deliveries to crowded areas, or low-driven efforts into space on the counter, both with great efficiency.
In terms of his suitability to United, the biggest issue is his readiness to play in central areas. At Millwall, he has played high and wide, which has gotten the best out of his strong crossing ability. He would only be able to get the most out of that at United in a right wing-back slot, potentially. He has shown a capability to dribble in tight spaces though, as well as a clinical touch off of either foot, currently scoring five goals from around five xG. His high smart passes per 90 also suggest his creativity is at a level which is ready to translate to EPL football.
Ben Brereton, Blackburn Rovers, 21-years-old, market value: £2.5m
Ben Brereton is an extremely tidy young prospect who seems to have been around forever now. He broke onto the scene with Nottingham Forest over four years ago now as a striker, but now at Blackburn, we see the 21-year-old as more of a left-winger. For a young player still finding his feet, being utilising in a wider area gives him more space and time to think about his decisions in a match, but he often drifts inside to find a shooting angle. Now more than ever though, he looks to pass rather than to shoot.
Brereton is a useful player in and out of possession. Out of possession, he can often be found tracking back to help defensively where he can, and in the final third, he is regularly running into pockets of space down the channels, looking to be found with a vertical pass. In possession, he carries his team up the field with his strong, balanced build, where defenders find it hard to shrug him off the ball. Approaching the penalty area, he is generally aware of his teammate’s movements too, finding them regularly with smart through passes.
His 0.41 xG + xA per 90 is decent, especially considering he fulfils multiple roles in and out of possession, and as a young player these numbers can grow as well. Given his past as a centre-forward, Brereton should have no issues slotting into Wilder’s current formation, and his strong dribbling ability should add another dimension to United’s currently stagnant attacking unit. Given his age and relatively low asking price, perhaps United should be taking a gamble on this young creative attacker.
Adam Armstrong, Blackburn Rovers, 23-years-old, market value: £9m
Adam Armstrong is actually a player who already has Premier League experience, unlike the previous two candidates. Mind you, that experience accumulates to 234 minutes and one assist, which is a decent record all things considered. However, it is Armstrong’s goalscoring form this season that has caught the eye. Currently contributing to a goal every 90 minutes, if it were not for Toney’s stellar start to life at Brentford, perhaps even more eyes would be on the Geordie striker.
Armstrong is really quick with a low centre of gravity, meaning he draws fouls often. This season though has seen a marked improvement in a lot of areas. The timing and variety of runs are much better, with a preference to use his pace down the channels, providing a threat in behind. We are now seeing more blindsided runs, which gets him into space on a much more regular basis, giving more opportunities to shoot and score. He is taking a lot of shots now, and 3.5 of them are coming from within the penalty area, which is very, very high.
His link-up play has come a long way too, he attempts ambitious rangy passes with regularity, and although these are not always successful, they have a positive impact overall. The presiding issue about Armstrong joining United is that he is perhaps not as clinical as you would like. While he is outperforming his xG slightly, he needs a lot of chances to score, which he will not get in such a null attacking unit. He’s got the nose for it, and something United lack is a dynamic striker in the mould of Armstrong. They could do much worse.
Troy Deeney, Watford, 32-years-old, market value: £5m
Troy Deeney seems to more well-known in the public eye for his talkSPORT endeavours rather than his actions on the pitch these days, but he is still a Premier League quality striker. Still yet to sign a new deal at Watford, only a cheap fee would be required to snap up the 32-year-old. Having said that, you can imagine his wages will likely be the most expensive on this shortlist. Nevertheless, survival in the Premier League for United is priceless. Deeney happens to know all about relegation battles from his time with The Hornets.
Deeney is the modern-day nuisance in the box. He does not mind getting rough with the opponents and undermining all their defensive work. In the 2019/20 season, he won eight aerials duels per 90, comparing favourably to McBurnie’s total, while also chipping in with ten league goals. Decent for a relegated side. He is a very able creator, happy to drop deep and find a fellow teammate making a run into the box, or even just laying it off to the side.
Most of all, Deeney would join the club reinvigorated. In his interviews, you can hear his frustrations with how Watford are run as a club, and you can imagine he would welcome a new challenge with open arms. This would certainly be a challenge! A big benefit of Deeney is that United do not have to build their team around him, he would fit in almost instantly. He is used to playing in a two-up-top system, and a player such as David McGoldrick would suit him nicely, and they could get the best out of each other.
Before we conclude, let us name some honourable mentions who did not make the shortlist for several different reasons; Harry Wilson, Ovie Ejaria, David Brooks, Iván Sánchez, Tyrese Campbell, Kieffer Moore, Lucas João, Teemu Pukki, André Ayew, Dominic Solanke, and Cauley Woodrow. Each of these players popped up upon further research to create a shortlist, and each player has their own skillset which could be of use at United or several other Premier League clubs.
For the players who made the shortlist, we have compiled two players who can better connect the midfield to attack and create higher quality chances for The Blades and two players who can grab some much-needed goals to help their battle for survival. Upon further inspection from the scouting team, Wilder can decide which of these players would be most valuable to his squad, and which player could produce for them now, but also in the mid-long term too.