It is always fascinating to see what type of recruitment strategy a club promoted from the Championship will adopt ahead of a Premier League campaign, and this Summer we saw 3 distinct strategies in action. Aston Villa essentially recruited an entire team with 12 Summer recruits, though it should be noted that unlike Fulham 12 months previously, Villa had little choice but to recruit so extensively given how few senior players they had on their books at the start of the Summer. Norwich City chose to largely stick with the squad who earned the club promotion, with the loan signings of Patrick Roberts, Ralf Fahrmann and Ibrahim Amadou, the free transfer of Josip Drmic and the signing of Sam Byram from West Ham United their only business of the Summer from a first team perspective. Sheffield United meanwhile retained the core of the side which earned the club promotion, yet also recruited more actively than Norwich, adding the likes of Oli McBurnie, Lys Mousset, Callum Robinson and Luke Freeman to that squad, as well as securing another loan deal for goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
Whilst it is too early to cast judgement over which strategy was the most successful, the initial signs are clearly pointing towards the Blades, who find themselves in 5th going into the international break following a fantastic start to the season. A repeat of the type of season enjoyed by Wolverhampton Wanderers last season is certainly not out of the question, yet Sheffield United do not appear to be receiving the same level of plaudits as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were receiving last season.
What coverage the Blades have received has invariably focussed on Chris Wilder’s ‘overlapping centre backs’, and it’s certainly an innovative strategy which I cannot remember seeing utilised previously in the Premier League. It has been effective too, allowing the Blades to commit an extra man into wide areas when attacking, and has resulted in several goals and plenty of chances created already. At the same time, the fact that United play with a back three, two deep pivots and defensively-capable wing-backs means that they are not left exposed defensively or in transition by this strategy, with only Leicester City conceding fewer goals to date.
Any strategy is only as good as the execution though, and it is here where Sheffield United have really excelled. A large part of this comes down to the fact that it is a tried and tested system. Another feature of Chris Wilder’s management this season has been his preference for selecting largely the same team. As the table below illustrates, the Blades are tied with Leicester in terms of most players to have played 1000+ minutes in the Premier League this season, with 8 players already passing that threshold and John Fleck likely to join that group in game week 13. Of that group of 8 players, none are forwards and all were at the club last season. Given that the defenders and midfielders are the most crucial components in executing an overlapping centre back strategy, Wilder is clearly placing his trust in the players who understand the system, whilst at the same time introducing new players like McBurnie, Mousset and Robinson into the team in forward areas where he is more comfortable rotating.
|Club||Number of players used in Premier League this season||Number of players to have played 1000+ PL minutes this season||Net points gained/lost following substitutions|
|Brighton and Hove Albion||22||4||+2|
|West Ham United||22||3||0|
Another notable aspect of Sheffield United’s season has been their performances during the latter stages of games. They are yet to drop any points having taken the lead in a game, and have also rescued 4 points thanks to goals scored after the 68th minute. This trend led me to wonder whether there is a potential link between consistency of selection and impact off the substitute’s bench, my theory being that when a manager trusts a core group of players as much as Chris Wilder does, those outside of that core group know that they have to make the most of any and every opportunity to force their way into that core group.
Whilst we are still early in the season, looking at the Premier League as a whole suggests that there may be evidence to support this theory. Currently there are 7 clubs who have at least 6 players who have played 1000+ minutes in the Premier League, and of those 7, only Manchester United have lost more points than they have won following substitutions, and it should also be noted that Manchester United have used the joint 2nd most players in total, so their side is far from settled outside their core group. Even if you include Manchester United in this group, the average points gained following substitutions still stands at 3.71, and amongst the 13 clubs outside of this group, only Newcastle United (+5), exceed that average. Indeed, the average amongst these 13 clubs is a net loss of 0.77 points, and it should be noted that the club with arguably the least settled side, Tottenham Hotspur, are performing very poorly both in terms of overall results and points lost following substitutions, with only Aston Villa performing worse than Spurs in that regard so far this season.
It will be fascinating to watch whether this trend continues over the next 2 months of the season. With a little luck in terms of injuries and suspensions, it is easy for a manager like Chris Wilder to stick with a settled side over the first 4 months of the season, given that games are generally only once per week. Once we reach Christmas and New Year however that is no longer the case, and greater consideration needs to be paid to which players require a rest and when to give them that rest. I will therefore be revisiting this theory at some stage in the New Year to investigate whether it has changed, and if so, how.
Fantasy Premier League tips to return after the international break.