EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his thoughts on Monday night's massive Steel City derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United.
Sheffield Wednesday v Sheffield United | Monday 4th March 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
The previous Steel City Derby, at Bramall Lane back in November, highlighted a gulf between the two clubs.
That was, not because one team won comfortably – the game in fact ended in a 0-0 draw – but because there was only one team that showed genuine ambition to attain victory and that team was Sheffield United.
The promotion contenders played on the front foot all evening, with Billy Sharp coming close on two occasions and David McGoldrick seeing his penalty saved by Cameron Dawson, who defied his doubters in a man-of-the-match display.
By contrast, Sheffield Wednesday accepted their then-inferiority, merely to gain a humble point.
Having been pummelled 4-0 by Norwich six days before, they knew they could not leave space in between the lines again.
In a tighter setup, centre-back Tom Lees looked much improved with his remit limited to old-school defending.
On the other hand, influential midfielder Barry Bannan got on with his defensive job with minimal fuss, yet one felt he had more to offer from a technical perspective than the system allowed him to show.
Although Sheffield United have not changed since that first meeting, Sheffield Wednesday have – and with home advantage, they hope the dynamics of this derby will be different to the last.
Jos Luhukay was in charge of the Owls for the previous clash but was dismissed in December, just a day after chairman Dejphon Chansiri spoke to disgruntled supporters at a fans’ forum.
Luhukay was perhaps given the raw end of the deal – the expectation that stemmed from recent promotion challenges, combined with the budgetary constraints that permitted no permanent senior additions in the summer.
Equally, the Dutchman had not necessarily done himself too many favours with frequent impromptu changes to the starting eleven.
Given that the positive early-season form was charged by long-distance stunners from Adam Reach rather than structural control, it was hard to argue with Chansiri’s decision.
Lee Bullen, a very likeable, honest character, deserved credit for steadying the ship during the interim period prior to the current regime, with Steve Bruce himself taking charge a month ago and starting with a positive return of 12 points from six.
Owls improved pressing
One of the key things Bruce has done is get the team playing higher up the pitch.
They do like to go direct to powerful striker Steven Fletcher, who has scored three goals in his last two games, but they are not a long ball side like they were, for example, under Dave Jones.
Firstly, those initial balls tend to be played from the middle third of the pitch rather than the defensive third, so it is not as if they are using Fletcher as the reference point from every move.
Secondly, after that initial long pass, there appears to be a strong intent from the midfield to either pick up the second balls from Fletcher’s work, or apply the press should he be dispossessed.
Fundamentally, the team is playing much higher up the pitch – and they have quality, too, with Rolando Aarons making an impact since joining on loan from Newcastle and big hitters like Reach and Fernando Forestieri showing signs of coming back into form.
With Bannan seemingly being given more freedom in possession than we saw under Luhukay – and perhaps even the tail-end of Carlos Carvalhal’s reign – he has ran the show in comfortable home wins over Swansea and Brentford.
February might yet be remembered as a defining period in Sheffield United’s season.
Early in the month, they had a good opportunity to complete a convincing win at Aston Villa, where they attained a three-goal lead thanks to a hat-trick from talismanic poacher Billy Sharp.
Alas, late lapses in concentration meant they drew 3-3 in the Midlands.
They have responded to that set-back though perfectly, with three consecutive victories – 1-0 wins over promotion rivals Middlesbrough and West Brom sandwiched a 4-0 trouncing of Reading.
That form has proved they have not just mental resolve, but also strength in depth.
Some fans were worried when Scott Hogan and Gary Madine started up top against the Royals, rather than Sharp and creative forward David McGoldrick, but those fears were silenced with Kieron Freeman’s goal inside the opening minute.
Then, wide centre-backs Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell were then missing for the trip to the Hawthorns, when the third defender, John Egan, picked up an injury before the break to be replaced by Richard Stearman.
And yet, they still managed to record a shut-out against one of the most dangerous attacks in the division.
Wing-back by trade Enda Stevens’ role did not change too much as a wide centre-back, because the remit of getting forward and linking up with teammates remained in place.
However, it is a credit to Wilder and Alan Knill’s coaching that Martin Cranie, recognized previously as a relatively old-school centre-back, could overlap Freeman and carry the ball into the final third.
Plus, Mark Duffy is a wonderfully creative player but not necessarily the type that relishes playing 90 minutes every game and therefore it was important they found somebody to rotate with him.
Kieran Dowell, who showed flashes of brilliance while at Nottingham Forest last season, appears to be filling that void and he scored a rare headed goal to secure that crucial win against the Albion.
The Blades have company in their quest for the top two, with Norwich in excellent form and Leeds delivering a statement of intent in Friday’s 4-0 win over West Brom, but we can be confident they will hold their serve.
The betting angle
As much as Bruce deserves credit for his work so far at Hillsborough, there is not quite enough evidence to suggest they will perform against Sheffield United.
Since a 1-1 home draw with eighth-placed Birmingham on New Years’ Day, which came under Bullens’ guidance, the highest-placed side they have faced is Hull in 11th.
They lost 3-0 on Humberside, meaning they have not yet taken a point against top half opposition in 2019 – of course, that is partly down to how the fixtures have played out, but one would feel more confident backing them here if they had been recording their seven-game unbeaten league run through harder fixtures.
Plus, over the last eight games, they have posted 1.31 Expected Goals For (xGF) and 1.45 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 47.40, only the 16th-best in the division in that sample, meaning suggestions of a late play-off push seem slightly optimistic.
By contrast, their city rivals have averaged 63.67% xGR over the whole season and that ratio very rarely fluctuates, giving them trustworthy consistency in performance level.
We can expect the Owls to play at a high-intensity in the first half of this game, because it is a derby and they will be expected to set the tempo from the off.
United however, have proven themselves as the better side over 34 games and, should the home side’s press subside after the break, the visitors have the credentials to take control.
Sheffield Wednesday v Sheffield United – Draw/Sheffield United (23/5 Marathon)