Fantasy Premier League managers should give serious consideration to heavy investment in the Sheffield United defence.
The Blades have been one of the best producers of clean sheets in the Premier League this season and are about to embark on an incredibly favourable run of fixtures.
Only Liverpool (15) have conceded fewer goals than Sheffield United (23) so far this season. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp’s men are also the only Premier League side to keep more clean sheets (nine) than the Blades, whose total of eight is shared by Manchester City, Leicester City, Watford and Burnley.
Sheffield United also have the most appealing fixtures when it comes to clean sheet potential. Between Gameweeks 25 and 30, the Blades are top of the defensive Season Ticker with matches against Crystal Palace (away), Bournemouth (home), Brighton (home), Aston Villa (away), Norwich (home) and Newcastle (away).
Ahead of this purple patch, we have assessed the true extent of Sheffield United’s defensive capabilities to help decide how many of their assets to purchase – and which ones are the most likely to add attacking returns on top of any clean sheets that come their way.
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Studying Sheffield United’s defence this season at a closer level certainly produces some mixed results.
At the time of writing, the Blades sit in the Premier League’s top six for fewest shots in the box conceded this season.
Wilder’s men, in their first season back in the English top-flight, have allowed just 161 efforts inside their penalty area.
That total is four fewer than Leicester (165) and bettered only by Manchester United (146), Chelsea (140), Liverpool (132) and Manchester City (131) – an impressive achievement.
However, Sheffield United have performed considerably worse when it has come to giving up big chances in 2019/20.
After 24 matches, they have allowed 47 of these, enough to see them feature outside the top 10 in the Premier League, 10 teams conceding fewer than Sheffield United so far.
So while the Blades give up a relatively low number of shots in the box, there is a much higher chance that one of these efforts will be of high quality compared to some of the other top-level defences in the Premier League.
That is, to some extent, reflected in the expected data for Sheffield United as their expected goals conceded (xGC) score for the season up until this point stands at 31.47.
Put in layman’s terms, that means the Blades should have conceded between 31 and 32 goals this season – although they have, in fact, been breached only 23 times.
The delta between Sheffield United’s expected goals conceded and actual goals conceded stands at -8.47 then, the second-lowest in the Premier League. Effectively, Crystal Palace are the only side to have done better than they should have defensively in 2019/20.
So what could have led to such a large discrepancy in these two totals? There are often several possible reasons which can include anything from them benefitting from poor finishing of their opponents to impressive last-ditch defending. What we’re trying to find out is whether or not Sheffield United have been lucky up to this point and if their xGC is going to catch up with them anytime soon.
Thankfully for Fantasy managers, in the Blades’ case, it looks as if they owe a considerable amount to the quality of their goalkeeper Dean Henderson (£5.0m) rather than pure luck.
As you can see from the table above, no shot-stopper has recorded a superior score for xG prevented this season.
Henderson’s score of +6.00 in this department means he is responsible for 70.1% of the shortfall between Sheffield United’s xGC and actual goals conceded total.
Even though 12 goalkeepers have made more than his 61 saves this season, this data supports the idea that the stops Henderson has made are of higher-quality than anyone else in the Premier League.
That certainly goes some way towards boosting Sheffield United’s clean sheet potential, even if they do register a relatively discouraging total of big chances conceded and xGC score.
SHEFF UTD’S UPCOMING OPPONENTS
As has been previously mentioned, Sheffield United’s fixtures over the next six Gameweeks look ripe for clean sheet potential according to the Season Ticker.
Between now and Gameweek 30, they are scheduled to host Bournemouth, Brighton and Norwich and are due to travel to Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Newcastle.
Handily enough, four of those teams currently sit in the division’s bottom six for shots conceded in the box over the last six Gameweeks.
Bournemouth’s total of 33 is the joint-lowest alongside Burnley, while Crystal Palace and Newcastle are not far away on 34 and 36 respectively. Norwich’s total of 42 is the sixth-worst over the specified period.
This is particularly encouraging when we consider that these shot-shy sides are soon to face a Sheffield United defence that has been one of the best at denying goal attempts in the penalty box this season.
When it comes to the quality of chances put up, the Blades’ clean sheet potential has been handed a massive boost.
Over the last six Gameweeks, five of the bottom six for big chances are due to face Wilder’s men between now and Gameweek 30.
Bournemouth, Newcastle and Norwich are joint-bottom of the Premier League in this department on a total of seven each, while Palace and Aston Villa have managed only eight.
This could ensure that owners of Sheffield United defenders may have to concern themselves slightly less with the team’s propensity to concede big chances or the dependence on Henderson.
The Blades’ upcoming opponents have fared a little better for accuracy than they have volume or quality of shots over the last six Gameweeks.
In this department, the Premier League’s bottom six contains just three of their next opponents, in Crystal Palace (14), Bournemouth (15) and Newcastle (15).
However, Aston Villa (19) and Norwich (20) still find themselves in the bottom half of the table, at least.
Either way, with so many of Sheffield United’s fixtures pitting them against low-performing attacks over the next six Gameweeks, their clean sheet potential is looking very strong indeed.
Who are the best Sheff Utd defenders to own?
Having confirmed just how good Sheffield United’s defensive potential is in the medium-term, it’s important to make sure we are invested in the right assets.
To do that, we are going to assess their defensive options for their ability to add points through other avenues, such as goal threat, assist potential and bonus.
The busiest FPL defenders among Sheffield United’s ranks over the last six Gameweeks have been John Egan (£4.5m) and John Lundstram (£5.1m) with seven and five each.
The former has largely been a threat from set-pieces, five of his seven penalty box shots coming from his head and only one going down as a big chance.
Meanwhile, Lundstram’s efforts have largely been from open play although, of course, he has been on the bench for the last two matches in all competitions, against Manchester City and Millwall, putting his place in the side under threat from Muhamed Bešić (£4.4m).
Outside of Egan and Lundstram, Chris Basham (£4.5m) has registered just two shots in the box in the specified period, George Baldock (£5.1m) and Jack O’Connell (£4.6m) have one each while Enda Stevens (£5.1m) hasn’t managed any at all.
Sheffield United’s defenders compare even less favourably for accuracy.
Egan, despite his relative deluge of headed efforts in the box over the last six Gameweeks, has no shots on target to show for it.
Lundstram, Basham, Baldock and Stevens have also not registered a single effort on target in that time.
Therefore, it’s hard to get too excited about any of the defensive assets adding goals to their game regularly. The top two for shots in the box both have drawbacks, in that even the busy Egan has not been very accurate while Lundstram’s place is under threat.
It seems much more likely that assists will come from the Sheffield United defence than goals.
As you can see in the table above, over the last six Gameweeks, only Oliver Norwood (£4.9m) has played more key passes (10) than left-back Stevens (eight).
Two of these have created big chances, only Norwood and John Fleck (£5.0m), both on three, fashioning more of these in their last six matches than Stevens.
Interestingly, despite fewer key passes (four), overlapping centre-back O’Connell has also created two big chances in the specified time-frame.
Meanwhile, Baldock has created three chances, Lundstram just one and Egan zero in their last six matches.
Henderson throws his name into the hat when we assess bonus potential.
Over the last six Gameweeks, the goalkeeper has been fourth-best among Sheffield United players, and top out of all defensive assets, for minutes per baseline bonus point.
That means he has accrued bonus points at a faster rate than any of the Blades’ defenders in that time.
Not too far behind him, on a baseline bonus point every 6.8 and 6.9 minutes respectively, are those two creators again, Stevens and O’Connell, boosted by their assist potential.
Sheffield United’s clean sheet potential differs slightly to what we would expect from one of the bigger clubs such as Liverpool or Manchester City.
These teams often rely on stifling the opposition to such an extent that they don’t have enough possession to register a high volume of shots in the box, let alone big chances.
By contrast, Wilder’s men, despite emulating Liverpool’s knack for limiting penalty box action en masse, still give up a much higher total of big chances than half of the top flight’s teams.
However, this potential weakness in the Blades’ back-line is met in almost equal measure by the excellent work of their goalkeeper Henderson who, according to the Opta data, has been more of an influence on Sheffield United’s defensive capabilities than any other team’s shot-stopper to their own in 2019/20.
On merit alone, it seems that, at this stage, Henderson, Stevens and O’Connell are the best Sheffield United defenders to own for their current run.
When we throw value into the equation, most of them largely hold their own, considering none of them costs more than £5.2m.
However, Stevens may require some serious commitment and confidence in his services, considering that O’Connell can offer a similar level of assist potential as well as a saving of £0.5m.
That said, given the clean sheet potential on offer for Sheffield United over a relatively prolonged period, investing in a double-up seems highly advisable.
Even a defensive triple-up seems hardly out of the question considering the dearth of midfield and forward options on offer at Bramall Lane. Remember, the Blades sit in the Premier League’s bottom two for shots on target over the last six Gameweeks.
We also have to discuss the much-loved FPL legend that is Lundstram, as he has largely crept under the radar in this article.
Unfortunately, it is looking bleak for his army of followers, of which the author of this article has been one in chief since late June/early July.
Not only is Lundstram’s place in the team under serious threat from a resurgent Bešić, who has played relatively well in his last two outings, but the former Oxford United midfielder has shown something of a drop-off in his underlying statistics of late.
Yes, he has five shots in the box over his last six league matches but none of them has been a big chance or on target.
Meanwhile, despite showing some excellent creativity earlier in the season – after the first six Gameweeks, he was behind only Kevin De Bruyne (£10.6m), Roberto Firmino (£9.6m) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (£7.6m) for big chances created – Lundstram has now played just one key pass since Gameweek 19.
Whether that’s enough to justify selling the so-called ‘Lord’ may differ depending on the Fantasy manager. Those who owned him from Gameweek 1 have a considerable amount tied up in the player, but if he is not playing regularly anymore, could it burning a hole in their pocket?
The fact that both Stevens and O’Connell both look like better routes into the Sheffield United defence could tip the scales for any Lundstram owners looking at a Wildcard right now.
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