Through its first 22 games back in the Premier League, Sheffield United has amassed 32 points and sits in sixth place, ahead of both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. It’s the best 22-game start to a Premier League season for a newly promoted team since Birmingham City picked up 33 points in as many games in 2009-10.
By all measures, the Blades have adjusted quite nicely to life in England’s top division. The likelihood of Sheffield United being relegated back to the Championship is exceptionally small, so it’s probably time to start wondering what the club’s ceiling looks like. It currently trails fourth-place Chelsea by just 7 points and fifth-place Manchester United by just 2 points, and it has set itself up to make a legitimate run at European Cup qualification. But could this really happen? Could a team that’s playing its fourth-ever Premier League season — and its first since 2006-07 — really be bound for the continent?
History indicates that success hardly ever becomes the permanent state of Premier League minnows — most newly promoted teams that start out hot tend to drop down the table as the season progresses, after all, and some even get relegated.
Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, exactly zero newly promoted teams have qualified for the Champions League. A number of other newly promoted teams have qualified for the Europa League — and most through a number of back doors and technicalities.1
Since Ipswich Town’s performance in 2001, when it finished in fifth place with 66 points, no newly promoted team has gained more than 57 points or finished higher than seventh in the league table.
|After 22 GameS||End of season|
|Season||Team||Points||Position||Points||Position||Stay Up?||Europe Qual.*?|
|2012-13||West Ham United||27||11th||46||10th||✓|
Indeed, those top six league spots — and therefore the spots in Europe’s two most important club tournaments2 — have mostly been reserved for England’s wealthiest clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. The Premier League has been mostly inhospitable to newly promoted teams, and the odds are still against Sheffield United, even with its strong start to the season: The FiveThirtyEight model gives the Blades just a 3 percent chance of finishing in the top four and a 16 percent chance of finishing No. 5 or 6. But the squad is trying to change all of that — and it’s doing so in a much different way than we might have expected.
Sheffield United creates big chances at an elite rate — 1.95 per 90 minutes, tied with Chelsea and trailing just Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester City — despite ranking third to last in possession rate. But Sheffield United doesn’t shoot the ball particularly well (or very much at all) — it ranks 17th in shots taken per 90 minutes, is tied for last in shots on target per 90 minutes and also converts those shots at a middling rate. So it doesn’t score many goals: just 1.09 per 90 minutes, putting the Blades on pace to score just 41 goals this season. No team in Premier League history has finished fifth or higher without scoring more than 45 goals.
Contrast Sheffield United’s lack of goal-scoring prowess with the potent attacks of Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester — each team has scored 47 or more goals already — and at first glance, it’s difficult to reconcile the club’s current position in the Premier League table. Fortunately for Sheffield United, its brand of soccer is defined by limiting its opposition from scoring goals, not by scoring goals of its own.
The Blades are allowing fewer than one goal per 90 minutes, ranking below only Liverpool in that category. And so far this season, Sheffield United has been happy to cede possession of the ball in order to soak up pressure and hit its opponents on the counterattack. That strategy has worked: The Blades have lost only six games, four of which were against Liverpool (twice), Leicester and Manchester City.
If Sheffield United’s excellent defensive organization breaks down — and if, at that point, it cannot figure out how to score more goals — its pursuit of European qualification might fall dead in its tracks. But if the Blades keep making things difficult for opposition attacks — and especially if they sign a proper striker before the January transfer window closes — they could make Premier League history.
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