Promotion Diaries – Sheffield United

Quite a turnaround for Sheffield United over the past couple of seasons. Two seasons removed from League One – albeit a championship season – the Blades have punched their ticket for a return to the Premier League, joining Norwich City in automatic promotion. A 2-0 win against already relegated Ipswich Town on 27 April gave them a leg up over Leeds United, and when Leeds drew against Aston Villa the following day, the Blades were five points clear with one match remaining. Premier League football will be back at Bramall Lane for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

Here’s a quick look at how the Blades ended up in this position:

What Went Right

Sheffield United wasted little time reaching the top of the table, reaching the “promotion zone” for the first time after a 4-1 victory against Aston Villa on 1 September. They’ve remained in the top six ever since, and have an outside chance of winning the league on Saturday. They went a respectable 4-2-2 against the rest of the top five (Norwich City, Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa), on their way to the top of the table.

They’ve lost twice in 2019, and between those losses, they went on a 7-3-0 unbeaten streak, which elevated them from the bottom of the playoff picture to the top, and their current six match unbeaten streak (4-2-0) moved them into the top two for good.

The club was paced offensively by hometown star Billy Sharp, who notched two hat tricks en route to leading the club with 23 goals, which is currently tied for fourth in the league. Doing so secured him a spot on the EFL Team of the Season, which celebrated the best players from across the English Football League (he was also a finalist for EFL Championship Player of the Year).

What Went Wrong

In a season filled with success, it is difficult to identify where the club went wrong. They did open the season by dropping their first two matches, but they quickly recovered as indicated above. They didn’t have any truly embarrassing results either; of their nine losses, only one came to a club currently outside the top ten in the league, and that was a 1-0 loss to Nottingham Forest in November.

If there was one qualm with the Blades’ season, one could point to two one-and-done exits in the English cups, with losses to Barnet (a National League club) in the FA Cup third round and Hull City in the first round of the EFL Cup. But since the focus of this piece is their Championship success, I’ll leave others to be frustrated over their Cup performances.

Recent English Football League History

As mentioned previously, this was only the second season in the Championship for the Blades following a League One title during the 2016-17 season. They finished tenth in the Championship and seemed poised to compete for the playoffs this season despite not making dramatic changes to the club during the offseason.

That League One title – a 100-point season led by current Blades manager Chris Wilder – ended a six-year run in League One, which saw the Blades average a fifth-place finish. After being an inaugural Premier League club when the top flight began in 1992, the Blades were happy to return to the Championship, where they have spent 18 of the past 27 seasons. The last time the club played in the Premier League, it was also after a second place finish, so let’s hope that next season is not a one-and-done affair as well.

Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?

Sheffield United could see a lot of turnover this offseason, though the move to the Premier League might help convince some expiring players to stick around. There are 13 players that will soon be out of contract, including five players that are set to return to home clubs after their loans end.

The biggest arrival this past offseason may have been the arrival of goalkeeper Dean Henderson on loan from Manchester United. He has played all 45 matches in net for the Blades, surrendering less than a goal per match (0.87). He is only under contract through the end of next season, making it a prime time for the Blades to make a pitch for a permanent move.

Of the eight Blades’ players coming to the end of their contracts with the club, only two saw significant regular time with the first team. Chris Basham made 39 appearances (37 starts) in league play, and led the club in yellow cards (eight, including a send off), while also chipping in four goals. And David McGoldrick, who joined the team for free this past offseason, would go on to be named the club’s Player of the Year after scoring 15 goals (second only to Sharp) over 44 appearances (35 starts) on the season. Both players should be offseason retention priorities for the club.

Chances of a One-and-Done?

During the Premier League era (1992-present), Sheffield United has spent three seasons in the top tier: the first two seasons (14th and 20th) and the 2006-07 season (18th place). Based on that alone, it seems that their stay will not be a long one, though there is hope for the Blades to find a foothold in England’s top league.

Based on current rankings (per the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index), Sheffield United (62.7) wouldn’t be the worst club in the Premier League next season. They’d open the season ahead of the 17th place club this season – either Brighton & Hove Albion (57.2) or Cardiff City (58.7) – as well as Norwich City (60.7), and three of the four potential playoff winners from the Championship – Leeds United (65.3) leads that group.

These rankings are likely to be adjusted after signings during the offseason, but after spending the season watching the lower third of the Premier League (thanks to the wonderful performance of AFC Bournemouth), I have no doubt that the Blades can compete with the likes of the Seagulls or the rest of the lot. And that’s not even taking into account any players that they may add during the offseason.

At this point, I’d be surprised if the Blades didn’t at least make it through one season back in the Premier League; just expect a slightly improved version of Fulham and not Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Until next time…

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