In anticipation of the 2019/2020 Premier League season’s kick-off between Liverpool and new boys Norwich, at 20h00 on August 9th at Anfield, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at the 20 squads that’ll be competing this year. In this eighth instalment, we’re continuing the series with new boys Sheffield United and Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton.
Sheffield United – The team
With Sheffield United, we have come to the third and final promoted side in this series. Under manager Chris Wilder, the Blades finished second in the Championship last season to mark their return to the English elite after a 12-year absence. The Sheffield manager, a Blades fan since he was a boy, was labelled a genius by Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa, in great part thanks to his meticulous, though sometimes under-rated, tactical work. Coming season, it will be very interesting see to what extent Wilder and his men can and will stick to the specific tactical approach that has brought them so much success in the Championship.
Wilder usually lines his men up in a very attacking 3-4-2-1 formation that can easily switch to a 3-5-2 when they need to put the opponent under real pressure to score a goal. In attack, the role of the central defenders is particularly important and one the main reasons why Sheffield’s game approach differs from so many other teams. That’s because Wilder wants to overload the midfield in order to completely overwhelm the opposition. Basically. The right and left centre-back take up wider positions when starting the attack, this way forcing the wing-backs further up the pitch, essentially converting them into wingers. As a result, the opposing team is more or less forced to commit more players to the defensive wing positions, which will inevitably lead to more space in the centre of their defence. With a clinical striker like Billy Sharp up front and a quick-thinking playmaker like Oliver Norwood in the middle, the Blades create a lot of danger this way. Last season, Sheffield scored an average of 1.7 goals per game.
You might think that committing so many players forward in an attempt to overload the midfield will leave the Sheffield defence open to plenty of threatening situations as well, but that’s far from the case. In fact, the Blades boasted the joint-best defence in the entire Championship last season, with just 41 goals conceded. Combine this with their total of 78 goals scored and their goal difference (+37) was beaten by none. Defensively, Sheffield was known last season for their ability to switch formations during games and to sit out games to take home the three points if needed. In those cases, Chris Wilder instructs his men to switch to a deep-lying 5-3-2 formation in which the wing-backs, though remaining available for quick breaks, mostly focus on defending. The midfielders will usually stick closely to the defensive line and in the more dire situations, the striker besides Sharp (usually McGoldrick last season) will drop back into midfield to help break up the opposition’s play. This defensive approach requires a certain (high) amount of tactical awareness and discipline, but the big advantages is that it allows Sheffield to neutralize attacks through the centre as well as over the wings. The three central defenders plus the central midfielders can stay in position to form a solid block, while the wingers can either stick to their central defenders or push up the pitch a bit to intercept attacks over the wings.
In terms of squad transformations, the newly-promoted has been relatively active during this summer transfer window. Their biggest purchase so far has been the 23-year old forward Oliver McBurnie, who came over from Swansea for €19.10 million. The Scotsman scored 22 goals and provided 4 assists in the Championship last season and is expected to get plenty of Premier League minutes this season. Bournemouth’s Lys Mousset (€11.11 million) and Preston winger Callum Robinson (€7.80 million) were brought in to further bolster the Blades attack. The 27-year old attacking midfielder Luke Freeman was bought from QPR for €5.60 million, while Everton’s veteran defender Phil Jagielka was brought in to add some much-needed Premier League experience to the squad. The signing of the controversial Ravel Morrison, once hailed by Alex Ferguson as the biggest talent he had ever seen, on a free transfer can be seen as a low-risk punt. As far as outgoing transfers go, the Blades have managed to keep the core of last season’s team intact.
Normally, the newly-promoted teams face a 38-game long battle for survival in their first season of Premier League football. Sheffield will most likely face the same challenge, but we don’t expect Chris Wilder to change his game approach much. The Blades could be a unique edition to the English footballing elite and it will be interesting to see where they stand at the end of the 2019/20 season.
Sheffield United – Potential FPL targets
Picking FPL assets before gameweek 1 is risky business, picking them from promoted sides is even riskier. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be value in some of the players central to these sides. Sheffield’s Oliver Norwood (£5.0m) is one of those players. The Blades playmaker was a crucial cog in Chris Wilder’s machine last season and he likely will be the coming season as well. The 28-year old English midfielder scored 3 goals and provided 9 assists in 43 games last season, which is not an enormous amount, but decent for a central midfielder in FPL terms, especially considering his current price tag. On top of that, he created 97 chances in the Championship (one per 39 minutes on average), a total that was only bettered by Leeds forward Pablo Hernandez (122). With his playing time pretty much guaranteed and most of the set-piece duties in his pocket, Norwood could be a decent budget-enabling fifth midfielder in your squad.
Left wing-back Enda Stevens (£5.0m) is one of the Sheffield assets who has attracted most attention in the FPL universe. As a defender, he scored 4 goals and provided 6 assists last season in the Championship, while his 39 created chances ranked behind just three other Blades (Fleck, Norwood and Duffy). It’s unrealistic to expect the Irish defender to record similar stats coming season, as Sheffield more often than not will be forced to focus on defending and counter-attacks, but it does show the kind of role Chris Wilder ideally wants his wing-backs to operate in. Stevens’ price tag is a bit heavy, but he could be worth placing on your watchlist for the first few games of the new season.
Our final pick from the Sheffield roster is young goalkeeper Dean Henderson (£4.5m), who has recently extended his contract at Manchester United and was immediately loaned back to the Blades after a great 2018/19 campaign. He helped them keep 21 clean sheets last season in order to record a goals conceded total of just 41, the joint-best in the league. Henderson’s save percentage (73.5%) was the second-best in the league last season, which is especially interesting considering the highly likely possibility that he will be put to work even more coming season. He could be an interesting budget-enabling punt, for example as your second goalkeeper, but a small word of caution: he is ineligible to play against Man United this season.
Southampton – The team
Southampton went through a bit of a roller coaster season last year, as the Saints found themselves amongst the bottom three by early December before manager Mark Hughes was replaced by RB Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhüttl. The Austrian had a direct impact on both the playing style and the results of the club, and by the end of the season, Southampton were placed five points above the relegation zone. The upcoming 2019/20 campaign will be his first season in charge from the start and expectations are cautiously optimistic around Saint Mary’s.
Hasenhüttl was already known as a tactically strong coach at his previous clubs Ingolstadt and Leipzig, and he has confirmed that status during his first half year in the Premier League. He likes to employ a 5-3-2 formation most of the time in which the wing-backs play an important role, as well as the left and right central defender. The Austrian manager wants to execute an aggressive press that starts from the back. While the wing-backs position themselves quite high up the field to break up attacks over the wings early, the left and right central defender are instructed to press aggressively higher up the pitch, creating a high defensive line. This way, the opposing attackers get very little time and space to receive balls and continue play. This approach obviously brings some risks with it, which is why it requires certain tactical discipline. Where the Hasenhüttl press was working with ups and downs still last season, the expectation is that the 2019/20 pre-season has provided the manager with a lot of time to instil his tactical ideas in detail.
The attacking tactics are based on a central midfield block of three, raiding wing-backs and an agile striking duo up front. Last season, wing-backs Ryan Bertrand and Yann Valery were often instructed to keep the pitch wide in order to create space for some of the central defenders to advance with the ball at their feet. This results in a numerical superiority on the midfield that forces the opposition to cover both the wide wing-backs and the advancing central defenders, as well as the three midfielders. These midfield positions were often filled by Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg, Oriol Romeu and James Ward-Prowse, of which the latter took up the role of playmaker. Hojbjerg and JWP can often be seen pressing high up the pitch in order to win the ball back early and advance towards the enemy goal from advancing positions high up the field. The forwards are constantly on the move, making early runs in and around the opposing area in order to create space for the advancing midfielders. This, in combination with the advancing wing-backs, forces opposing teams to make defensive choices. It’s up to the technical abilities of the likes of Nathan Redmond and Ward-Prowse, to name two names, to recognize and exploit these choices. The result is a dynamic form of team play in which short passing and inter-positional changes are key elements.
As far as transfers are concerned, the Saints have largely focused on a problem area from last season: the unlocking of teams that defend with a deep backline in order to limit space in their defensive third of the pitch. Injury-plagued Liverpool striker Danny Ings was on loan last season (7 goals and 5 assists in 1650 Premier League minutes last season) and has been contracted until the summer of 2022 for €22.20 million, while the promising 22-year old striker Che Adams was brought in from Birmingham for €16.70 million. Left winger Moussa Djenepo was bought from Belgian side Standard de Liège for €15.70 million. This signing is especially interesting in regard to our previous point about Southampton’s issues with very defensive teams last season: the Mali international completed more than three successful dribbles on average last season, while he was also fouled just over three times on average per game. It’ll be interesting to see how these stats will translate to Premier League football this season. Dutch central defender Wesley Hoedt, Euro 2016-winning right-back Cedric Soares, Moroccan winger Sofiane Boufal and Argentinian forward Guido Carrillo have all come back from loan, and Hasenhüttl might see a place for them in the squad this season. Apart from selling 23-year old left-back Matt Targett to Aston Villa for €15.50 million, the Saints have not lost any other player who played a significant role last season. They are not expected to fight against relegation again this season, but a lot of their success will depend on how well Hasenhüttl has managed to implement his ideas during the pre-season period.
Southampton – Potential FPL targets
Our first pick from the Saints roster is one of the players who has blossomed most under Ralph Hasenhüttl, Nathan Redmond (£6.5m). Considered an FPL favourite by some and an FPL troll by others, the English forward saw his output increase dramatically after Hasenhüttl took over from Mark Hughes in December 2018. Of his 6 goals and 5 assists last season, just 1 assist was recorded while Hughes was in charge. Redmond plays up front under the Austrian manager, but is classified as a midfielder in the official fantasy game. This makes him an interesting “Out-of-Position” player, especially if Southampton can hit the ground running this season. On top of that, he’s a nailed-on name in Hasenhüttl’s starting eleven and with the investments in attacking assets, like Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo, that have taken place at St. Mary’s, one could hope for a season equal or even better than last when he recorded 137 FPL points. His modest price tag and decent opening set of fixtures only add to Redmond’s appeal.
Our second pick is Southampton goalkeeper, Angus Gunn (£4.5m), because he could provide great value at his current price. Despite playing just 1080 minutes of Premier League football last season (mostly due to the managerial switch at the club) in which he kept 3 clean sheets, the former-England U21 goalie has now established himself as Hasenhüttl’s number one. His price tag makes him a starting budget-enabling FPL asset in a team that might surprise a few people this year. In rotation with another budget-friendly starting goalkeeper, like Tom Heaton or Mat Ryan for example, betting on Gunn could pay off handsomely this season. After a first full pre-season under Hasenhüttl, many expect the Saints to turn up with more defensive solidity this season, which obviously benefits the goalkeeper. In his price bracket, Gunn is definitely one of the better options.
Like the earlier mentioned Nathan Redmond, Saints midfielder James Ward-Prowse (£6.0m) is a player who flourished after Ralph Hasenhüttl took over at St. Mary’s. Before the Austrian manager was contracted, JWP had not been involved in any goal. What’s more, he wasn’t even sure of a spot in the starting eleven sometimes. From December 2018 onwards though, when Hasenhüttl was put in charge, the English attacking midfielder scored 7 goals. The fact that he recorded zero assists can be considered a bit odd, seeing as he did create 46 chances for his team mates. To further his FPL appeal, Ward-Prowse is a set-piece specialist, probably one of the best in the league. He is on most corners and free-kicks on the half of the opponent, both direct and indirect, and he hits the occasional penalty as well. Last season, Danny Ings was on spot kicks, but seeing as the striker only played 21 games due to injuries, JWP got one chance from the spot and converted it with aplomb. If Southampton manage to improve on last season’s results, which is kind of expected, a price of £6.0m for a player like James Ward-Prowse could end up being a bargain.
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