Is Sheffield United the Best Newly Promoted Team in Premier League History?

By Ben Morris in Soccer
| March 28, 2020 3:31 am PST
Sheffield United Logo, Players and Manager

It’s no secret that Sheffield United is enjoying an excellent season in the Premier League.

After gaining promotion from the Championship last term, the Blades were among the bookies’ firm favorites for relegation before the 2019/20 campaign had even kicked off.

However, with just ten games remaining this season, Chris Wilders’ side is currently 7th in the EPL table and only five points shy of the Champions League places.

Sheff Utd has exceeded all expectations this term, and if the Premier League resumes as planned, the Blades have a genuine chance of qualifying for Europe next season.

But is Sheff Utd the best newly promoted team in Premier League history? And how does Sheffield United rank among newly promoted EPL teams?

In this post, I look at what has made the Blades so successful this season. I also assess some of the other great newly promoted teams and decide where Sheff Utd stands on the list.

Let’s start by recapping Sheff Utd’s season so far.

Sheffield United’s Season So Far

The Blades kicked things off by claiming a dramatic late draw against Bournemouth on the opening day of the season. Billy Sharp’s 88th-minute equalizer saw Sheff Utd pick up their first Premier League point since 2006/07, and the team’s battling performance set the tone for the campaign ahead.

Chris Wilder’s men didn’t have to wait long to secure their first win of the season. In front of a packed Bramall Lane on Matchday 2, Sheff Utd beat Crystal Palace 1-0, sending the home crowd into dreamland.

But a three-game winless run quickly brought the Blades back down to earth. Defeats to Leicester and Southampton, along with a spirited draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, left the EPL newcomer hovering just above the relegation zone.

However, following a narrow defeat to high-flying Liverpool, Sheff Utd lost just one of their next 12 league games.

Wilder’s side saw off Arsenal, Burnley, Norwich, Aston Villa, and Brighton during that time, while impressive draws against Tottenham, Manchester United, and Wolves ensured Sheff Utd was sitting pretty in 6th on Boxing Day.

By this point, the Blades had firmly established themselves as one of the most resolute teams in the division. Consecutive defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool around the turn of the year did little to dampen the club’s spirit, and Sheffield United only lost one of their next seven league outings.

Fittingly, it was Billy Sharp who scored the Blades’ last Premier League goal in a 1-0 victory over Norwich. The season is currently bookended by goals from the club captain, and he’ll be eager to add to his tally as and when the campaign resumes.

What Has Made Sheffield United So Successful?

Here are three mains reasons why I believe the Blades have enjoyed such a successful 2019/20 campaign up to now.

Defense Is the Best Form of Attack

What makes the Blades’ campaign even more remarkable is the fact that, despite sitting 7th, only five teams in the division have scored fewer goals than Wilder’s men.

Under normal circumstances, a newly promoted team would be battling against relegation with a goalscoring record like that. But Sheff Utd isn’t a normal newly promoted team.

To put things into perspective, Aston Villa — who was also promoted last season — has scored four more goals than Sheff Utd this term, and Villa is currently second from bottom in the table.

But what the Blades lack in attack, they more than make up for with outstanding defensive solidity.

Only league leader Liverpool has conceded fewer EPL goals than Sheff Utd this term, while only Burnley’s Nick Pope has kept more clean sheets than Blades goalkeeper Dean Henderson.

Chris Basham, John Egan, and Jack O’Connell have been immense at the heart of the backline, while wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens never shy away from their defensive duties.

By keeping things compact at the back, the Blades have been able to give even the best teams in the division a run for their money.

Sticking to the Plan

Managers of newly promoted sides often feel the need to change their team’s style of play in order to compete in the Premier League. But by sticking with the same approach that got the club promoted, Chris Wilder has proved that change isn’t always necessary.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

When the Blades are out of possession, Wilder likes his side to overload the middle of pitch, pushing opponents wide. This forces opposing teams to play crosses into the box, and the manager trusts his three center-backs to deal with any aerial danger.

In possession, Wilder allows one of his center-backs to burst forward and overlap. This creates confusion among opposing sides and gives the Blades an extra man in attack.

The wing-backs then push on into traditional winger positions, while defensive midfielders such as Sander Berge, John Fleck, and John Lundstram invariably provide cover for the backline.

Wilder could’ve easily scrapped the tactics he used in the Championship and adopted a new approach in the top flight. But the manager has shown faith in his players, and the team is now reaping the rewards.

Grit and Determination

With all due respect, Sheff Utd is undoubtedly one of the least glamorous clubs in the Premier League. While the majority of EPL sides possess numerous superstars, it’s fair to say that Wilder’s team doesn’t really have a star player.

Instead, the Blades rely on strict organization and intense work-rate. When you watch Sheff Utd play, it’s clear that every single player knows exactly what their role is in the team, and Wilder must be given huge credit for this.

The never-say-die attitude that Wilder has instilled into his players has seen the Blades rescue a whopping 13 points from losing positions this season. Only Liverpool, Arsenal, and Wolves have claimed more points after falling behind.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Sheff Utd also hasn’t lost a Premier League game in 2019/20 after taking the lead. The team’s resilience has led to eleven wins and three draws from 14 winning positions.

Sheff Utd may not boast the star names of their rivals. But with Tottenham and Arsenal — two of the Premier League’s wealthiest clubs — currently sitting directly below the Blades in the table, Wilder’s side is clearly doing a lot right.

Other Successful Newly Promoted Premier League Teams

Let’s take a look at some of the other teams who enjoyed successful first seasons in the Premier League.

Sunderland – 1999/00

Under the guidance of Peter Reid, Sunderland enjoyed a stunning first season in the Premier League. The Black Cats emerged as surprise title contenders after losing just three of their opening 18 games in 1999/2000.

An eleven-game winless streak during the second half of the campaign ended any hopes of a shock top-flight triumph. But Sunderland still managed to finish 7th with 58 points.

Kevin Phillips was the star of the show back then, claiming the EPL Golden Boot with 30 goals. Phillips finished seven clear of Newcastle legend Alan Shearer in the goalscoring charts and forged a formidable strike partnership with Niall Quinn.

Sunderland then backed up their fine comeback campaign with another 7th-place finish the following year, picking up one point less than the previous season.

Ipswich Town – 2000/01

One year on from Sunderland’s heroics, Ipswich outshone the Black Cats by finishing 5th on their return to the Premier League. In fact, the Tractor Boys only finished four points behind runner-up Arsenal and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on the final day of the season.

Led by captain Matt Holland, it looked as though Ipswich would finish in the top three after sitting 3rd throughout March and April. But a defeat to Charlton towards the end of the campaign saw Liverpool and Leeds leapfrog Ipswich at the eleventh hour.

Striker Marcus Stewart outscored the likes of Thierry Henry, Mark Viduka, and Michael Owen to finish as the division’s second-highest scorer, while goalkeeper Richard Wright secured a move to Arsenal at the end of the season following a standout campaign between the sticks.

Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last long. Ipswich suffered a serious case of second season syndrome and was relegated back to the second tier a year later.

Wolverhampton Wanderers – 2018/19

Following a six-year absence from England’s top tier, Wolves took the Premier League by storm last season. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side amassed a colossal 99 points in the Championship in 2017/18, and the team adapted seamlessly to life in the top flight.

Wolves gained a reputation as giant killers last term, beating Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester, Manchester United, and Arsenal on their way to finishing 7th. The newcomer’s record against the traditional “Big Six” was truly astonishing for a newly promoted team.

Much like Sheff Utd, Wolves stuck with the bulk of the squad that did so well in their promotion campaign. Conor Coady, Willy Boly, Matt Doherty, and Diogo Jota each played a pivotal role in getting the club back to the big time, and they all featured prominently throughout 2018/19.

With some shrewd acquisitions in the past few transfer windows, Wolves have now firmly established themselves as one of the league’s top sides. Nuno’s men sit 6th in the EPL standings at present, level with Sheff Utd on 43 points.

Where Does Sheffield United Rank Among the Best Newly Promoted Teams in EPL History?

If the current season resumes as normal and all the remaining games are able to be played, Sheff Utd is surely on course for one of the best finishes by a newly promoted team in Premier League history.

As things stand, the Blades have ten games left to play this term, meaning they could finish with as many as 73 points. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that Wilder’s side would win all of their remaining games. But they probably won’t lose many, either.

It’s difficult to compare Sheff Utd to Sunderland or Ipswich. The early 2000s were a completely different era in the Premier League, so it’s hard to gauge how the current Sheff Utd team would’ve fared back then.

Having said that, England’s top flight is arguably more competitive now that it was 20 years ago. There are so many elite clubs in the Premier League nowadays, making it much harder for newly promoted teams to make their mark on the top end of the table.

For a better understanding of just how well the Blades are doing this season, we need to look at Wolves for a modern-day comparison.

At this stage last season, Wolves had accumulated 40 points. However, they lost just three of their last ten games in 2018/19, while five wins and two draws saw them finish up with 57 points.

After 28 games this term, Sheff Utd has notched up 43 points. So, if the Blades can finish the season strongly, there’s no reason why they can’t end up with more points than Wolves did last year.

It’s also worth pointing out that Wolves spent just over £80 million to strengthen their squad during the summer transfer window. By contrast, Sheffield United only parted ways with £40 million following promotion, and almost half of that sum was spent on one player.

Ultimately, we’ll need to wait until the season is completed before we find out exactly where Sheff Utd ranks among the top EPL newcomers.

But it’s safe to say that Chris Wilder’s Blades are definitely up there with the very best newly promoted teams in Premier League history.

Final Words

Whatever happens from now until the end of the season, Chris Wilder’s side will always be remembered as one of the best newly promoted teams the EPL has ever seen.

Given the current situation, no one knows for sure how the campaign will end. But the Blades certainly deserve some recognition for their efforts this term.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching Sheff Utd throughout 2019/20, and I hope we see more newly promoted teams making a name for themselves in the Premier League in the coming years.

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