This pitch ain’t big enough for the both of us. Or, is it?
by Antony Adshead
Oliver Norwood has made an incredible impact for Sheffield United in the space of just three league games. At the weekend he was a vital part of the 4-1 rout of Aston Villa, with a goal, an assist and yet another man-of-the-match award. He’s a “railway station”; everything seems to go through him.
Last season, before a broken leg sustained at Burton on a cold November night, so
was fans’ favourite Paul Coutts. “He never gives the ball away,” we sang. During last Saturday’s demolition of Aston Villa, ‘Couttsy’ was back in the squad after 10 months on the sidelines.
Last night – Tuesday 4th September – Coutts returned to match action, playing 60 minutes of a testimonial game for Sheffield F.C’s Matt Roney. It wasn’t the full-throttle, Rolls Royce performance that has been so missed by the Blades after his injury, but he did clip the crossbar with a shot and sprayed passes like we all know and love.
So, does the return of Paul Coutts cause a headache for Chris Wilder?
Could two players that are apparently so similar play in the same team? Let’s look at Norwood first. It’s early days for the former Fulham and Brighton man, but since he joined the Blades he has exemplified the definition of “involved”.
In three league games with Sheffield United he has clocked 112 touches/97 passes (vs Norwich), 88 touches/82 passes (vs Bolton) and 68 touches/60 passes (vs Aston Villa), according to Whoscored.com.
Three games is not a huge sample, but those ‘touch/pass numbers’ are significantly higher than the players around him in those games and, to any dispassionate observer, he’s been the cornerstone of how the Blades have returned to playing out from the back.
Moreover, according to Wyscout.com, he’s the Championship’s top passer per 90 minutes in terms of numbers, with an average of just over 63 per game. These numbers reflect what’s been apparent to all of us watching: he brings quality.
Head to Head
Undoubtedly, Norwood has been an instant game changer for United. Paul Coutts, on the other hand, his rise to hero status at Bramall Lane was more gradual. Signed in 2015, and for a while derided as one of Nigel Clough’s ‘Derby County cast-offs’, Coutts’ flourished under Wilder’s coaching in the League One title-winning season and then thrived at Championship level.
Interestingly, by the same touch/pass measure taken from his early appearances last season, Coutts’ influence appears very similar to Norwood’s. In the first three games of 2017-18 his numbers were 69 touches/54 passes, 102 /92 and 84/67 per game and, in terms of numbers of passes, Coutts was 10th in the league in 2017-18, with just over 60 per 90 minutes.
Are they too similar?
Territoriality, they occupy similar parts of the pitch; the middle third with a bit of a right-side preference. All of that could potentially cause a headache for Wilder and Knill when Paul Coutts becomes ready for first team action. And so the question is begged: can Coutts and Norwood play on the same pitch?
Their differences makes them stronger
By drilling down into the numbers and building a radar graph for the two players (from all appearances in the 2017-18 season), it is clear to see where the players are similar and, crucially, where they differ.
There’s no doubting that they are similar players. Indeed, when you look at their stats from last season, they share comparable numbers when it comes to touches, passes and pass completion per game.
However, Paul Coutts edges it when it comes to the defensive part of the game, with a significantly higher rate of tackles per game. It is this point of difference that opens up the strong possibility of Coutts and Norwood playing together.
There is a clear argument to suggest that Coutts could plays in a deeper role with Norwood more advanced. The benefits of this are clear, all around better passing and better possession. Moreover, setting up in such a way would utilise Norwood’s passing ability and instinctive approach to linking play, but in the attacking third of the pitch.
Of course, in the current 3-4-1-2 setup, a midfield with Norwood and Coutts throws up a lot of other questions regarding the shape and dynamic of the midfield. Players too. What impact could this have upon Mark Duffy and John Fleck?
It’s a brilliant problem for messrs Wilder and Knill to ponder. I think the pitch is big enough for the both of them. Perhaps in the type of deeper/advanced partnership with Norwood, previously discussed. Maybe in matches against particular opponents, or as part of a change of shape or emphasis later in games.
But whatever the permutations, for now it is just great to see Coutts back in a Blades jersey; any squad that he is a part of is a stronger squad than one without him.